Unless you’ve been napping under a LatB rock, you’ve heard about the importance of research-based study habits.
In particular, you know that students should spread practice out over time rather than bunching practice all together. (The benefits are called the spacing effect.)
And, you know that students should not simply look over what they already know. Instead, they should quiz themselves to see what they can actively retrieve from memory. (That’s called retrieval practice.)
Here’s a little secret you might not know: most of the research about the spacing effect and retrieval practice takes place in psychology labs.
What happens in the real world? Do students who use these techniques actually learn more than those who don’t?
Asking Students about their Study Habits
In a recent study, Fernando Rodriguez and colleagues surveyed students about their study practices.
Do these students space practice over time? Do they do all of their studying all in one session?
Perhaps they quiz themselves on what they know? Or, perhaps they reread the textbook?
Rodriguez & Co. then compared these answers to the students’ grade in the class. By this method, they could tease out the effects of spacing and retrieval practice on actual learning.
So: did these research-endorsed study habits translate into classroom learning?
No. And, Yes.
Rodriguez found mixed results.
Study habits that spaced practice out didn’t make any difference. Students who crammed and students who studied material in several brief sessions got the same final grade.
(I’ll propose an explanation for this finding below.)
However, retrieval practice made a clearly measurable difference. Students who reviewed material averaged a B-. Those who self-tested averaged a B.
Given that both study techniques take the same amount of time, it obviously makes sense to self-test. Students who do so learn more. Retrieval practice just works.
Spacing Doesn’t Help? Or, Spacing Already Helped?
If we’ve got so much research showing the benefits of spacing, why didn’t it help students in this class?
We don’t know for sure, but one answer stands out as very probable: the professor already did the spacing for the students.
That is: the syllabus included frequent review sessions. It had several cumulative tests. The class structure itself required students to think about the material several times over the semester.
Even if students wanted to cram, they couldn’t wait until the last moment to review. The test schedule alone required them to review multiple times.
So: the students’ own additional spacing study habits didn’t help.
However, in a class where the professor hadn’t required spacing, it most likely would have done so.
The Bigger Picture
This possibility, in my view, underlines a bigger point about spacing and retrieval practice:
For the most part, students have primary responsibility for retrieval practice, whereas teachers have primary responsibility for spacing.
That is: students — especially older students — should learn to review by using retrieval practice strategies. (Of course, especially with younger students, teachers should teach RP strategies. And, offer frequent reminders.)
Teachers — in our turn — should design our courses to space practice out. (Of course, students should do what they can to space practice as well.)
In other words: retrieval practice is largely a study habit. Spacing is largely a teaching habit.
Students will get the most benefit from this research when we divide up responsibility this way.