There are many misconceptions about effective learning and studying. One of these false beliefs is that repetition is the key to remembering; the more someone encounters material, the better the likelihood of retaining the information long-term. I can still remember, after receiving a test grade that I wasn’t thrilled with, believing that I would’ve done better if I’d just gone over the material more times. It is a belief that permeates throughout all levels of education and learning…and it is quite incorrect. Worse than that, when it doesn’t improve students’ grades, repetition can contribute to learners’ overall negative thoughts about studying and homework and school.
Here’s a simple example to demonstrate how simply encountering material doesn’t equate with learning. Look at the image below and see if you can pick out the penny that is correct:
It’s quite difficult to do, right?* And, surely, you’ve encountered the penny hundreds, if not thousands of times. Sorry to my readers who are not from America…I’m sure the impact of this demonstration can be adapted for other currencies. Just try to draw one of your coins with all of its components in the correct position. (1)
Another easy example is to try and locate the nearest fire extinguisher or fire alarm to you right now. Don’t look around. Where is it? You’ve likely walked past it numerous times. Again, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Simply encountering this information or seeing these objects several times doesn’t mean it is learned. (2)
After taking my students through these examples, I often continue the discussion by introducing the idea of cognitive effort and the difference between cognitively easy and cognitively effortful studying.
“Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.” (3)
Rereading is usually cognitively easy. Highlighting key terms/concepts is cognitively easy. These practices repeated several times are not very efficient or effective for increasing retention of material. Instead, students should create a much healthier habit of studying using retrieval practice. This learning strategy is much more cognitively effortful. Quizzing/testing/assessing one’s knowledge via answering recognition or recall questions, for example, is more difficult than simply rereading notes. A plethora of studies have shown evidence that this increased cognitive effort led to greater gains in retention of material long-term.**
Said another way, students should allow for opportunities during studying for desirable difficulties. (4) By providing situations where they must apply their learning in an effortful manner, while still being able to complete the task (that’s the ‘desirable’ part), students are more efficiently and effectively studying. And, just maybe, more effective studying = more knowledge retained = better assessment grades = more motivated students = reinforcement for overall healthier study habits.
“Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.” (5)
It isn’t the repetition of studying that yields positive results. The cognitive effort exerted during that studying is what appears to matter. While this may seem somewhat obvious to teachers, many students don’t understand this tenet of learning. I highly recommend considering replicating the penny memory test in your classroom and having an explicit conversation about this topic with students. And, to be fair, this would be a powerful topic for professional development/learning for teachers, too. While more educators are becoming aware of these principles of learning, there is certainly still work to do.
* Letter A is the correct penny.
**The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practices provides a nice synthesis of some of this research.
- Nickerson, R. S., & Adams, M. J. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object. Cognitive psychology, 11(3), 287-307.
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press, 12-13.
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press, 3.
- Bjork, Elizabeth & Bjork, Robert. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. 56-64.
Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press, 43.