Studies Find 'Easy' Material May Not Be Easy to
By Sarah D. Sparks
Education Week
April 21, 2011

...While learning does take place in the classroom, via instruction and other
kinds of guided activities, "as students progress from elementary school
through secondary school and into college, an increasing amount of
learning is expected to take place outside of the classroom via independent
study,” said Katherine A. Rawson, an assistant professor of psychology at
Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio, who studies how students think about
learning. “So increasingly, a student’s academic success is going to depend
on how well they can effectively regulate study. But students aren’t
particularly well equipped to do this.”

That’s because the same study strategies that have been found to be the
most effective at helping students remember material long term—among
them self-testing long chunks of material and spacing out study sessions
over days or weeks before the final exam—don’t make students feel they’ve
mastered the material. A student has to think harder to recall the definition
of a word in a list of 30 than in a list of five, and it’s also easier to remember
material during the course of one long study session than to recall material
studied several days earlier.

As a result, studies show a student will feel more confident that he or she
has “mastered” material after using study strategies that are less mentally
difficult: studying short chunks of material rather than the whole batch, or
else cramming in one long session before the test.

Unfortunately, those strategies don’t work, according to a series of studies
presented at the AERA meeting in New Orleans this month. For her studies,
Ms. Rawson asked college-aged students to study a pack of 35 flashcards
that paired Swahili vocabulary words with their English translations. The
students were asked to practice until they got the vocabulary correct using
either the entire stack or five stacks of seven cards each. Researchers
instructed students to study the flashcards until they had gotten each
translation correct either once, five, or 10 times, before taking a final quiz a
week later.

There was no real contest in the most effective strategy, Ms. Rawson found.
“There was substantial effect in increasing from practicing until correct once
to five times correct, almost a three-fold improvement in performance,” she
said. Also, “one big stack is better than five little ones.”

Yet the test-takers didn’t predict that. Before the test, students reported that
they expected studying smaller groups of flashcards would be more helpful
than studying the big stack, and they expected no real benefit from studying
more cards at once. They remembered about as many words as they
expected to recall when studying the entire pack, 43 percent to 46 percent.
Yet those who had studied the small stacks expected to remember nearly
60 percent of words and recalled only 17 percent.
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