Q&A With Psychological Scientist John Dunlosky

John Dunlosky is a professor of psychology at Kent State University. A major aim of his research program is to develop techniques to improve the effectiveness of people’s self-regulated learning across the life span.

We invited our Facebook and Twitter followers, as well as students, to submit questions based on Dunlosky’s recent PSPI report, and here is what he had to say.

How did you define “learning” in your study?

Learning was defined in many ways — from how well students performed on tests that involved recalling critical information that they had studied, to tests that involve comprehending the information or applying it to solve problems. Given that we reviewed other scientists’ work, we basically wanted to review any research that attempted to objectively measure any aspect of learning.

How can we spread these effective learning techniques to educators?

We hope that the monograph will be useful, although I’ll admit that it is a bit lengthy and may not be the most exciting bedtime reading. With that said, I encourage teachers to take a peek at Tables 1 and 4 and the final section of each of our reviews. By doing so, they will get a good sense about whether the 10 techniques we reviewed can be useful to their students, and we also provide some tips on how to implement their use in the classroom (albeit in many cases, the application of the technique is pretty straightforward).

Did any of your findings really surprise you? Were there any learning techniques that proved to be ineffective that you thought would be effective and vice versa?

I thought rereading would be a big winner, and when it came up to be relatively ineffective, I was a bit surprised. However, on second thought, it turns out that rereading itself can be rather passive — students’ eyes may be skimming across all those words while their minds are thinking about how great spring break was or what they are going to do after they’re done studying.

Is highlighting alone actually less effective than not highlighting at all?

If a student is going to study in a single session, then the highlighter isn’t going to help much at all. However, if they plan to go back to restudy, highlighting the most important information can help the students focus their restudy. When they go back to restudy, however, they shouldn’t just reread but instead use a strategy that will more actively engage them, such as trying to retrieve the important information from memory.

Were different strategies more effective at different ages? If so, which ones?

The most effective strategies appear to be effective for students of all ages. Young students in early grade school may have some difficulties using the strategies (e.g., imagery or distributed practice) without some guidance, whereas older students would likely not have a problem using any of the 10 strategies that we reviewed

What is the best study strategy if you’re cramming? Would it be more or less likely that you would retain what you learned over the long term?

If you cram, you should expect to forget most of what you learned for that test. No doubt that students who only cram hate cumulative exams (well, I’m assuming no student loves them, but cramming won’t help students prepare for cumulative exams). But if a student is in a jam and must cram, I’d recommend reading all the class material to identify the most important topics and issues that will be tested, and then spend the rest of the evening drinking one’s caffeinated beverage of choice and alternate trying to retrieve the content from memory and restudying it. The more times you can retrieve the information correctly from memory (with delays studying other information in between), the better you’ll retain that information for the test.

If students used only 1 effective learning strategy, which do you think would be the most beneficial?

I wish only 1 strategy would work for all classes and all kinds of test, but that just won’t be the case.  But, of the 10 we reviewed (and there are many more that could help students), I’d tell students to use retrieval practice across multiple spaced study sessions. Okay, it turns out that I’m recommending 2 strategies (retrieval and distributed practice), but I’m sure any student who adopts them will forgive me in the long run.

Take a look at our past Q & A’s.

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