Not reading, but doing

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"Students don't read enough" is a common complaint from lecturers. But does reading equal learning? It depends what we do when we read.

Learning is not about receiving information passively. It's not a one-way process; it's about constructing knowledge in our minds, adding to and altering the ideas we already have. Few of us are 'tabula rasa' or blank slates. We relate new information to what we already know. Studies show it's easier to learn information if it's related to what we know than if it isn't. So reading, or indeed, a learning experience, which starts by activating prior knowledge, or showing connections visually is a good strategy.

This probably seems obvious and it's an example of when psychology findings do, in fact, bear out common sense. But some findings seem to be counter-intuitive. Here'€™s what I found intriguing:

  • remembering is re-imagining a memory
  • forgetting helps us form stronger memories
  • creating difficulties for learners helps learning in the long term
  • studying in two different rooms helps learning.

This is because of the way memory processes information. For deep learning, we need to encode, store and retrieve information. To do so, we move knowledge from working memory to long-term memory. The opposite happens in recalling a memory: it's retrieved to working memory then stored back into long-term memory. Each time this happens, we're re-consolidating that memory trace, and each time, we have the potential to make different and greater associations. So, in a sense, we recreate the memory.

Memory is an efficient system. It makes available information we need right now (like your phone number) whilst other things are difficult to access (like that chemistry you learned at school, but haven'€™t had to use since). "Disuse" renders it inaccessible, but according to the "New Theory of Disuse", it's never totally lost.

What you had at breakfast might be uppermost in your mind today but a month later it won't be. Because you don't need the information, you didn't store it well in the first place, and you haven't had opportunities to bring it to mind since (retrieve) but it's still there... somewhere. The better stored something is, the more quickly it can be retrieved or recalled.

Retrieval and working memory is limited, that's why sometimes we struggle to remember things we feel we know. But there's no limit on storage. Storage strength is how interconnected or related information is to other things in the mind; retrieval strength is how accessible it is.

We know cramming doesn't result in sustained learning - but it can be successful at the exam! So performance in the short term might be great, but without further opportunities to study the topic again, it's not going to "stick". What's happening is that cramming has high "retrieval strength", but low "storage strength". In other words, you can access the information readily in the short term, but it'€™s not stored well.

Paradoxically, it seems if you raise performance (retrieval strength) rapidly, you actually sacrifice possible learning (storage strength) and sustainability. In other words, rapid performance improvements are often counterproductive.

If something is very accessible in the present, no more learning can happen as there can be no increase in storage. But as you forget and then present information again, it gives a greater boost to storage. So if we study and leave a gap of time (in a test at that point, of course, our performance will be poor) but if we re-present -€“ study again - the learning will be stronger.

So forgetting creates the potential for better storage in long-term memory, or in other words, deeper learning. That's why spaced practice rather than massed practice works. In other words, shorter practice sessions with gaps of time in-between.

Studies in maths investigated students who performed well in class but poorly on the final test. Findings indicate that students in these more challenging classes tested better long term. So we need "desirable difficulties" to learn more deeply. Too much difficulty, however, can overload.

Another finding is about context. Students who studied in two different rooms had better final scores than those who studied in one room. The final test was in a different room for both groups. Learning is context-dependent and students who studied in one room suffered from this effect. Changing the room meant students transferred the knowledge into a different context, which helped longer-term storage. Likewise, transferring knowledge into different contexts via activities, case studies and examples will help deeper learning.

So how do we boost the optimal mix of retrieval and storage strength in learning? How can we help deeper learning to take place?

It turns out what's effective is what good teachers and learners already do: worked examples, building to extended practice and frequent short quizzes!

It helps to relate new information to existing ideas at the start of learning and to chunk learning to help encode into our limited working memories.
It's good to transfer knowledge to different contexts to form stronger memories.

Recall is better than simple recognition in activities, and we need some challenge. And, of course, spacing practice to help retrieval and storage strength of knowledge.

Learning science is finding out what works, and why. Learning design is its application to the design of good content, turning reading into learning - like Pearson's new product, Revel.

So, in short, reading is not learning unless a lot more is going on!

More on what works for studying next time.

- Diana Foster, Consultant Learning Designer


Dr Robert Bjork on cognitive psychology "New theory of Disuse"

"Three Applications of Cognitive Science" presented at ResearchEd 2014

Revel (Pearson's reading/writing platform)

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