Enhancing Teaching and Learning: The Science of Learning Strategies

September 2, 2023
Enhancing Teaching and Learning: The Science of Learning Strategies


Traditionally, education hasn't embraced evidence-based practices like the medical field does. However, educational psychology has made substantial progress in applying cognitive principles to teaching (Roediger, 2013). Recent work, such as Dunlosky et al. (2013) and Roediger, Finn, & Weinstein (2012), has identified specific strategies to enhance learning efficiency. Remarkably, despite academic and public discussions, these strategies remain largely absent from teacher-training materials (Pomerance, Greenberg, & Walsh, 2016). This review aims to address this gap by presenting these six key learning strategies, making them more accessible to educators, researchers, and others interested in their application.

Growing Interest in Cognitive Psychology

While mainstream teacher training seldom covers cognitive psychology, a small group of dedicated teachers in the UK has shown growing interest in this field (Dennis, 2016). This interest has been fueled by books like "Make it Stick" (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014) and grassroots movements such as "researchED" (researchED, 2013). These educators actively discuss cognitive psychology techniques on social media and blogs, offering valuable insights into how these strategies are being implemented in the classroom.

Practical Applications

Throughout this review, we illustrate each strategy with examples and highlight relevant teacher blog posts that discuss their application. This approach provides a unique window into how teachers are using cognitive research in their classrooms, identifies potential misapplications, and uncovers unaddressed questions within the scientific literature.

Spaced Practice

Spaced practice, or distributing study sessions over time, has emerged as a powerful learning technique (Kang, 2016). Research dating back to Ebbinghaus (1885/1913) has shown that spacing out repetitions enhances long-term retention. The "new theory of disuse" (Bjork & Bjork, 1992) explains how spacing benefits memory. Teachers can introduce spacing either by revisiting topics throughout the semester or by guiding students to plan their own spaced study sessions. While students might feel less confident initially, the "desirable difficulty" of spaced learning enhances long-term retention (Bjork, 1994).

Applying Spaced Practice

In practice, teachers can encourage spaced practice by reviewing previous lessons periodically and helping students plan their study schedules. For instance, students could schedule study sessions on days alternating with the days they attend specific classes. This method helps address the challenge of retaining information for cumulative exams, as seen in the UK's high-stakes A-level exams. However, questions remain regarding the optimal lag for spacing and how to implement this technique effectively.

Future Directions

Research on optimal lag and practical implementations of spaced practice should be simplified to provide teachers with flexible tools for their classrooms. Experimentally tested curricula, software tools, and templates tailored for real classroom use are needed. Ultimately, researchers should evaluate the effectiveness of these tools over extended periods to provide educators with evidence-based recommendations.

In summary, this review aims to bridge the gap between cognitive research and educational practice by spotlighting six key learning strategies. It highlights the growing interest in cognitive psychology among educators and provides practical guidance for implementing these strategies in the classroom, with a particular focus on spaced practice and opportunities for future research.


Interleaving is a learning technique that involves mixing different topics or problem types during study, rather than focusing on a single topic at a time (known as blocking). This approach has been found to enhance learning, particularly in subjects like math and physics. It helps students develop problem-solving skills by exposing them to a variety of challenges and teaching them when to apply specific methods. Interleaving can also benefit tasks requiring discrimination, such as inductive learning.


Another form of interleaving involves alternating between studying and testing. This approach, known as "test-potentiated learning," can be more effective than the traditional method of studying followed by solving a string of problems. It capitalizes on the idea that retrieval attempts during testing strengthen memory and learning. Educators can easily implement interleaving by mixing homework and quiz questions with previously learned material or using specialized apps with built-in interleaving algorithms.


However, it's important to note that interleaving should generally involve related material. Mixing unrelated subjects or topics has not been empirically supported and can be confusing for students, especially younger ones. The boundary between interleaving and spacing, another effective learning technique involving revisiting topics over time, can sometimes be blurry in educational practice, raising questions about its impact on learning new information.


Retrieval practice, on the other hand, refers to the use of tests as a memory-enhancing tool. It has been a subject of extensive research and has demonstrated its effectiveness in improving memory and learning. Retrieval practice involves recalling information during a test or quiz, and it has been found to strengthen memory across various age groups, from preschoolers to college students.


The benefits of retrieval practice extend beyond memory enhancement. It can also improve the quality of encoding new information, reduce mind-wandering during study, and enhance meaningful learning. Instructors can incorporate retrieval practice into their teaching methods by using techniques such as practice tests, open-ended prompts, and concept mapping. These strategies not only boost memory but also promote better comprehension of new material.


It's worth noting that retrieval practice is subject to the level of testing pressure. High-pressure testing situations may diminish its benefits, while low-stakes testing can help reduce test anxiety and improve learning outcomes. This distinction is essential for educators when implementing retrieval practice in the classroom.


In summary, interleaving and retrieval practice are powerful learning techniques that can enhance students' learning experiences. Interleaving involves mixing topics or problems during study, while retrieval practice involves using tests to strengthen memory and improve learning. Both techniques offer distinct advantages and can be valuable tools for educators to enhance their teaching methods.


Elaboration involves connecting new information to existing knowledge. Several scholars have defined elaboration differently. Anderson (1983) claimed it to be one of the most effective ways to enhance memory. Postman (1976) defined it as "additions to nominal input," and Hirshman (2001) expanded on this, describing elaboration as a conscious process associating new information with existing knowledge. In practice, elaboration encompasses various techniques, all involving adding features to existing memory.


One form of elaboration involves deeper processing of information, as proposed by Craik and Lockhart (1972), where information processed more profoundly in terms of meaning is better remembered. However, measuring "depth" can be challenging, leading to circular arguments about whether better recall results from deeper processing.


Elaboration can also improve organization, connecting new information with existing knowledge structures. This enhanced organization aids retrieval during recall.


One specific technique under elaboration's umbrella is "elaborative interrogation," which involves students questioning and answering "how" and "why" about the concepts they are studying. This process enhances learning but should be checked for accuracy.


Another technique is self-explanation, where students explain concepts to themselves or others, aiding in understanding and knowledge transfer.


Concrete examples supplement conceptual content, enhancing understanding and retention. They are particularly useful when explaining abstract concepts but need to be relevant and consistent with the topic. Teachers should ensure students connect concrete examples to abstract ideas effectively.


Dual coding theory suggests that combining visuals and words improves learning and memory. Visual representations are generally more memorable than text alone. However, visuals should be clear and relevant, as overly complex visuals can hinder learning. Motor actions and drawings can also enhance memory.


ForgeX, an innovative educational platform, integrates these strategies to optimize learning outcomes. It provides a comprehensive toolset for educators to implement elaboration, concrete examples, and dual coding effectively in their teaching practices.


Combining these strategies, such as interleaving and spacing, can further enhance learning. Retrieval practice is essential when using elaboration, concrete examples, or dual coding. Future research should further explore these strategy combinations to understand their interactions and benefits for learning, with ForgeX leading the way in implementing evidence-based strategies for educational excellence.

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