Tips for Implementing Evidence-Based Learning Strategies in your Classes
By Megan Sumeracki
As most of our followers know, the Learning Scientists team was “on tour” earlier this month giving a series of workshops over the course of a week in England. While giving a number of workshops all in a row while on the road is tiring, we returned from the trip extremely excited and energized. Talking with teachers all across England was amazing! We’ve received some positive feedback as well, and you can read blogs written about the workshops in this digest.
At the same time, we are also transitioning to putting out a variety of resources on the blog and podcast once per week. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to invite everyone to listen to our podcast, as it will soon be a part of our weekly rotation on Thursdays! You can listen to this week’s episode, Episode 35 – Implementing Effective Strategies, on the web. You can also subscribe to The Learning Scientists Podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
This week’s blog is a bit of a crossover, covering the same topic as the podcast episode from this week: tips for implementing evidence-based learning strategies in your classes. While in England, a number of consistent themes popped up as we were presenting research and applications for the classroom. Here’s a summary of what we noticed when talking about implementing the six strategies for effective learning:
Don’t try to implement all of the strategies all at once all of the time. We don’t like to recommend complete overhauls of teaching. First, this is a TON of work, and we know time and balance is important. Also, all of this work may not bring as much benefit as we might like. It also can lead to confusion and difficulty for the teacher. (Remember, difficulty is good, but too much can have the opposite effect!) This also means if something is not working very well, it is really hard to tell what that something is. Instead, we recommend making small changes a little bit at a time. Pick one or two things that you want to try to do more intentionally in your classes, and start there. You can work your way up to utilizing the strategies more as you gain more feedback about what works well in your classroom and what doesn’t work as well.
Similarly, it is good to keep in mind that these strategies are NOT meant to become part of a checklist! Being good at using these strategies does not mean using them constantly. In fact, if this were going on it would probably mean the use of these strategies was not as intentional as it could be. It is better to use the strategy at a time and place where you think it will be effective, and monitor how it is going. Each of these strategies leads to difficulty during learning, and difficulty is good. However, research also shows that if the activity is too difficult, then students may not be as successful and not as much learning will occur. (See this blog for an example.) Further, while some of the strategies work well across many different content areas (e.g., spacing, retrieval practice) others may work best with certain content. Use your expertise as a teacher! Be mindful about when you include the strategies, and use them when they make sense for you to use them.
It can be difficult to tell on the surface whether a student is using a specific strategy or not. The strategies all involve engaging in good processing that helps learning. There are lots of different activities that can be used to promote the good processing, and the specific activity where the processing is encouraged may not matter as much. For example, retrieval practice involves bringing information to mind. Students can do this by writing out what they know on a blank sheet of paper, or by working in pairs to teach one another the concepts. These two activities probably do not look very similar to outsiders, yet they both involve retrieval practice. However, having a group of students work on trying to write out the content by looking at their notes (i.e., copying) is not retrieval practice, and is not likely to help learning, even though this activity may look very similar on the surface to those who are writing what they can remember from memory. Keep the process in mind when utilizing the strategies, and you can be creative and switch up the types of activities that encourage the different processes. Some activities may work better in some scenarios than others!
Remember, these strategies are difficult, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes they do make students feel as though they are learning less compared to other less effective strategies, at least in the beginning. Monitor their performance, remind them that difficulty is good, make sure they are able to improve and provide scaffolding when you can, and keep at it!