Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Learn Better, Remember Longer

      Studying is a difficult, but necessary, part of the education experience. Massive, high-stakes exams are all too common in universities and encourage students to concentrate their study efforts on their subject in the days leading up to their exam, rather than gradually building and refreshing their knowledge as they progress through the course’s content. The consequence of these short, intense study days is that the knowledge gathered by the students is almost immediately forgotten shortly after the test has ended. Though this study method often yields desirable grades for the students, they do not retain the foundational skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in subsequent courses. In this cramming-and-testing education cycle, students are simply holding on to information long enough to answer any relevant exam questions so that they can get the grade they want and progress through their program. In this way, students are not learning for the sake of learning, but rather for the sake of passing. And although passing is an indispensable goal for all students, the lack of retention for course materials leaves the student poorly equipped for the challenges of more advanced material that future courses will offer. 

       Scientists have long known that spacing out learning and revisiting material that is not yet mastered can improve memory for that material, both for the test and beyond. For example, re-examining content from a class a week ago has been found to increase memory for that class’s material. Unfortunately, the education system at all levels (elementary school, high school, university, and college) heavily lends itself to high-stakes testing (in which a colossal chunk of a student’s grade is based on a few short tests). Although most students love the idea of a few quick (but tough) exams in their seemingly distant futures, the skills and knowledge gained evaporates soon after the test has ended. Even if students what to maximize their studying potential by incorporating short reviews of past material into their weekly routines, they can often become flabbergasted with the sheer volume of material that they feel they have to review – these well-intentioned students can be unsure of where to focus their studying attention.

        Enter DASH. A computerized teaching tool that takes advantage of scientific theories on memory and accounts for both individual learning styles and typical patterns of learning and forgetting. This program developed out of research jointly conducted at the University of Colorado and the University of California. DASH was created using three important aspects of the student and the study process: the Difficulty of the material, the Ability of the student, and the Study History (or how the student has studied the material in the past). These three aspects work in the computer program to review material for the student when they need it most. Based on quizzes from the previous week’s materials, the DASH program devoted a certain among of time to reviewing the necessary chapters with the student. 

To test the effectiveness of their computerized teaching tool, the researchers provided 179 eighth-grade children with computer based Spanish language instruction. Students learned Spanish during a ten week period in using each of three computerized teaching tools; the personalized DASH system, a mass chapter-by-chapter technique (that presented new material each week without review of the previous week’s material much like a standard classroom environment might), or a spaced out study technique (that would begin each new week with a brief review of the previous week’s material). A third of each of the chapter’s content was taught using each of the techniques, so that each student used each technique throughout the process (this practice reduces differences in performance that may be due to factors that are not the study techniques, like intelligence or motivation). At the end of the ten weeks of computer-based Spanish learning, the students were given an exam that tested their learning. The results showed promising support for DASH. Student answered 12 more questions correctly that were learned using DASH  compared to the mass chapter-by-chapter technique, and eight questions more than material learned using the spaced out study technique. These results show that the DASH program was able to increase knowledge about the material, thus indicating that the use of this personalized, spaced-study technique can yield better marks for students immediately after a course has finished, relative to a chapter-by-chapter technique or an impersonal spaced-study technique. 

            But what about learning beyond the course? Students were given a similar exam 28 days removed from their program to test how much knowledge they had retained. Items learned using DASH were better remembered that items learned with the chapter-by-chapter and the impersonal-spaced learning techniques nearly a month later. On average, over 16 more questions (out of 100) were answered correctly when items were learned using DASH, compared to the chapter-by-chapter technique. Ten more questions (out of 100) were answered correctly when the material was learned using DASH, compared to the impersonal-spaced learning technique. In other words, not only did DASH continue to reduce forgetting, this forgetting was still reduced 28 days after their course had ended – the advantage for DASH items broadened at the later test date – DASH content was remember more than content from other techniques. 

            Students are not retaining the skills that they acquire and the knowledge that they learn. The DASH program shows an effective learning strategy that can both improve performance on tests and increase the preservation of information taught. Although the high-stakes testing techniques of the education system are desirable for some students and easy for educators, this type of testing is associated with rapid forgetting of learning information. Unfortunately, many students view education as the progression through courses by any means necessary – not as the gradual acquisition of knowledge for better performance in the future (both in the classroom and beyond). The DASH program illustrates the effectiveness of a personalized spaced learning program and incorporates current theories of memory and differences in individual’s skill in order to formulate the ideal weekly study plan for students using the program. 

Adam Newton                                       

Lindsey, R. V., Shroyer, J. D., Pashler, H., & Mozer, M. C. (2014). Improving students’ long-term knowledge retention through personalized review. Psychological Science. In Press. 

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