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Students get tests back.

Here’s one of those articles that really shouldn’t be missed, particularly for those with interest in making teaching and learning more evidence-based. Current thinking about evidence-based teaching and learning tends to be more generic than specific. Use any active learning strategy intermittently or even regularly, and some would call the teaching evidence-based. That’s a superficial understanding of what it means to use practices that have been proven to promote learning. This article leads to a deeper level of understanding.

It’s a review of mostly cognitive psychology research that explores 10 learning techniques. The cognitive psychologist authors provide the background. “Psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of techniques for study and instruction for more than 100 years. Nevertheless, some effective techniques are underutilized—many teachers do not learn about them, and hence many students do not use them, despite evidence suggesting that the techniques could benefit student achievement and with little added effort. Also, some learning techniques that are popular and often used by students are relatively ineffective.” (p. 5)

Here are brief descriptions of the 10 learning strategies reviewed in the article.

The article makes recommendations about the utility of each study technique. Those recommendations are based on assessment of how the technique is performed across four categories: materials, learning conditions, student characteristics, and criterion tasks. The materials category refers to the content students are expected to learn and whether the technique has been tested and shown to be effective with a variety of different kinds of content and levels of content complexity. The learning conditions “largely pertain to the way in which a learning technique is implemented.” (p. 6) Considered here are variables like the frequency with which the technique needs to be used and whether it works when used by individuals and/or in groups. Student characteristics include age, ability, and level of prior knowledge. Has the technique been shown to be effective for students at different age levels and with different levels of ability and prior knowledge? The criterion tasks include the different outcome measures used to assess the effectiveness of the technique.

The article is packed full of information about each of these learning techniques. They “vary widely with respect to their generalizability and promise for improving student learning.” (p. 5) The two that receive the authors’ highest recommendations are practice testing and distributed practice—both techniques not widely used by college students. For most college students, the fewer the tests, the better. But practice testing is low- or no-stakes testing. These are not summative assessments with scores that count for significant percentages of a course grade. The technique can be as simple as using a set of flash cards. It’s any method that forces the student to retrieve newly learned material. The research documenting that it expedites learning and promotes retention goes back more than 100 years and includes hundreds of studies.

Distributed practice (see p. 5) is the antithesis of cramming. Periods of study happen regularly, not all at once the night before the exam. “Although cramming is better than not studying at all in the short term, given the same amount of time for study, would students be better off spreading out their study of content? The answer to this question is a resounding yes.” (p. 35) But cramming is a way of life for most students. They use the technique because so many of their exams contain questions that can be answered with memorized details, and if that’s the case, then cramming works. The problem is that materials can be memorized without understanding, and if that’s how they’ve been “learned,” they will be quickly forgotten.

Several details about the article: It’s long, but very well organized and written so that each technique can be read individually. Even though written by a group of cognitive psychology researchers, the article is easy reading for faculty from other fields.

For teachers serious about making teaching and learning evidence-based in specific ways, this article is an invaluable resource. The techniques it explores and evaluates are simple, straightforward strategies that students can use and teachers can promote. Most require very little training. “We limited our choices to techniques that could be implemented by students without assistance (e.g., without requiring advanced technologies or extensive materials that would have to be prepared by a teacher).” (p. 5) Given the learning skills of many of today’s college students, teachers need to know what learning strategies have a proven track record so they can work with students on approaches that truly are evidence-based. Not all the recommendations faculty make fall into that category. What are the two learning techniques on this list these researchers don’t recommend? Rereading and highlighting, both favorites of students. Read the article and discover why they aren’t recommended.


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., and Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 30.1 (2016): 4–5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.