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Strategies to Increase Learning

Seven tools can help students.

How can teachers help students learn, remember, and apply academic skills and concepts? To answer this question, a panel of experts convened by the U.S. Department of Education recently examined research in cognitive science, experimental psychology, education, and educational technology. The focus was on instructional procedures and timing for increasing learning and memory.

The panel identified seven effective strategies and rated the supporting evidence as strong (e.g., derived from randomized control trials), moderate (e.g., based on well-designed studies involving no randomization), or low (backed by expert opinion supported by evidence not considered "moderate" or "strong"). Recommended strategies most directly apply to grades 3 through 12 and are especially suitable for use with subjects that demand a great deal of content learning.

A discussion of all seven strategies and the research behind them is included in Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning: A Practice Guide ( ). Key points are summarized below.

Two Strategies for Increasing Learning and Memory Supported by Strong Research Evidence

1. Prompt students to pose and answer deep-level questions that require them to explain their answers and the thinking behind them. Deep-level questions often begin with words or phrases such as why, how, what if, what is the evidence, and compare. Such questions require students to reach beyond factual knowledge to describe causal relationships between facts or concepts. Dozens of studies have shown learning and comprehension improve when students are taught to ask deep questions during reading, listening, or studying (see Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996).

Teachers can also promote deeper reasoning by asking thought-provoking questions that challenge common assumptions. For example, asking "Why is it good for a forest to periodically have forest fires?" challenges the assumption that fires are always bad and prompts students "to consider deeper explanatory mechanisms and principles of ecology"

(Graesser & Olde, 2003).

2. Give quizzes at spaced intervals to reexpose students to key content and to give them practice in retrieving information. Recent experiments have confirmed earlier studies showing that being quizzed or tested on studied material improves student performance on final tests (e.g., Butler & Roediger, 2007). Short-answer and fill-in-the-blank quizzes, which require active recall of specific information, are especially useful in helping students remember information longer than they would otherwise (McDaniel, Anderson, Derbish et al., 2007). Several studies have shown such quizzes, along with immediate correct-answer feedback, to be more eff ective than simply reviewing or rereading content (e.g., Carpenter, Pashler, Cepeda et al., 2007).

Other Strategies Supported by Moderate Evidence

3. Space learning over time by arranging homework, quizzes, and exams so that key content is reviewed several weeks or months after it is introduced (e.g., Carpenter, Pashler, Cepeda et al., 2007).

4. Alternate between having students look at examples of solved problems and having students solve problems themselves. Research on mathematics and science learning has shown that student learning is enhanced when teachers do this (e.g., Sweller & Cooper, 1985).

About Practice Guides Practice guides are common in the health care profession. They present practitioners with recommendations based on the best available research evidence and professional judgment. The U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES) released its fi rst practice guide in July 2007. To access the guides go to practiceguides.

5. Use graphics to illustrate key points in verbal descriptions, especially when explaining scientific processes (e.g., Moss, 2005). When possible, however, avoid having students view a graphic and written text while giving an oral explanation. This can overload visual processing capacity (Clark & Mayer, 2003).

6. Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts. For example, point out which variables in a mathematical function are related to which aspects of a word problem. This can help students apply a concept, once learned, across various contexts (e.g., Kaminiski, Sloutsky, & Heckler (2006).

The Final Strategy, Related to Efficient Allocation of Study Time, is Supported by Experimental Evidence Not Conducted in a Classroom Setting

7. Teach students to assess their own degree of learning and to allocate their study time accordingly. Research on metacognition fi nds that most people "cannot accurately judge what they do and don't know." Learners tend to think they know more than they do. Psychologists call this the illusion of knowing (see Metcalfe & Dunlosky, in press). Learning to break through this illusion requires training. For example, students can be trained to summarize the main points of a reading assignment a day after the assignment is given, check to see what points they have missed or forgotten, and plan their study time accordingly (Dunlosky, Rawson, & Middleton, 2005).

Carla Thomas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia, a nonprofi t education research and development organization ( For references used in this article, go to