Could This Technique Improve Online Education?

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I’ve written before about the effectiveness of retrieval practice—that is, calling up the information you need to know from your own memory, rather than reading over it on the page. Each time you do this, you strengthen the memory trace and make it more likely you’ll remember the information when you need it.

Retrieval practice, also known as the testing effect, may also make online learning more effective, according to a new study. From the blog of cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham:

“A great deal has been written about the impact of retrieval practice on memory. That’s because the effect is sizable, it has been replicated many times, and it seems to lead not just to better memory but deeper memory that supports transfer [i.e., from one context to another].

. . . Now researchers have reported testing as a potentially powerful ally in online learning. College students frequently report difficulty in maintaining attention during lectures, and that problem seems to be exacerbated when the lecture occurs on video.

In this experiment subjects were asked to learn from a 21 minute video lecture on statistics. They were also told that the lecture would be divided in 4 parts, separated by a break. During the break they would perform math problems for a minute, and then would either do more math problems for two more minutes (‘untested group’), they would be quizzed for two minutes on the material they had just learned (‘tested group’), or they would review by seeing questions with the answers provided (‘restudy group’).

. . . There were a few interesting findings. First, tested students took more notes than other students, and reported that their minds wandered less during the lecture. The reduction in mind-wandering and/or increase in note-taking paid off—the tested subjects outperformed the restudy and the untested subjects when they were quizzed on the fourth, final segment.

The researchers added another clever measure. There was a final test on all the material, and they asked subjects how anxious they felt about it. [One might think] the frequent testing [would make] learning rather nerve-wracking. In fact, the opposite result was observed: tested students were less anxious about the final test. (And in fact performed better: tested = 90%, restudy = 76%, nontested = 68%).” (Read more here.)

I’ve written (here and here) about the miserably low completion rate for MOOCs. Perhaps one reason students so often drop out of these online classes is that their attention wanders and they lose the thread of what the professor is talking about. Incorporating retrieval practice into online education could be one way to keep them on track.

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One Response to “Could This Technique Improve Online Education?”

  1. ashok b says:

    I don’t know about the other MOOCs, but Udacity’s format is perfect for maintaining learner attention, interest and retention. The format includes a 3-4 minute video, following by a quiz related to the matter, and then a 1-2 minute explanation of the answer to the quiz.

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