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Principles of effective learning

We now turn to a few empirical principles, derived from decades of research, that are known to improve learning. These principles willnot all apply to every learning situation; however, each of them has been sufficiently demonstrated through carefully controlled scientificstudies to merit mentioning them here.

The overarching goal here is to select processing strategies that will increase the likelihood of a learner recalling new information at alater point in time.

Activate prior knowledge

One of the most important cognitive principles for a teacher to keep in mind is the importance of relating information from long-termmemory to information newly entering the system. Recall our discussion of elaborative rehearsal earlier, in which I indicated thatmaking a connection to prior knowledge is a superior learning method to simply repeating information over and over without altering it.

Any good lesson-plan format begins the class with some form of prior-knowledge activation. It might be a reminder or a brief reviewof what was studied in the previous day's lesson, or it could be a question similar to, “Have you ever had a problem you couldn'tsolve?” The purpose of this phase of the lesson is to activate prior knowledge–i.e., bring long-term memories back into working memory–sothat new knowledge can be mingled with old with the result of more solid understanding of the new (and perhaps even the old) information.

Demonstration activity

Remember that having prior knowledge is not good enough; that knowledge needs to be activated in order to make use of it. Go to (External Link) and notice that you will identify previously seen words more quickly than “new” words(which you have prior knowledge of, but have not recently been activated).


This is one principle that applies to a rather restricted set of instructional situations, but it is so powerful that it deservesmention here. In contexts where there is a list of items to commit to memory, the task of memorizing the list will be much easier if theitems are grouped together (i.e., organized) in a meaningful way. This also works as a basic memory strategy in everyday life—thinkabout your latest visit to the grocery store and imagine remembering a rather random assortment of items versus grouping the dairy itemstogether, the produce items together, etc.

Deep processing

It is easy to become convinced that if a student spends, say, twenty hours reviewing for an exam, that student should be expected to excelon the exam. However, cognitive studies show that it is not specifically the time one spends studying that matters most; what one does during that time matters even more.

Consider, for example, the all-too-common exam-preparation strategy of using flash cards. Students often take terms from the textbook orclass discussions, write them down on flash cards, and then rehearse what is written down until the flash cards are memorized. Such astudent will walk into the exam confident that the material has been thoroughly mastered. The problem with this approach to studying isthat the student has only done “surface-level processing” of the material, rather than “deep” processing. It is surface-levelbecause the student has memorized terms and definitions rather than truly understanding the meaning and applications of those concepts.

Deep processing happens when one uses elaborative rehearsal to connect a concept to other concepts that are already known or are being learned. For example, one could write a summary of a concept inone's own words to check for comprehension. Another approach to facilitate deep processing is to think of examples of the newlylearned concept from one's own life. One could even make up fictitious examples of the concept if no examples come to mind fromone's past experience.

The point is, learning that comes from surface-level processing is not durable. One does not remember the content of flash cards for verylong after the exam. But spending the same amount of time (or even less time) meaningfully engaged with the to-be-learned ideas canresult in learning that could last for a lifetime.

Distributed practice

There is one final principle for effective learning that must be mentioned here. To be the most effective learner, one should“space” or “distribute” one's studying over a period of time. Attempting to cram a lot of learning into one or two concentratedstudy sessions rarely works. Research cannot prescribe the specific number or length of study sessions required to maximizelearning—there are too many variables to account for (e.g., one's prior knowledge of thetopic, one's knowledge of related topics, the quality of one's study strategies, etc.). But the benefits ofdistributing one's study sessions over a period of time are well documented in the research literature.

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