How can I improve long-term learning?
While forgetting is an inevitable part of the learning process, we certainly hope it’s not the bulk of it. A survey of numerous studies suggest three practice strategies that best promote long-term learning: 1) Mixing up the practice of the desired skill with other activities and distributing it over time; 2) Varying the practice both in terms of environmental context and different forms of the skill itself; and 3) Practicing recall using games, quizzes, and tests. Some of these strategies are already incorporated, by design, into many of our instructional materials (e.g., Singapore and Exeter math problem sets where concepts and operations are mixed) and practices (e.g., early literacy instruction where students practice skills in a variety of settings, such as read alouds, shared readings, and guided reading groups). However, they should be considered for all learning-related activities.
- Distributed Practice. Two groups are asked to solve four sets of problems. Group A solves all of the problems in one set before moving on to the next set. Group B solves problems across sets in a randomly mixed order. Results: Group A solves more problems, but forgets more. Group B solves fewer problems, but remembers significantly more long term. Conclusion: Mixing practice with different problem types promotes long-term learning.
- Varying Context/Skill. Two groups are asked to memorize a list of words. After three hours, Group A studies the list again in the same room. Group B studies the list in a different room. After another three hours, all participants are tested in a third room. Results: Group B recalls significantly more words than Group A. Similar results are found across multiple subjects and skill types. Conclusion: varying learning context promotes long-term learning.
- Studying vs. Recall Practice. Two groups are asked to memorize a list of words. Group A studies the list five times. Group B studies the list one time and then takes four memory tests (i.e., write down all words they can remember). Note that Group B never receives feedback on how many words they get correct. Final tests are given to both groups after five minutes, one day, and one week. Results: On the five-minute delayed test, Group A outscores Group B by a small margin. On the one-day delayed test, the two groups score the same. On the one-week delayed test, Group B outscores Group A by a significant margin. Conclusion: Activities that practice recall are significantly more effective than studying at promoting long-term learning.
Nullius In Verba
Does this research apply to your students? Let’s find out and share what we learn. If you are willing to try one or more of these practices over the next couple of weeks, email us at . We will help you set up a simple experiment and report your findings in the next issue of Gray Matters.
“Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review” by Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015, Vol. 10(2), 176–199.
Special thanks to Ingrid Lamia for her review and suggestions.