The Psychological Science of Studying, Learning, and Teaching

The academic year has begun throughout much of the world, with students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels facing the challenges of new classes and research pursuits. Research published in APS journals shows some of the strategies and traits associated with student success.

Retrieval and Distributed Practice Can Boost Students’ Study Strategies

Using flashcards, reviewing notes, and rereading textbooks probably isn’t teaching students as much as they think: Real learning is an effortful process, says Toshi Miyatsu, a graduate research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. An overview of the research suggests that spacing out study sessions and doing the hard work of recalling information from memory instead of passively reviewing materials can make all the difference come exam time.

Miyatsu, T., Nguyen, K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2018). Five popular study strategies: Their pitfalls and optimal implementations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 390–407. doi:10.1177/1745691617710510

Efficient Learners May Remember More

Psychological science suggests that people who learn fast may also remember what they’ve learned longer. A team of researchers found that the speed at which language learners memorized Lithuanian and English words was linked with their ability to recall foreign vocabulary up to 3 years later. This hints at relationships among efficient learning and processing speed, general memory, and intellectual ability.

Theobald, M., Bellhäuser, H., & Imhof, M. (2018). Identifying individual differences using log-file analysis: Distributed learning as mediator between conscientiousness and exam grades. Learning and Individual Differences, 65, 112–122. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2018.05.019

How to Learn What Not to Study

Research out of the University of Maryland suggests that students can more accurately evaluate their own knowledge by framing understanding in terms of what they do know instead of what they will know. Students who dropped study terms based on how confident they felt in the moment were “overwhelmingly” better at identifying what they didn’t need to restudy than were those who focused on the future, says coauthor Alison Robey.

Robey, A. M., Dougherty, M. R., & Buttaccio, D. R. (2017). Making retrospective confidence judgments improves learners’ ability to decide what not to study. Psychological Science, 28, 1683–1693. doi:10.1177/0956797617718800

Balancing Speaking and Listening for Language Learning

Listening to a native speaker can do wonders for students’ comprehension of a new language, but production practice may benefit language learners’ understanding as well. A study by psychological scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that students who learned an artificial language by receiving immediate feedback from peers outperformed those who listened to recorded speech. Production practice also has the potential to generalize across vocabulary, grammar, and other aspects of language, wrote APS Fellow Maryellen MacDonald and graduate student Elise Hopman.

Hopman, E. W., & Macdonald, M. C. (2018). Production practice during language learning improves comprehension. Psychological Science, 29, 961–971. doi:10.1177/0956797618754486

Trying to Get Ahead? Plan in Reverse

We tend to be the most enthusiastic about a project at the beginning and the end, but what about the time in between? According to an international team of researchers from the Peking University HSBC Business School, the Korea University Business School, and the University of Iowa, graduate students looking to make the most of their education might want to try working backwards. Over the course of five studies, participants who used “future retrospection” to envision the steps just before their goal were found to be more motivated than were those who planned in chronological order.

Park, J., Lu, F., & Hedgcock, W. (2018). Relative effects of forward and backward planning on goal pursuit. Psychological Science, 29, 312–313. doi:10.1177/0956797617752922

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