Only two out of ten learning techniques have high utility

John Kleeman HeadshotPosted by John Kleeman

I’m indebted to Kerry Eades at the Oklahoma CareerTech Testing Center for alerting me to a just-published research paper by a team of authors led by John Dunlosky of Kent State University’s Department of Psychology. The paper evaluates 10 learning techniques and the evidence that they are genuinely useful in learning. Techniques are characterized as “high utility” if their benefit is robust and generalizes widely, or “moderate utility” or “low utility” if they are less effective, less general or have insufficient evidence.

They identified two high utility techniques  – practice testing (self-testing or taking practice quizzes) and distributed practice (spacing out practice over time) and three as having moderate utility – elaborative interrogation and self-explanation (simplistically both ways of asking why something is so) and interleaved practice (mixing practice up with other things). Five techniques were considered low utility – including summarization, re-studying and highlighting.

You can see this schematically in the diagram below.

High utility, moderate utility and low utility - diagram showing text above

For those of you attending the Questionmark Users Conference in Baltimore in March, I’ll be sharing more of my understanding of these areas at my session, Assessment Feedback – What can we learn from Psychology Research. If you’re not able to attend the conference, the 55-page paper is well worth reading – it is Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology and is published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. An online version is here.

The paper looks at over 120 research articles on practice testing/quizzing and finds practice testing has broad applicability:

“effects have been demonstrated across an impressive range of practice-test formats, kinds of material, learner ages, outcome measures, and retention intervals”

The paper also reports evidence that practice testing (and also distributed practice or spacing out learning) works not just in the laboratory but also in representative real-life educational contexts. It also suggests feedback improves the effect:

“Practice testing with feedback also consistently outperforms practice testing alone”

The paper ends by suggesting that there are many factors which contribute to students and others failing to learn, and that improved learning techniques will not on their own improve learning – motivation, for instance, is also important. But the authors suggest that encouraging use of the higher utility techniques (such as practice testing and distributed practice) and discouraging students from using lower utility techniques such as rereading or highlighting would produce meaningful gains in learning.

3 Responses to “Only two out of ten learning techniques have high utility”

  1. Thank you John for this interesting blog and link to a research paper on effective techniques. I look forward to reading the paper. Meantime I assume that you are aware of the work on deliberate practice by K. Enders Ericsson at Florida State. Practice is cited as key to active and deep learning in the literature about serious games and simulations. I may be saying the obvious since I haven’t yet read the paper. Thanks again for posting a link.

  2. Very interesting. I would be curious to see how the utility would shift/change according to the learning curve. Considering the retention of information being sharpest after the initial attempts, then gradually evens out; would that change the rules of their respective utility ?

  3. admin says:

    Robert– Thank you for the comment and the reference.

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