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Strategies for effective learning

As we looked at in the article on Cognitive Load, something is learned when it is transferred from short-term to long-term memory and either linked to our existing schema or used as the starting point for a new schema. This process takes repeated practice and recall to ensure that the any knowledge, skills and understanding are firmly transferred and embedded. However, our working memory, the part of short-term memory in which we can manipulate information, has very limited capacity and is easily overloaded. This article explores some of the teaching strategies you can use to help this process and support your students in remembering and understanding more.

Effective Modelling

However, before we look at the strategies, first let’s consider teacher modelling, the process where a teacher explains or demonstrates the concept or process to the students. This is a key aspect of teaching and should form part of every lesson. When modelling, it is advisable to follow a narrative (story) structure, as this will help students understand and follow what you are trying to explain (Willingham, 2009). Using this structure is helpful in a number of ways as we are all very familiar with a narrative structure having listened to, read and explored stories from a young age. In addition, the structure makes it easier for students to recall, link and move between key information as they can see how they flow on from one another.

Strategies to support learning:

The following strategies are based on a range of cognitive psychology research which supports their effectiveness in enabling learning (Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2019).

  • Retrieval Practice – Plan tasks and questions which require students to regularly recall relevant information from their long-term memories. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as, free writing, concept maps, flashcards or short quizzes.

  • Elaboration – Get students to think more deeply by getting them to explain and describe concepts and processes in more detail and depth. Encourage them to make links between ideas and think how they are similar and different, as well as how they might link to their own real-life experiences or situations.

  • Use of concrete examples – Wherever possible, provide examples and models which students can use to ‘hook’ their understanding and knowledge onto.

  • Dual-coding – Combine spoken words and visual representations when modelling processes or concepts to students. However, keep pictures or diagrams simple and easy to read. You want them to compliment what is being explained, not distract from it.

  • Spaced Practice – Planning in opportunities for the students to review and recall material at regular intervals but varying the length between these review points.

  • Interleaving – Alternating between ideas rather than focusing on one idea for too long, this challenges a student to think about and actively recall the information they need. For example, if you are setting a science quiz you could organise the questions into different sections focussed on biology, chemistry and physics, this is called ‘blocking’. Alternatively, you could mix all the question up, this is called ‘interleaving’. Don’t interleave every test or quiz as blocking questions is a good way to practice and embed knowledge and processes. Aim for around one third interleaved to two thirds blocked.

As previously said, there is a huge variety of research and resources available in this area, however, a good place to start is The Learning Scientists website.

References:

Weinstein, Y. and Sumeracki, M. (2019) Understanding how we learn: a visual guide. London: Routledge.

Willingham, D.T. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? : A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

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Professional Development for Early Career Teachers

UEA (University of East Anglia)