Blog: The Educated Reporter

Students, Teachers Don’t Study The Way Science Says They Should

Henry Roediger listens as Bror Saxberg answers a reporter's question at EWA's 68th National Seminar in Chicago. (Photo credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn/EWA)

Most students don’t study using methods backed by scientific research, panelists at the Education Writers Association’s deep dive on the science of learning told reporters in Chicago at the association’s 68th National Seminar.

“Why do people find learning so hard?” asked Henry Roediger, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who participated in the April event.

In large part, Roediger answered himself: It’s because students tend to focus on studying methods that help them remember new information in the short-term, but don’t use the more difficult strategies that will commit new information to long-term memory.

Long-term memory is where we store information like how to drive a car and the details of our favorite stories from childhood. Though not impossible to forget, details stored in long-term memory aren’t going anywhere soon. Most of us have also managed to store knowledge gleaned from books in our long-term memories. That’s how we know the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the Civil War was fought between the Union North and the Confederate South.

Think of long-term memory as information placed in a fireproof filing cabinet. It may take us some time to recall, but it’s there. Short-term memory, on the other hand, is more like a corkboard covered in appointment reminders and grocery lists: details we need for a few hours or days, but that are quickly forgotten.

Roediger, who has focused on studying memory and learning, said there are research-based ways for students to add new information to their long-term memories: Rather than rereading notes or the relevant textbook chapter, students should create an outline of the course material based on those notes and information from the course textbook. Students should also make flash cards with important facts and quiz themselves. Another strategy Roediger recommended is joining a study group to discuss the content and create a group outline.

The recommendations come with a catch, though: Most of these techniques are harder, Roediger said, and they also have the downside of being less effective in the short term, making students less able to identify their effectiveness. The long term is a totally different story though, Roediger said.

In a review of study techniques Roediger shared with journalists, students were asked to read a passage up to four times and were then tested on its content that day and again a week later. One group was tasked with reading a passage four times while another group was asked to read the same passage once and write everything they could recall three times in a row.

The results are seemingly counterintuitive. When tested shortly after their study periods, the first group did a better job of recalling the material. A week later however, it was the second group of students – the ones who had read the passage once and then tried to recall it without re-reading it – who did a better job remembering the material in the passage.

“If you cram, you’ll know it for a little while,” but you’ll forget it quickly, Roediger said. “Often conditions that make learning fast are ones that also cause fast forgetting,” he said.

Not only is cramming the sugary carbs of the studying world, but high-production study guides seem worse at informing students than simple explanations of tough concepts. Bror Saxberg, the chief learning officer at Kaplan, said at the science of learning deep dive that the test-prep giant had used its massive number of learners to run randomized controlled trials on different types of learning strategies.

In one case, Kaplan Test Prep put together a high-production video and a detailed study workbook for the logical reasoning problems on the LSAT, the hardest problems on the test that aspiring law students take. In a randomized controlled trial design, while one group used that course, two other groups worked through eight and 15 carefully designed “worked examples,” which included annotations from an expert on how to solve the problems.

The groups that worked through eight or 15 sample problems did significantly better than the group that worked through the video and workbook. In addition, the group that reviewed just eight problems spent roughly eight minutes studying to reach the same level of performance as those studying 15; the group reviewing the videos kept at it for nearly 100 minutes.

Though this finding caused much consternation among the Kaplan product development group, Saxberg said they decided to change their tactics.

“We look at research against outcomes and use that to design what we’re doing,” Saxberg said.

Both researchers lamented that too few teachers have background in some of the science behind learning discussed during the panel, likening the profession to doctors who are paid to treat patients but lack an understanding of chemistry or physics. Saxberg urged reporters to look into how much learning science is included in teacher preparation programs.

Roediger also suggested reporters take a more critical look at flipped classrooms and other “innovations” that aren’t based in the science of learning. The best new strategies, he said, will be ones that are based on a clear understanding of how students learn and are designed to aid in that learning rather than speeding it up.

The panelists said that too often in education teachers are pressured to improve test scores when they should instead be improving student learning. Using a medical analogy, Saxberg said that’s like draining the blood of a patient with high blood pressure: You improve the indicator without treating the symptom. 

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