A guide to effective learning – backed by neuroscience research

Written by Sasinthiran

Edited by Xin Chen, Yingchen and Keshiniy

Image: http://www.scs.on.ca/the-importance-of-reciprocal-learning/

I recently attended a seminar on ‘Applying Cognitive Science Principles to Promote Durable and Efficient Learning’ by Dr Sean Kang from the Dathmouth College Cognition and Learning Lab hosted by the NUS Department of Psychology. His talk focused on how optimizing test-taking and spaced learning could help improve memory for learned material and has inspired me to write this article, reviewing some of the findings he presented as well as other insights neuroscience research has provided that may be used to enhance learning and memory.

The Testing effect

For most students, tests and exams are just another hassle that stands between them and the holidays that everyone dreads and can’t wait to get over. Perhaps exams and tests elicit an unpleasant reaction in students because time and time again emphasis has been placed on performing well since the grades on such tests may determine placements in future classes, schools one is eligible to apply and even jobs one can apply to. Sadly, tests were actually initially introduced into the school curriculum to reinforce learning (Carrier & Pashler, 1992) and this true purpose has been eclipsed by the emphasis placed on scores and performing well as tests have evolved to be used as a tool to evaluate learning.

Research has shown that earlier testing will improve subsequent performance in a later test, a testing effect referred to as the benefit of retrieval practice (Carpenter, 2012; Rawson & Dunlosky, 2012). In fact, testing was found to render learned memories more robust to interference than mere reading of the material to be learnt (Tulving & Watkins, 1974; Szpunar, et al., 2008). Hence, it is a good practice for students to constantly test themselves while studying, as an adjunct to learning, to activate the same memory traces that were involved in encoding the memory the first time and allowing for re-consolidation. It was also found that a more demanding initial test (e.g. short answer questions which rely on recall memory instead of multiple choice questions which rely on recognition memory) led to better performances in a later test, regardless of whether it was short answer or multiple choice questions (K., et al., 2007). Most students would dread a tough mid-term exam and hopefully after reading this, they will learn to appreciate the fact that their lecturers are actually ‘helping’ them to perform better in the final exams by setting a tough mid-term paper!

The importance of feedback in learning

Studies have found that feedback with the correct answer following a test produced a significantly greater performance on a test administered a week later as compared to when no feedback was given (Pashler, et al., 2005), regardless of whether the initial answers were right or wrong (Butler, et al., 2007). Delayed feedback was found to produce beater retention, at least in the controlled setting of an experiment, than immediate feedback. Thus, students should make it a point to review their tests with their tutors.

Guessing answers during tests – does it affect learning?

Usually when you don’t know the answer to a question, the best option would be to guess at the answer, banking on the possibility of it being correct by chance, instead of leaving it blank and forfeiting the mark for the question. One might think that such guessing might interfere with later learning of the actual answer when feedback is given (retrograde interference). However, research has shown that such interference does not occur (Kang, et al., 2011). In fact, it was found that students learned the correct answer from feedback better when they were more confident of their earlier erroneous answers, as counter-intuitive as that might sound (Kulhavy, et al., 1976).

Context-dependent Memory

Research has shown that retrieval of learned information was better when keeping the context of retrieval (e.g. examination environment) similar to the context at encoding the memory (learning environment) (Godden & Baddeley, 1975; Smith, et al., 1978). Although students might not have the ability to modify the environment of the examination hall, they could study in a similar environment (e.g. a quiet library) to capitalize on this effect. Moreover, chewing on a particular flavor of sweet during learning and subsequent retrieval during exams might help with recall. Interestingly, research has also found that one’s general mood (Weingartner, et al., 1977), internal physiological state (Eich, et al., 1975; Miles & Hardman, 1998) or emotions (Lang, et al., 2001) and alcohol consumption (Lowe, 1982) could also affect context-dependent memory and subsequent recall.

Spaced vs Mass learning

Many of us might be guilty of cramming our lecture notes at the last minute just before the exams, thinking that keeping the content locked in our short term memory will allow us to recall the information during the test the next day. While it is true that such mass learning is superior to spaced learning in the short term retrieval of the memory, such memory traces are also more prone to decay and hence are, in the long term, forgotten more easily (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Thus, spaced learning is highly encouraged to maximize the lifespan of memory for learned items and has been shown to be more advantageous to mass learning in nearly all forms of learning (Dempster, 1996; Mammarella, et al., 2002; Cepada, et al., 2006).

However, in cases whereby you are just starting out on a topic, with little or no prior knowledge, mass learning is recommended to get that head start and spaced learning should be used to build up on that base knowledge in the time to come to maximize learning.

In the case of categorical learning, for example in learning to differentiate classes of organic compounds in organic chemistry, spaced learning with exposure to the different groups of compounds at the same time at each session is encouraged. By exposing one to the different classes of compounds at the same time (interleaving), the differences between them is emphasized and aids in better learning as opposed to exposing each compound one at the time (Kang & Pashler, 2012).

Notably, when the items being learned are similar and the differences between them are very subtle, for example when learning to distinguish different composers by being exposed to classical music composed by them, learning of the categories is better when music from the same composer is played in the same block so that the similarities can be abstracted better to form a concept of that composer’s style of composing (blocking). This blocked presentation in spaced learning is found to be superior to interleaving in this context when the items being learned are only subtly different.

Another finding is that spaced learning at increasing/ expanding intervals ( e.g. day 1, day 3, day 7, day 13) is slightly superior to spaced learning at equal intervals (e.g. day 1, day 3, day 5, day 7) as memory was more available and efficiently retrieved and available for longer periods (Landauer & Bjork, 1978; Kang, et al., 2014). Thus, students might find it useful to review study materials at increasing intervals.

Sleep and Memory

Besides the topics discussed above, sleep has also been demonstrated to have beneficial effects on learning and memory by re-organising existing memories to accommodate the learning of new information (Stickgold & Walker, 2007). Sleeping after learning has been found to aid in recall of memory (Gais, et al., 2006). Specifically, N-REM (non-rapid eye movement) phase of sleep was found to be essential for strengthening declarative (memory that can be verbalised such as semantic memory for knowledge and facts and episodic memory for life events) and procedural (skills-related) memories (Gais & Born, 2004). A study found that sleep deprivation for one night led to poor performance on cognitive tasks the following day and that this deficit could not be overcome even after 2 nights of adequate sleep (Stickgold, et al., 2000). Thus, pulling an all-nighter just before the exams might not be a good idea as you may be doing more harm than good.

Having read up more on this topic for the purpose of this brief review, I for one, am looking forward to my upcoming tests!


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