Teaching Students to Learn in 3 Easy Steps

This past week I had the opportunity to attend an excellent workshop presented by Jeffrey Karpicke, who heads up the Memory and Cognition Lab at Purdue University. He makes the case that students don’t know how to study effectively. As a result, they spend hours and hours “laboring in vain”—performing tasks that produce absolutely no learning. This is understandable, he says, as the only guideline that most college students are given is that they should spend 2 to 3 hours “studying” for every hour they spend in class. Without additional guidance, they tend to confuse comprehension with actual learning.

What constitutes studying in the minds of college students? More than 80% of the students that Dr. Karpicke and his colleagues surveyed listed “rereading notes or textbook” as a study method, and more than half identified it as their preferred strategy (see Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, Memory, 2009). Unfortunately, rereading has absolutely no benefit; time spent rereading material is wasted (see Callender & McDaniel, Contemporary Ed Psych, 2009). So students are losing precious time on ineffective study methods. Dr. Karpicke tells his students that they can substantially improve their learning by spending 45 minutes each week performing three easy steps:

Step 1: Collect and Organize — Encourage students to organize their grasp on a subject by creating their own outlines or self-study guides. This is something I have always done in my studies, but only 24% of students surveyed by Dr. Karpicke carry out this process.

Step 2: Assess Comprehension — Students often confuse familiarity with comprehension. To get beyond this, students should try explaining concepts in the absence of notes or textbooks. When presented with central topics or keywords, they should examine what comes to mind. If they are unable to produce an accurate response, or are unsure of an answer, then this is an area where they need to “study.” This step is carried out by only 13% of the students surveyed by Dr. Karpicke.

Step 3: Practice Retrieval — Long term learning requires more than comprehension; repeated retrievals of the material are required to ensure that the information is not forgotten. Have students pull out a blank sheet of paper and write down everything they can remember about the topic. Encourage students to use flash cards. Knowledge retrieval is often seen as “neutral,” a process that does not modify or alter the learning process. But Dr. Karpicke claims that the act of retrieval itself produces learning. (see Roediger & Karpicke, Psychological Science, 2006) What percentage of students carry out self-testing? Less than 11%.

Most scary is that students who utilize rereading as a study strategy are over-confident about their learning, while those that practice active retrieval are under-confident. Making a rough estimate from the graphs that Dr. Karpicke displayed, it appeared that rereaders are about 20% more confident in their “judgment of learning” than are self-testers, but perform about 35% worse when tested. Thus, it may be quite useful to discuss potential test questions during lectures, so that students begin to assess their comprehension, and have appropriate lines of thought for self-testing. One of the workshop participants stated that he has students submit potential test questions as part of their homework; this forces them into the beginning stages of self-assessment.

How much do we really remember from our college days? Some big concepts, for sure, but many of the small details are quickly lost. For a humorous look at this topic, watch Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University.


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