By Philip Higham, Ph.D., University of Southampton
Technology is having a huge impact on all aspects of our lives. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Snapchat might have sounded like rock-and-roll bands two decades ago! Today they are all part of the modern lingo and most young people have an account with one or more of these services.
Education is not exempt from the impact of technology. Gone are days of lectures being delivered with chalkboards and students taking copious notes on blank pieces of paper. Chalkboards have been replaced with software such as PowerPoint, which is used to present lecture material in the form of digital “slides.” Moreover, students commonly rely on laptops and tablets to take notes and have access to lecture material that they can download prior to lectures. Sometimes, that downloadable material consists of copies of the lecture slides themselves, which may relieve the pressure on students to take many notes at all during lectures.
For educators, technology is developing so quickly it is often difficult to decide what is the best way to use it to enhance education. One problem in making good decisions about this issue is that students and educators alike often fall for metacognitive illusions (e.g., Yan, Bjork, & Bjork, 2016). These illusions are false beliefs or assumptions about the way that memory works. They often stem from a common but false heuristic that “if learning is fluent and easy, then I will remember what I learn for a long time.” Thus, students often feel they learn more from a fluently-presented lecture compared to a disfluently presented one, or from massing their learning (i.e. cramming) rather than spacing it (i.e. spreading study time over several short, spaced intervals). Fluently-delivered lectures or reviewing material when related material is already in working memory, as it would be during a cramming session, make learning seem easy and hence memorable. However, the data do not support these assumptions. As long as the same material is taught, the fluency of lecture delivery seems to make little difference to later test performance (and sometimes even favors disfluent delivery). Similarly, even though it is harder, hundreds of studies have shown that it is better to engage in multiple, short learning sessions distributed over time than to learn material in a single marathon session (see Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, & Rohrer, 2006 for a review).
Instead, enduring memories are usually formed under learning conditions which Robert Bjork from UCLA describes as desirably difficult (see Bjork & Bjork, 2011). According to this principle, the presence of difficult but surmountable obstacles that create disfluency and slow the process of learning are usually good for learning, and not things to avoid at all costs. Much like the common adage applied to physical exercise – “no pain, no gain” – if learning is to last for longer than 24 hours, it usually requires effort.
Does that mean that teaching should be a sadistic process of turning simple concepts into difficult ones so students will remember them? Of course not. That is where the term “desirable” comes in; speaking in a foreign language that students don’t understand or deliberately cutting sentences short to make an incomprehensible lecture would create undesirable difficulties rather than desirable ones. However, there are desirably difficult activities that can be easily implemented in lectures or tutorials, and there are some modern technological advances that can facilitate this.
One activity that I have started implementing regularly in my large classes is interpolated testing (e.g., Szpunar, Khan, & Schacter, 2013). Instead of speaking for the full length of the lecture, break your lecture into several segments of, say, ten minutes each separated by three-minute pauses. Have your students do nothing but listen during the ten-minute segments. Then, during the pause, use a tool such as MeeToo1 to have students answer a series of questions about the previous lecture segment using their smartphone or tablet. Once the time is up, provide some feedback, and then continue on to the next lecture segment. If you do not have access to a tool like MeeToo, then ask your students to generate on paper some key points about the preceding segment during the pause.
Interpolated testing has been shown to not only enhance memory for the material being tested (i.e. the previous lecture segment), but it also facilitates learning of the upcoming lecture segments, most likely because of improved attention (e.g., Jing, Szpunar, & Schacter, 2016). It also reduces negative feelings toward high-stakes cumulative exams (Szpunar et al., 2013). In other words, there are multiple benefits to interpolated testing. And, far from being tortuous, most students enjoy the activity even though being tested during lecture pauses can be quite difficult. It wakes them up, gives them a challenge, and helps them to monitor their understanding.
Generally, technology-enabled learning has great potential, but it is important that educators base their decisions about how to use that technology on the science of learning rather than intuition. If you use these tools to have your students engage in retrieval practice over spaced intervals, which is what the activity described above is all about, then you are bound to see good results because countless studies dating back to the 1800s show that they work (for a review of the benefits of retrieval practice, see Rowland, 2014, and for spaced practice, see Benjamin & Tullis, 2010). Furthermore, your students will enjoy the activity as well!
1 MeeToo is software that allows students to anonymously answer questions and take polls in class using their smartphones, tablets, or laptops. Instructors can then display results to the whole class. See https://www.meetoo.com.
Benjamin, A. S., & Tullis, J. (2010). What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61(3), 228-247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2010.05.004
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (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.
Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354–380. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.3.354
Jing, H. G., Szpunar, K. K., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Interpolated testing influences focused attention and improves integration of information during a video-recorded lecture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 22(3), 305–318. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000087
Rowland, C. A. (2014). The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: A meta-analytic review of the testing effect. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1432–1463. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037559
Szpunar, K. K., Khan, N. Y., & Schacter, D. L. (2013). Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(16), 6313–6317. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1221764110
Yan, V. X., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2016). On the difficulty of mending metacognitive illusions: A priori theories, fluency effects, and misattributions of the interleaving benefit. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(7), 918–933. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000177
Philip Higham, Ph.D. is a Reader in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Southampton. His research focuses on long-term human memory and metacognition as well as methods to ensure that student learning endures over time.