Research Findings on Studying Effectively
Six Key Principles: As teachers, our job is to help students study English more effectively. And generally, we are good at it. We know which language forms they should study first, which vocabulary items they should focus on, etc. But what about studying in general? Do we know how we learn? How we retain information? How we remember, how we forget and how we should study in order to maximize the former and minimize the latter?
What follows is a story. Peter is an imaginary student who has some things to study and goes about it systematically. What do you think about his choices? Would you have studied this material in the same way? There are at least 6 interesting points in the narrative. See whether you can spot them. It helps if you make brief notes on a piece of paper. Then you can read the comments under the story.
[NB 1 – Two Key Books: The 6 Principles described here are all based on research I read about in two fantastic books: ‘Make it Stick’ (by Brown, Roediger & McDaniel) and ‘Why don’t Students Like School’ (by D. Willingham). These are the best two books I have read in the last decade. I believe they are a must for every educator].
[NB 2 – In class: If you would like to use this text as an activity in class, to help raise your students’ awareness of these principles, click here to download a Word document. The task is the same.]
Peter’s Story: Peter sat down to plan his studying schedule for the day. There were two main things: Grammar and Vocabulary. He thought he would spend 2 hours on each of these. He would start with vocabulary; he would study from 10:00 to 12:00, then take a 30-min break and then he would study Grammar from 12:30 to 14:30. He always liked to finish with something before starting something else.
The vocabulary he had to study was adjectives related to personality. Peter’s teacher always told him and his classmates that words are best learned in context. He had given them a cloze passage (a text with gaps) along with the Key (click here to see the passage). In this way they could see how the words were actually used. Before looking at the Key (the full passage) Peter thought he would give the gapped text a try – just for fun. He knew the words were difficult, but still he thought it would be fun.
The text was very interesting. As he had predicted the vocabulary was quite demanding. He used the Key and copied out the missing words onto a separate sheet of paper. Next to each of them he wrote a brief explanation and an approximate translation in the L1. He also went back to the text and highlighted a number of unknown words which had not been deleted in the cloze passage. He looked them up in the dictionary. He did not have to study these, but he felt they would be useful nevertheless.
After he had been studying for an hour or so, he felt tired. He thought he would change his plan a little. He would rest for 15 min, then he would go off to do some shopping for his mother and afterwards he would come back and study vocabulary for another hour. Then he could have lunch, rest a little and perhaps play a little on the computer. Later he could study Grammar for an hour, then go to the gym, come back and finish his studying for the day.
When he started studying again, he thought he would do some revision. He went back to his notes and read the words and the short explanations / translations carefully. Then he went back to the passage. He read through the text and whenever he got to a gap, he looked through his notes to see which word would fit best. He was pleased to discover he did quite well. There were only a few words he did not get right.
Then he thought he would take things a little further. He wanted to see whether he could use some of the new vocabulary; the fact that the lexical items all had to do with the same topic did help a lot. He imagined he was talking to a friend, trying to describe to her what the character in the passage was like. He did not look at the passage, but he tried to use some of the adjectives in it; he also tried to explain what he meant by paraphrasing and using examples. He recorded himself so he could see how well he had done.
Afterwards, he thought he would organise the new vocabulary in his mind somehow. He looked at his notes and tried to group these words around certain themes, such as ‘Work’ – ‘Ambition’ – ‘Money’ etc. He felt this was helpful – it was like sorting out the new knowledge into separate ‘folders’ in his mind. In this way he believed it would be easier to remember the words later and they would be easier to retrieve too if he had to talk / write about this topic.
When he had finished studying for the day, he thought back to what he had done. He found it useful to try to glean lessons from each day’s work and try to draw up guidelines for himself – for future use. Some things had worked well while others had not. Perhaps he should allocate his time differently. He felt looking up words took up too much time, while organising the words in groups was faster and more fun. He thought aloud and recorded himself. In this way he could return to the recording later and listen to these instructions to himself.
Comments: Peter has made a number of interesting decisions here – not all of which are sound. The following comments are all based on research:
‘…He thought he would spend 2 hours on each…’ [Principle 1 – Interleaving]: Surprisingly, this is a mistake. Received wisdom is ‘Study the same thing over and over again, till you know it perfectly’. This is apparently wrong. After initially focusing on something so you can understand it properly, it pays to mix up your practice sessions. This ‘feels’ harder, but it pays great dividends in the long run. For instance, Peter here has to study Grammar and Vocabulary; instead of spending 2 hours on each, it would be a lot better if he spent, say, 30 min on Grammar and 30 on Vocabulary, then have a break and then repeat this four times. Every time Peter returns to Grammar (or Voc) studying will feel harder because things will not be ‘fresh’ on his mind; however retention will be better in the long run (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – ch. 3).
