Back to Basics: Faculty Friday, The Fight Against Forgetting
The Fight Against Forgetting
“So often we rob tomorrow’s memories by today’s economies.” – John Mason Brown
What do you want your students to remember most well from your class? And how well do you think they remember what you want them to? What tools do you have to equip them to improve their memory and fight forgetting?
For the next few Faculty Fridays, we will highlight some “Back to Basics” instructional strategies – borne out by the research – that faculty might find useful to improve the efficacy of instruction. Our source is Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, a 2007 practice guide from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).
Practice guides have two important characteristics. First, they convey concrete, actionable recommendations and, second, these recommendations are backed by supporting evidence from research-based studies. The authors judge the empirical support carefully: “[W]e have been mindful not only to the issue of whether a study meets the ‘gold-standard’ of a randomized trial, but also the question ‘Effective as compared to what?’… To recommend [a practice] … the question becomes ‘Is it more effective than the alternative it would likely replace?’” (p. 3)
Below is Recommendation 1 as an excerpt from the guide. (Note, this guide was intended primarily for educators in grades 3-12, but the authors believe their findings are generally extensible to higher education.)
Recommendation 1: Space Learning Over Time
“Arrange to review key elements of course content after a delay of several weeks to several months after initial presentation.
Evidence Level: Moderate
To help your students remember key facts, concept and knowledge, we recommend that instructors arrange for students to be exposed to key course concepts on at least two occasions—separated by a period of several weeks to several months. Research has shown that delayed re-exposure to course material often markedly increases the amount of information that students remember. The delayed re-exposure to the material can be promoted through homework assignments, in-class reviews, quizzes… or other instructional exercises. In certain classes, important content is automatically reviewed as the learner progresses through the standard….. This recommendation applies to those (very common) course situations in which important knowledge and skills are not automatically reviewed. (p. 5)
Some suggested approaches:
· Identify key concepts, terms, and skills to be taught and learned.
· Arrange for students to be exposed to each main element of material on at least two occasions, separated by a period of at least several weeks – and preferably several months.
· Arrange homework, quizzes, and exams in a way that promotes delayed reviewing of important course content. (p. 4)”
If you are teaching in an online course, you likely already incorporate aspects of this principle. Review assignments or sessions are common, and cumulative assignments or exams require review and synthesis of older and newer material. In weekly discussion boards, reflection questions, problem sets, or assignments later in your course, you can also purposefully include early material.
But how far apart should the spacing be? The guide suggests longer spacing is typically better than shorter. But how long is long? For the spacing effect to start to be evident, the practice guide suggests that the interval between instructional events should not be less than 5% of the length of time for which you want students to retain that information. For example, if you want students to retain information for at least two years (until, perhaps they would apply that knowledge regularly), the minimum interval should be about five weeks, and even longer can be further beneficial.
With that in mind, the distributed practice principle could be even more powerfully implemented if you pair up with colleagues teaching in the same program and compare how you teach and revisit material. First, if your courses are brief, the program-level view could be the only way to trigger points of connection and create review that is spaced more than several months. Second, it provides you the opportunity to validate whether critical program-level information has been given the benefit of a more efficacious practice. Your program design may already encourage reinforcement of major competencies and concepts throughout courses, but some important information or skills may be addressed more selectively, or in a course silo, that are worthwhile to reinforce in a cross-course, distributed practice strategy. This program-level view is an investment of time that can pay dividends in the fight against forgetting.
Next week we will discuss the second recommendation – Interleave Worked Example Solutions and Problem-Solving Exercises – and see what the research suggests is the best practice. Join us on August 14th. .