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Only 20% of Learning Techniques Have High Utility

21 Jan 2013

I’m indebted to Kerry Eades at the Oklahoma CareerTech Testing Center for alerting me to a just-published research paper by a team of authors led by John Dunlosky of Kent State University’s Department of Psychology. The paper evaluates 10 learning techniques and the evidence that they are genuinely useful in learning. Techniques are characterized as “high utility” if their benefit is robust and generalizes widely, or “moderate utility” or “low utility” if they are less effective, less general or have insufficient evidence.
They identified two high utility techniques  – practice testing (self-testing or taking practice quizzes) and distributed practice (spacing out practice over time) and three as having moderate utility – elaborative interrogation and self-explanation (simplistically both ways of asking why something is so) and interleaved practice (mixing practice up with other things). Five techniques were considered low utility – including summarization, re-studying and highlighting.
You can see this schematically in the diagram below.

For those of you attending the Questionmark Users Conference in Baltimore in March, I’ll be sharing more of my understanding of these areas at my session, Assessment Feedback – What can we learn from Psychology Research. If you’re not able to attend the conference, the 55-page paper is well worth reading – it is Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology and is published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. An online version is here.
The paper looks at over 120 research articles on practice testing/quizzing and finds practice testing has broad applicability:

“effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals”

The paper also reports evidence that practice testing (and also distributed practice or spacing out learning) works not just in the laboratory but also in representative real-life educational contexts. It also suggests feedback improves the effect:

“Practice testing with feedback also consistently outperforms practice testing alone”

The paper ends by suggesting that there are many factors which contribute to students and others failing to learn, and that improved learning techniques will not on their own improve learning – motivation, for instance, is also important. But the authors suggest that encouraging use of the higher utility techniques (such as practice testing and distributed practice) and discouraging students from using lower utility techniques such as rereading or highlighting would produce meaningful gains in learning.

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