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Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning

Much of teaching is about helping students master new knowledge and skills and then helping students not to forget what they have learned. The recommendations in this practice guide are intended to provide teachers with specific strategies for organizing both instruction and students’ studying of material to facilitate learning and remembering information, and to enable students to use what they have learned in new situations.

Recommendation 1: Space learning over time.

To help students remember key facts, concepts, and knowledge, we recommend that teachers arrange for students to be exposed to key course concepts on at least two occasions—separated by a period of several weeks to several months. Research has shown that delayed re-exposure to course material often markedly increases the amount of information that students remember. The delayed re-exposure to the material can be promoted through homework assignments, in- class reviews, quizzes (see Recommendation 3), or other instructional exercises. In certain classes, important content is automatically reviewed as the learner progresses through the standard curriculum (e.g., students use single-digit addition nearly every day in second grade math), and this recommendation may be unnecessary in courses where this is the case. This recommendation applies to those (very common) course situations in which important knowledge and skills are not automatically reviewed.

Recommendation 2: Interleave worked example solutions and problem-solving exercises.

When teaching mathematical or science problem solving, we recommend that teachers interleave worked example solutions and problem-solving exercises—literally alternating between worked examples demonstrating one possible solution path and problems that the student is asked to solve for himself or herself—because research has shown that this interleaving markedly enhances student learning.

Recommendation 3: Combine graphics with verbal descriptions.

We recommend that teachers combine graphical presentations (e.g., graphs, figures) that illustrate key processes and concepts with verbal descriptions of those processes and concepts in order to facilitate student learning.

Recommendation 4: Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts.

We recommend that teachers connect and integrate abstract representations of a concept with concrete representations of the same concept. Connecting different forms of representations helps students master the concept being taught and improves the likelihood that students will use it appropriately across a range of different contexts.

Recommendation 5: Use quizzing to promote learning.

The process of taking a quiz or test can directly promote learning in the context of classroom instruction, and reduce the rate at which information is forgotten. In Recommendation 5, we recommend two ways of using quizzing to help students learn: (a) using “pre-questions” to activate prior knowledge and focus students’ attention on the material that will be presented in class; and (b) using quizzes to re-expose students to key course content. Recommendation 6 includes a third way to use quizzing to help students make decisions about allocating study time.

Recommendation 5b:Use quizzes to re-expose students to information.

We recommend that teachers use “closed-book” quizzes or tests as one method for re-exposing students to key course content. As indicated in Recommendation 1, a delayed re-exposure to course content helps students remember key information longer. In addition, quizzes or tests that require students to actively recall specific information (e.g., questions that use fill-in-the-blank or short-answer formats, as opposed to multiple-choice items) directly promote learning and help students remember information longer. To use quizzes or tests to promote learning and retention of information, correct-answer feedback should be provided.

Recommendation 5a: Use pre-questions to introduce a new topic.

We recommend that teachers use pre-questions as a way to introduce a new topic. Pre-questions (or pre-tests) help students identify what material they do not yet know, and hence need to study. In addition, responding to pre-questions automatically activates any relevant prior knowledge in the student’s mind. These processes contribute to improved student learning.

Recommendation 6: Help students allocate study time efficiently.

To promote efficient and effective study habits, we recommend that teachers help students more accurately assess what they know and do not know, and to use this information to more efficiently allocate their study time. Teachers can help students break the “illusion of knowing” that often impedes accurate assessment of knowledge in two ways.

Recommendation 6a: Teach students how to use delayed judgment of learning techniques to identify concepts that need further study.

First, teachers can teach students how to create accurate “judgments of learning” during study. Second, students can use their performance on closed book quizzes to identify what material they need to re-study in order to master all critical course content.

Recommendation 6b: Use tests and quizzes to identify content that needs to be learned.

We recommend that teachers use tests or quizzes after the presentation of new material to help students identify content that requires further study. As a companion technique to Recommendation 4a, we recommend that teachers and students use tests and quizzes with feedback identifying incorrect responses, providing correct answers to those incorrect responses as tools for helping students identify content that they have not yet mastered during study.

Recommendation 7: Help students build explanations by asking and answering deep questions.

When students have acquired a basic set of knowledge about a particular topic of study and are ready to build a more complex understanding of a topic, we recommend that teachers find opportunities to ask questions and model answers to these questions, in order to help students build deep explanations of key concepts. By deep explanations we mean explanations that appeal to causal mechanisms, planning, well-reasoned arguments, and logic. Examples of deep explanations include those that inquire about causes and consequences of historical events, motivations of people involved in historical events, scientific evidence for particular theories, and logical justifications for the steps of a mathematical proof. Examples of the types of questions that prompt deep explanations are why, why-not, how, what-if, how does X compare to Y, and what is the evidence for X? These questions and explanations can occur both during classroom instruction, class discussion, and during independent study.

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