Six strategies for more impactful (online) teaching and learning – Part 1/3

What kind of teaching practices can help our students study better? Are we using scientifically proven strategies to enhance learning? This series of three blog posts will introduce you to six evidence-based strategies that support deep learning. Each strategy is complemented by concrete examples that will help you to figure out how to implement these in your teaching!

This series is inspired by and based on a thought-provoking three-hour workshop held by Marcus Lithander, PhD, a cognitive psychologist from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, on the topic in December 2021.

During the workshop, Lithander presented six evidence-based strategies that support deep learning and in this post we will present to you the first two: Retrieval practice and Spaced practice. Stay tuned for parts two and three where we introduce the other four strategies: Interleaving, Elaboration, Concrete examples and Dual coding.

What works in learning

1. Retrieval practice  

You know the feeling when you almost remember something, when the answer is “on the tip of your tongue”? You may also remember from your school years how painful it felt to answer the follow-up questions at the end of a chapter, when studying for an exam? It was easier just to read the text a couple of times and skip the questions, right? Well, from a deep learning point of view, this is exactly what you should not have done. Most likely you passed the exam, but for deep learning and long-term retention, processing requiring effort has been proven to be more beneficial. 

In cognitive psychology, retrieval practice is a strategy through which bringing information to mind enhances and boosts learning. It formulates the third component of our memory system (the other two being encoding and storage) by retrieving information to the mind from memory. In addition to helping us memorize and learn things, retrieval practice also has an indirect effect that relates to metacognition: it helps us recognize what we already know and what we do not know. Also, no matter how important trusting oneself as a learner (self-efficacy) is for learning, too much confidence may also deteriorate learning: the least prepared learners are usually most confident about their skills and knowledge (also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect). Retrieval practice may reduce harmful overconfidence and thus lead to more realistic understanding of one’s own learning, leading to better learning results.  

In practice, this means 

  • Providing (explanatory) feedback on students’ test performance: have students go back and re-check the material studied after a “retrieval session” 
  • Setting up regular and “low stakes or no stakes” tests or quizzes using questions that require integrating knowledge across topics 
  • Asking students to write down “everything they know” about a certain topic, first without cues, then with cues or hits

2. Spaced practice

Many of us are familiar with the classical case of a rather ineffective study practice: trying to learn all the study matter by heart the night before the exam. In this marathon-like effort, also called cramming or massed practices, the learner studies heavily for a short period of time for the upcoming exam.  While massed study practices can seem effective when looking at short-term learning results, cognitive psychologists suggest using spaced practice for long-term success. 

Spaced practice is a learning technique in which the learning sessions are distributed over time (e.g., 60 minutes a day for five days vs. five hours in one day). Spaced practice produces better recall performance and memorization of key concepts and facts in the long term but can also benefit students in applying this knowledge to new situations such as problem solving. (see e.g. Gurung & Burns, 2019)

Students can practice spacing by revisiting study material frequently in a spaced matter, but re-reading just notes and course material won’t necessarily do the trick. Here are some tips on implementing spaced practice from a teacher’s point of view:

  • Use no-stakes or low-stakes quizzes throughout the course. This helps students retrieve the studied material from their memory instead of only re-reading the course material (see also retrieval practices above). 
  • Instead of arranging one final exam, split the exam into smaller units and arrange these throughout the study period. 
  • Provide explanatory feedback with quizzes and exams. 
  • Encourage students to make a weekly plan for spaced review of study material 

If this blog posting caught your interest, stay tuned for parts two and three! 

Co-authored by Akseli Huhtanen, Sara Rönkkönen & Suvi Toivonen

References and suggested further readings:

This series of three blog posts is based on and inspired by the workshop “The Science of Learning”, led by PhD Marcus Lithander, Department of Learning and Digital Learning at KTH on 8.12.2021, via UNITE! Network. Also, the following references were utilized when making the posts.    

Benjamin, A., Tullis, J. (2010) What makes distributed practice effective?, Cognitive Psychology, Volume 61, Issue 3, 2010,Pages 228247.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. 

Gurung, R. A. & Burns, K. (2019). Putting evidence‐based claims to the test: A multi‐site classroom study of retrieval practice and spaced practice. Applied cognitive psychology, 33(5), 732743 

Kang, S. H. K. (2016). Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning: Policy Implications for Instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 12–19.  

Mayer, R. E., & Anderson, R. B. (1992). “The instructive animation: Helping students build connections between words and pictures in multimedia learning.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 4, 444452. 

Rohrer, D. (2012). “Interleaving helps students distinguish among similar concepts.” Educational Psychology Review, 24, 355367. 

Tulving, E. (1972). “Episodic and semantic memory,” in Organization of Memory, eds E. Tulving and W. Donaldson (New York, NY: Academic Press Inc.), 381–403. 

Understanding How We Learn. A Visual Guide. Yana Weinstein & Megan Sumeracki. Published by David Fulton/Routledge, August 2018.