‘…He thought he would give the gapped-text a try…’ [Principle 2 – Generation]: An excellent idea. Before getting input on how to solve a problem or how to do something it pays to try doing it first. This prepares the mind to receive new knowledge. For instance, before teaching your students how to write an e-mail, you may want to get them to write one. When they then see how an e-mail should be written, the differences will be much more noticeable to them. Similarly, before showing them how best to deliver a presentation, it makes sense to get them to try giving one without any instructions. Their uncertainty and possible frustration means they will pay closer attention when you actually show them how it is properly done. In this case, every time Peter comes across a gap he had been unable to fill, his mind will go ‘A-ha! So that’s the word!’ (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – p. 4).
‘…He thought he would change his plan a little…’ [Principle 3 – Spacing]: This second plan is a lot better. Peter’s initial schedule was based on the idea of ‘massed practice’. Massed practice (cramming, studying for hours etc.) does not work. We think we are doing well, because it is all fresh in our mind, but this is just an illusion. Instead, it is much better to space out our practice (perhaps a few min at a time). This ‘feels’ harder, but it aids long-term retention and makes retrieval easier. Constantly going over the same material without allowing time for some ‘forgetting’ to set in, gives one an illusion of mastery, which is of course dispelled if we have to retrieve the same material after some time has elapsed. This paradoxical idea can be summed up in 3 words ‘Forget (in order) to Remember’! Spaced out practice feels frustrating, but it pays off long-term (Willingham 2009 – p. 119).
‘…He looked through his notes to see which word…’ [Principle 4 – Retrieval]: This is a mistake though. Traditional revision (i.e. re-studying, re-reading) does not work. What does work is forcing ourselves to retrieve information we have acquired. For instance, re-reading our vocabulary notes as Peter does here, is not of much help; trying to complete a gap-filled passage from memory on the other hand, is. The principle is the same whether we are trying to learn the causes of WW I, the principles behind rook endings in chess or key points we need to remember in lesson planning. Apparently, low-stakes testing is the best friend of learning! Quizzes, tests and attempts to actively recall information not only help reveal gaps in our knowledge, but they also help consolidate what we already know. It is the extra effort that does it; if it is not effortful, chances are it is superficial (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – ch. 2).
‘…He imagined he was talking to a friend…’ [Principle 5 – Elaboration]: A brilliant idea! Peter uses a strategy called ‘Elaboration’. Elaboration involves i) trying to relate new info to what you already know (e.g. ‘gregarious’ is similar to ‘sociable’ ) ii) explaining it to someone in your own words (e.g. trying to define a new word – ‘gregarious is someone who likes being with other people’) iii) trying to relate new info to life outside class (e.g. ‘my friend John is gregarious’). Elaboration allows us to internalise the new material by incorporating it into our existing schemata through the creation of meaningful connections which make sense to us (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – p. 207). Notice that Peter does not try to recreate the text; rather, he is trying to maximize the connections of the new material with his existing vocabulary. The more connections he can make, the more pathways will be created through which he will be able to retrieve the new items in the future.
‘…He thought aloud and recorded himself…’ [Principle 6 – Reflection]: Another excellent idea – though wrongly executed. Good students do what they have to do; better students go a step further: they think about what they have learned and how. We can encourage this by getting our students to ask themselves Qs like the following: ‘What did I learn today?’ / ‘What do I still need to learn?’ / ‘What went well?’ / ‘Which strategies do I like?’ / ‘What could I do differently next time?’ Reflection encourages active learning. It helps students become independent learners and it allows them to explore their preferences and personalize their learning routines by figuring out what learning methods they feel most comfortable with (Willingham 2009 – ch. 9). But the way Peter does it is sub-optimal; writing is much better; i) it is concrete – it forces us to put our meaning into words and ii) it is easier to go through our notes afterwards (writing is ‘random access’).
6 Principles – 6 Takeaways
Here is a brief summary of the 6 principles mentioned above:
Interleaving: Mix up your practice. Alternate between different subjects.
Generation: Before you get the input, try solving the problem (doing the task) first.
Spacing: Avoid massed practice; allow long(ish) intervals between study periods.
Retrieval: Trying to retrieve information unaided is better than re-reading / studying notes.
Elaboration: Try to use new info and integrate it into what you already know.
Reflection: Think back to what you did, assess it and plan ahead.
Last words – What about us?: OK – you think all this has to do with learners, don’t you? This is exactly what I thought too. And then I got to page 240 in the BRM book. In it, the writers describe what happens during a typical weekend symposium for doctors: ‘…out of respect for participants’ busy schedules [this kind of training is usually] set at a hotel or resort, and structured around meals and PowerPoint lectures…’
Does this ring any bells? No? What about the last Professional Development event you attended? Any resemblance is ‘purely coincidental’ – and we are supposed to be teachers; we are supposed to be showing our learners how to learn. Yet as the writers point out, ‘the strategies of retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are nowhere to be seen’! Organisers keep on doing the same thing year after year because that is how things were always done. But now we know better.
Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge Massachusetts. Belknap Harvard.
Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.