Friday, January 11, 2013

Learning by Retrieval - Forget Highlighting

Highlights everywhere with different marker colors. Blue, orange, green, yellow. The most common sense studying strategy my kids' teachers use with their pupils. I've always wondered what the meaning of all that was, as my kids tend to highlight almost everything! I've questioned myself what the connection was between disconnecting parts of a text with not much methodology to it. And I've asked my kids how they decided what to highlight. They'd just say, "my teacher told us to highlight the important parts if the text". The funny thing is that they considered everything important, so it meant that the pages simply changed colors!

My suspect of the total inefficiency of such common-sense practice is corroborated by scientific research and also mentioned in a Time article In "Highlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques", author Annie Murphy Paul explores what I had suspected - studying strategies being used by students are the least effective for retention. Annie points out that according to a report by psychologists in Kent State University, highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing are considered to be of “low utility” in the learning process.

In contrast to these ineffective strategies, research about how memory works has shown that some of the most useful ways in which we can help our students learn and keep it in their long-term memories has much more to do on how we retrieve the information over time. As Dr. Spitzer puts it in a very interesting post by Larry Ferlazzo  about brain-based learning in the classroom,

We thought for many years that the best way to learn is to study, study, and study some more in preparation for a test. However,recent research has demonstrated that although studying is good, and indeed is essential, consistently practicing the ability to recall information is even more effective. 
Evaluation of long-term retention of knowledge has revealed that a sequence of study-test-study-test-study-test is more effective than a sequence of study-study-study-study-study-test. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it tells us that repeated testing, involving retrieval of information, assists in consolidation of the learning process. Students can use it as a method of studying or teachers can enforce it with quizzes and other informal assessments.

When I look back into my own teaching practice, I've realized that, intuitively, I've been on the right track to help my students learn, and these are some strategies I've used that seem to have scientific foundation, mainly if you consider the research from Dr.
  •  Roediger III 

  • ( )Their study shows that repeated retrieval practice in tests generates great benefits for long-term retention.  What I've been doing that you might find useful:
    •  Every beginning of class, I'd find a different way to retrieve the content we had previously studied through different forms of mini-quizzes; they wouldn't take long, but they would be broad enough to include content not only from previous classes, but distributed subjects that we had seen during our time together as I am not teaching for test taking, but for true learning.
    • I had a place on the board called "the Learning Cycle" in which I'd invite learners to retrieve info, ideas, thoughts from previous classes.
    • I' d encourage students to create quizzes for their partners
    What I am going to further explore in my classes this year:

    • Having this test-study-test-study practice cycle in mind, I want to raise students' awareness about it through the exploration of techniques, such as the creation of digital flashcards, using Quizlet and Evernote flashcards for constant retrieval.
    • I want to engage my students in a reflective practice of learning strategies that really work
    • I hope to explore engaging ways to keep testing knowledge through quizzes, challenges, digital projects

    Finally, I need to keep becoming a better informed educator about recent studies in the neuroscientific field to guide my teaching without preconceived, ineffective ideas that will do no good for my students in their learning process, for I want them to have learning that "sticks" to their long-term memory through engaging retrieval practices. Highlighting no more!


    1. Carla

      Thanks for this. It's all about engaging with the material isn't it?

      And I agree that, as educators, we need to keep ourselves informed of the latest developments in neuroscience.

      1. Tom, yes! It is all about engaging with the material, but, mainly it is about practicing and testing, testing it again through retrieval. And that's what I found revealing about the latest findings.
        What we need to consider is the best way to assess students and to help them use self-assessment strategies to make learning stick to their long-term memories.

    2. Hi Carla,

      Lots of food for thought here. I will explore the articles as we go in #BRainElt.

      Thanks for sharing.


    3. Dear Rose, great to see your interest in keeping exploring the topic in our EVO session.

    4. Carla, I agree that highlighting is not a useful strategy; however, annotating may be a more productive way to engage with a text. For example, through the process of annotating, students can make connections between various readings, write questions that they might be curious about, and note summaries of the main points that they can refer to later.

    5. Sure, Mary! In fact, if the students use their notes to create self-tests, this is even more helpful. What I've learned from this research is that assessment in its many different forms is a powerful tool to make learning stick. So, if the students can learn how to use their notes to test themselves, even more powerful! What happens many times is that students create notes when they are studying but just one day before the test, then this is not much of a help. They need to keep engaging with the material time and time again. So, if we can help them develop these strategies, then we'll help them take their learning process to another level in which it really becomes part of their long-term memory.

    6. Hi Carla! Great text! I particularly like the part about testing. I like tests and so do my adult students. I don`t know who started it: whether I passed my enthusiasm on them or their needs sparkled the enthusiasm in me. Anyway, we all find guidelines for our future work in our tests: they for their learning and I for my teaching.I`ll just share one beautiful quote with you:`“Your theory of second language acquisition can be put into practice every day in the classroom, but you will never know how valid your theory is unless you systematically measure the success of your learners - the success of your theory-in- practice.” Douglas Brown

    7. Wow! Interesting! I'm a real highlighting fan!! Actually, I would love someone to invent a highlighter+pencil device. I always use both at the same time and have both my hands occupied, highlighter in one + pencil in the other.
      I make notes at the side of the page as umbrella terms which summarize paragraph topics and mark examples of what I'm reading or draw arrows and pictures with a pencil to connect these ideas (in relation to what you mention about how highlighting diconnected parts of the text).
      Without giving it much thought I would state that highlighting is beneficial, because I find it is for me. But true... I suppose different people prefer to use different strategies and it depends if you're really engaging in the text or not. It seems to be difficult for some people to actually know what to highlight, what is really important in the text.
      Thanks for this!

    8. Thanks, girls, for stopping by. And I agree with you that it all depends on our preferred ways of retrieving information. I highlight and write notes, but what research has shown is that you need to find effective ways of retrieving information. And when I mean tests, I don´t mean just in the formal sense, but as different kinds of assessment.
      Karen, one of our friends in the brainelt session, has written a very nice post based on this one, and we´ve been discussing there:

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