David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

The Surprising Secret to Better Student Recall

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Last spring, a new study showed that students who took notes in longhand did substantially better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on a laptop. The results were, perhaps, not that surprising—until you consider that the laptops in the study had Internet access disabled.

It wasn’t that the laptop note-takers were more distracted. That may indeed be a valid concern with personal technology in the classroom, but it was not what Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California at Los Angeles set out to measure. Rather, their study suggests there are real differences between the utility of taking notes by hand and on a computer.

When students take notes on a laptop, the study concluded, the ease of data entry makes them more likely to transcribe everything the professor is saying. Students who take notes in longhand, in contrast, cannot write fast enough to get everything down and so must be selective. It is precisely that process—of summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road—that helps those who take notes on paper. Students who use laptops end up with neater, more easily searchable notes, but they may be denying themselves the opportunity to do the upfront processing that is a crucial factor, it seems, in long-term retention of class material.

The study’s results illustrate an example of what UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork has termed “desirable difficulties”--learning tasks that make students’ brains work a little bit harder in the name of better long-term memory. Our brains don’t function like audio recorders, saving everything we perceive. Instead, memories are cemented through frequent neural activity, and repeated encoding and retrieval processes. That’s what underlies the so-called “testing effect,” which I wrote about back in February. When we give our students frequent tests on important material, we force them to work to recall information. It is that mental work that makes for better long-term retention of whatever it is we want students to retain.

All of which means we should be giving our students frequent tests and quizzes on facts and concepts we want them to remember, and providing opportunities for students to do the mental work that will serve them down the line.

I suppose we could ban laptops from our classrooms to encourage longhand note-taking, though there are good reasons why such a policy may be unwise. But how else can we introduce desirable difficulties into our classrooms? I’ve summarized a few ways below, taken from the work of Bjork and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, also a UCLA professor of psychology:

Vary learning conditions. By always learning under the same conditions, our brains use cues from those conditions to help remember the material. When those cues are gone (i.e., when conditions change), what seemed learned can be forgotten. You need to come at your material in a variety of ways, so that your students learn within a variety of contexts. The same material can be learned through reading at home, listening to a lecture, problem solving in group exercises, doing class presentations, and on and on. Even varying the environmental setting helps: Research has shown that people who study the same material in two different rooms perform better on tests than those who study the material twice in the same room.

Interleave instruction. Studies have shown that students' long-term retention improves when topics are interleaved, rather than taught in homogeneous blocks. That is, instead of spending a whole class period on one topic before moving on to the next, spend 15 minutes each on three different topics, before returning to the first topic to cycle through again. By forcing your students to change gears often, you may be encouraging them to "reload" memories each time you return to a topic. That extra mental work is exactly the sort of difficulty that encourages better retention.

Space out study sessions. There's plenty of evidence that last-minute cramming, while often helpful in terms of short-term performance on exams, does not produce good results in terms of long-term retention of material. Students are better off studying throughout the term, returning frequently to material they've already studied. As instructors, therefore, we would serve our students well to move away from having a single exam-prep session at the end of term in favor of repeated (shorter) review sessions spread throughout the semester.

It's strange, perhaps, to think that we should be making it more difficult for our students to learn what we're trying to teach. Don't they have enough difficulties already? But we have to be careful to distinguish between what is easy to learn and what is retained for the long haul. Too often, it seems, the former does not become the latter. The material that we have the easiest time understanding is often the first thing that we forget. Concepts that we have to work to apprehend are more likely to stay with us. So spend some time this semester thinking about ways to make your students' learning a little more difficult. They may thank you for it, though probably not for a while.

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