How We Learn Best
So far, we have established that mastery learning and tutoring are incredibly effective at enhancing student achievement, and modern technology allows us to take advantage of these processes via adaptive learning apps.
Now let's dig into some of the specific learning techniques used by apps. These teaching methods both employ some key learning techniques which numerous studies have shown to be very impactful:
- Rapid Feedback
- Spaced Repetition
- The Testing Effect
What is Rapid Feedback?
Feedback happens when a teacher, parent, or adaptive app provides students with information about their performance or understanding of the material being studied.
Feedback is essential for the learning process, however, its effectiveness can vary depending upon the speed of delivery. Numerous studies show that rapid feedback can be more influential than delayed feedback. Adaptive apps can give almost instantaneous feedback- for example, on a student’s approach to a math problem or their answer to a history question.
In one interesting study conducted by Kettle and Häubl (2010), 271 students were required to give a 4-minute oral presentation for a class and were randomly assigned to a specific amount of anticipated feedback delay before receiving their grade for the presentation. The feedback delay ranged from 0 (same day) to 17 days. The students who were told they would receive feedback quickly on their performance earned higher grades than students who expected feedback at a later time (Figure 9).
Adapted from "Motivation by Anticipation: Expecting Rapid Feedback Enhances Performance" by K. Kettle and G. Häubl, 2010, Psychological Science Volume 21 (4), 545-547
What is Spaced Repetition?
Spaced repetition helps combat what psychologists call the Forgetting Curve.
What is the Forgetting Curve?
Discovered by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, the Forgetting Curve suggests that the longer it has been since we learned something, the more we will have forgotten it. Our retention of the information we have learned is highest immediately after we have learned it, and then exponentially declines until a point about 2 days after acquisition, when the memory decline occurs more slowly.
By that time, however, learners will have forgotten around 75% of what they learned, and more than half of that memory loss occurs within the first hour!!
This is shocking, but thankfully, the Forgetting Curve can easily be beaten by continually re-introducing the information learned -i.e. by spaced repetition!
Ebbinghaus (1885) also found that reviewing the new information learned at regular intervals can help reduce the rate at which a person forgets. Every time you reinforce the information, the rate of memory decline reduces (Figure 10).
Other studies have also shown that spaced repetition is a very effective method of overcoming the forgetting curve.
Janiszewski, Noel, and Sawyer (2002) conducted a meta-analysis of 97 studies and 269 tests of learning and memory retention due to repetition. The meta-analysis of the spacing effect was statistically significant. In fact, it was so significant that 148,979 studies would have to be published with an effect size of zero to make the entire effect of the meta-analysis insignificant!
What is the Testing Effect?
Perhaps even more powerful than spaced repetition is the testing effect.
Although tests are usually given in a class simply to evaluate students, they can also be used separately as a study aid.
Many studies have reported that recalling information for a test can strengthen future memory for that information, so when students take regular quizzes in a course they will be able to recall the information better for final examinations.
The testing effect has been well studied for decades in laboratories and more recently has also been examined directly in classroom settings. The results tell us that:
- Taking a test can be more beneficial for future retention of study material than spending an equivalent amount of time restudying the material (Cull, 2000, Carpenter et al, 2008).
- A single test in a class produces a large improvement in final-exam scores, and gains in learning continue to increase as the frequency of classroom testing increases (Figure 22, from Bangert-Drowns, Kulik and Kulik, 1991).
- Short answer quizzes produce better performance than multiple-choice quizzes (McDaniel et al., 2007)
- The beneficial effect of testing has been observed even when feedback is not provided! (Roediger & Karpicke (2006).
Adapted from "Effects of Frequent Classroom Testing” by Robert L. Bangert-Drowns, James A. Kulik & Chen-Lin C. Kulik, 1991, The Journal of Educational Research Volume 85 (2), 89-99
Learning & The Brain: Why Are These Learning Techniques so Effective?
Rapid feedback, spaced repetition, and the testing effect are effective for learners due to a similar process- they build and strengthen the neural connections in the brain.
The brain is made up of an estimated 86 billion neurons (Azevedo et al, 2009)! Each of these is connected to thousands of others. The organization of neural connections is what encodes information and our memories. The organization of neurons can change over time, and we can even create new neurons to encode new memories. All of this change is called neuroplasticity (Figure 12), and it's essential for learning.
Neural connections can be made stronger or weaker depending on when and how often they have been activated in the past. Active connections tend to get stronger, whereas those that aren’t used get weaker and can eventually disappear entirely. Active connections lead to more complete memories and easier recall.
When students receive rapid feedback or use spaced repetition they are able to deepen and sharpen their understanding of the learning material as well as revise mistakes and misconceptions. This revision process involves a stimulus and response which helps to better store the information in the brain by forming more active neural connections. The more we practice and rehearse something new and the more recently we have practiced, the easier it is for our brain to transmit these experiences efficiently and store them for ready access later.
In the case of the testing effect, students are actively trying to recall information when they undertake exams. Memories and information retrieval occur when specific groups of neurons are reactivated. This retrieval process has the effect of strengthening a certain pattern of neural connections so that subsequent attempts to retrieve the information are easier.
Keresztes et al. (2014) used MRI to look at brain activity patterns when participants actively tried to recall information. They found evidence that repeated testing stabilizes the activation patterns in the brain that are necessary to recall learned information- in other words, when the brain is trying to retrieve information, practice makes perfect!
- Azevedo, F.A., L.R. Carvalho, L.T. Grinberg, J.M. Farfel, R.E. Ferretti, R.E. Leite, W.J. Filho, R. Lent, & S. Herculano-Houzel. (2009). Equal numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells make the human brain an isometrically scaled-up primate brain. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 513, 532-541.
- Bangert-Drowns, R. L., J.A. Kulik & C-L. C. Kulik. (1991). Effects of Frequent Classroom Testing, The Journal of Educational Research, 85 (2), 89-99.
- Carpenter, S.K., H. Pashler, J.T. Wixted & E. Vul. (2008). The effects of tests on learning and forgetting. Memory & Cognition 36, 438–448.
- Cull, W.L. (2000). Untangling the benefits of multiple study opportunities and repeated testing for cued recall. Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 14: 215-235.
- Ebbinghaus, H. Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. (1885). Translated by Henry A. Ruger & Clara E. Bussenius (1913).
- Janiszewski, C., N. Hayden & A. Sawyer. (2003). A Meta-Analysis of the Spacing Effect in Verbal Learning: Implications for Research on Advertising Repetition and Consumer Memory. Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 138-49.
- Keresztes A., D. Kaiser, G. Kovács, & M. Racsmány, Testing Promotes Long-Term Learning via Stabilizing Activation Patterns in a Large Network of Brain Areas, Cerebral Cortex, Volume 24, Issue 11, November 2014, Pages 3025–3035.
- Kettle, K. L., & Häubl, G. (2010). Motivation by Anticipation: Expecting Rapid Feedback Enhances Performance. Psychological Science, 21(4), 545–547.
- McDaniel, M.A, J. L. Anderson, M. H. Derbish & N. Morrisette. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19 (4-5), 494-513.
- Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181–210.