“I don’t love studying. I hate studying. I like learning. Learning is beautiful.” – Natalie Portman
I couldn’t say it any better myself! Nobody likes to study, and that’s because studying doesn’t work, it doesn’t accomplish the goal of creating long-lasting knowledge and understanding, only true learning can do that. The problem is that the majority of the techniques we use for studying don’t really work. Yes, some of them will help us remember the information for a few days, or long enough for that test we’re cramming for, but after a week or two that information is long gone. As educators we are trying to help our students learn the information so they can always access it. To do this we need to equip them with study strategies that support true learning, and not just the momentary retention of facts.
In a previous post titled Study Strategies to Boost Learning (Part I), I examined an article written by professor John Dunlosky in which he examines current popular study techniques in order to see which ones have the greater likelihood of creating real learning. In my first post I examined the techniques of Practice Testing and Distributed Practice, and now I will look at two others: Interleaved Practice and Elaborative Interrogation.
Textbooks are failing our students. What I mean by this is that the way textbooks are organized (by chapters with each chapter representing a specific block of knowledge or key concept) is teaching our students that they should focus on one particular area, practice it over and over, and then move on to the next chapter. Cognitive psychologists call this block learning.
Interleaved practice is the opposite of block learning, in that the student will review different areas of knowledge or different types of topics over the course of a study session. To better understand this we can look at mathematics. When a student is learning algebra they will focus on one specific area of algebra before moving on: the student will only practice addition problems before moving onto subtraction problems. Interleaving calls on the student to solve at least one problem from each group (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) before moving on to a new or more difficult group of problems.
Interleaved practice has not been explored nearly as much as practice tests or distributed practice, but initial research outcomes have shown that interleaved practice can dramatically improve student achievement, especially in the domain of problem solving. (John Dunlosky)
There are two easy ways teachers can start implementing interleaved practice with their classes. The first is to rearrange the order of questions on worksheets you handout: make sure the questions don’t follow a specific order of concepts or types of problems. The second thing is to start using interleaved practice in your lessons by mixing new concepts and problems with older material from previous classes.
Elaborative Interrogation & Self-Explanation
Elaborative interrogation and self-explanation are two study strategies that sound familiar at first, but are really two different ideas. Elaborative interrogation asks students to ask themselves the question “why is that true?” after learning new material. So if the students are learning about photosynthesis, they will ask themselves something like “why do plants need to give off oxygen?” or “why do plants need to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar?”. It’s a method of encouraging students to delve deeper into what they are learning, which will make them active learners instead of passive. This questioning technique has shown to work wonders, especially for students with learning disabilities. For more information on how to apply this study strategy with learning disabled students, please read the following paper: Elaborative Interrogation as a Learning Technique for Students with Learning Disabilities by Denise Stockley.
She [the student] may not come up with exactly the right explanation, but trying to elaborate on why a fact may be true, even when the explanations are not entirely on the mark, can still benefit understanding and retention. (John Dunlosky)
Self-explanation is when the learner attempts to explain how the new information they are learning is related or connected to information they already know. One study showed that students who used self-explanation were three times better (about 90% versus less than 30%) on their final performance grade. But in order for this strategy to work, students need to really be self-explaining and not just paraphrasing or summarizing the new information. Summarizing the information and trying to relate it to concepts you understand doesn’t lead to a significant boost in understanding, in fact it could just confuse the learner. Self-explanation should be used when the learner has to solve practice problems, such as in math and science, and elaborative interrogation should be used when the learner is studying general facts about a topic.