Five Learning Strategies that Work - Digital Promise

Five Learning Strategies that Work

February 7, 2015 | By

As the amount of information available to us grows each day, many people turn to “curated” websites to find news and ideas that are are most relevant to them. The education research and cognitive science fields are no different. Whereas a Google search for “learning techniques” returns over 400 million results, researchers Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Mitchell, and Willingham (2013) culled through hundreds of studies to provide a “curated” analysis of the 10 most effective learning techniques commonly used by students.

For each technique, the researchers provided a rating of its overall effectiveness as “high” “moderate” or “low.” To judge effectiveness, the researchers analyzed three things:

  1. Whether the techniques could be applied in different environments or with different students
  2. How easily they could be used by students and teachers
  3. The available evidence that shows improved learning outcomes

Two techniques – practice testing and distributed practice – were found to be highly effective. Three more – interleaved practice, elaborative interrogation, and self-explanation – were found to be moderately effective. Others, such as rereading and highlighting, were found to have “low effectiveness.”

Below, we provide more detail on each technique found to be highly and moderately effective.


Highly Effective Techniques


Practice Testing


Practice testing (sometimes called “retrieval practice”) involves frequent testing or quizzing over a period of time to encourage students’ recall of the material from memory. Over time, this makes the material “stick.” The key is to make sure that tests are “low” or “no-stakes.” In other words, this is meant as a learning technique, not for assessment. Practice testing can be done by an instructor, or students can test on their own.

There is a great deal of research to support practice testing. Dunlosky et al. found that it enhanced students’ learning and retention of material across hundreds of studies. In one example, students who were quizzed after studying a short text could recall significantly more information than students who were asked to reread it (Karpicke, 2007b). Further, Karpicke and Roediger (2008) found that undergraduate students’ performance on a language translation test was much better a week after testing (80 percent vs. 36 percent) than after solely studying the material.

The approach works with students of all ages and content areas, and with different types of content, such as texts and images. Students who used practice testing were able to recall information, but also apply it in new ways. More research is needed on how the technique works for learners with different abilities or prior knowledge.

Dunlosky et al. recommend educators provide ways for students to re-test frequently on their own and in class. Educators should consider leaving days or weeks between tests, rather than repeat testing on the same day. They should also provide feedback on students’ test performance, and allow students to freely produce answers (for example, use short-answer instead of fill-in-the-blank).


Distributed Practice


Distributed practice (sometimes called “spacing”) involves spreading out learning sessions for a new concept or idea over time, rather than all at once.

There is a wealth of studies that demonstrates the benefits of this practice. Cepeda et al (2006) reviewed 254 studies, and found that students across studies recalled 10 percent more information after spaced study than after massed (all at one time) study. In general, spacing learning across weeks or months led to better long-term gains in learning.

Distributed practice can be used with all ages of learners, and research studies have found positive effects across many content areas and types of material, such as vocabulary, text, lectures, images, and skill development. Additional research is needed to determine whether the technique works well with highly-complex material.

To use distributed practice, educators should introduce a new topic or subject, and then return to it at regular intervals over time. They can also coach students in using this technique, and consider more frequent in-class tests to encourage repeated out-of-class study of the same material. To maximize students’ long-term retention of the material, they should leave long intervals of time, such as weeks or months, between practice and review sessions.


Moderately Effective Techniques



Dunlosky et al. rated the following three techniques as moderately effective. Compared to the “highly effective” techniques, these are more difficult to apply in different environments or with different students, and have less evidence to support their role in improving learning.


Interleaved Practice


Interleaved practice refers to alternating practice of different skills within the same block of time (abcabcabc), as compared to blocked practice in which subtopics are studied one after another (aaabbbccc). Of the studies that show positive effects on learning, math was the content most commonly used for interleaving. Rohrer and Taylor (2007) found that college students in a geometry class who used interleaved instead of block practice were 43 percent more accurate on a test given a week after studying the material. In 2010, Taylor and Rohrer tested the technique with fourth graders learning math, and found that accuracy the day after the lesson was much higher for students who used interleaved practice (77 percent) than for those who used blocked practice (38 percent).

Although interleaved practice seems promising, there has not been enough research to support it as a best practice. It has been used with elementary, middle, high school, and college students, but results were mixed for all groups. It is also unclear whether it works for content areas other than math.

To successfully use this technique, instructors should provide a long introduction to the material (before alternating between new and old material). They may also want to use this technique with math as a first step before venturing into other content areas, where its benefit is less well-known.


Elaborative Interrogation


Most educators have likely used elaborative interrogation without even knowing it. For this technique, educators ask students to explain why a fact or concept is true.

Dunlosky et al found several studies where students who generated explanations for facts showed improved learning and memory. In one study by Pressley et al. (1987), students who were asked to explain a fictional man’s actions were nearly two times more likely to correctly recall the man’s actions on a final test than students who were asked to simply read the sentence, or were told why the man did what he did.

Elaborative interrogation has been shown to work best with upper elementary, middle, and high school students. Additionally, it’s most effective when students already have background knowledge on a topic, and when learning factual information. Despite its possible benefits, research to date has focused on testing students immediately after they used the technique, and mostly with the recall of facts. More research is needed to determine whether the technique helps students retain information over time and apply learning in new ways.

Instructors can easily implement elaborative interrogation by asking students questions like, “Why is this true?” “Why does it make sense that…?” or even just, “Why?” And, when the concepts are complex, it may help for instructors to help students identify the key concepts they should explain.




Self-explanation is similar to elaborative interrogation, except that educators ask students to explain their thought processes, rather than just a concept. For example, educators using this technique might ask students to explain how a concept relates to what they already know, or to explain the steps taken in solving a problem.

In 1983, Berry found positive effects for students who used self-explanation when completing logical-reasoning puzzles. Since then, studies have focused on individual aspects of self-explanation, such as the type of instruction used, the content area, the type of questions used, and the skill level/ages of students. In some studies, Dunlosky et al. report that students showed better recall of information, problem solving skills, and the ability to transfer learning to new content. There is evidence that it can be used successfully with elementary, middle, and high school students, and in virtually any content area.

Unfortunately, there is not enough research in any one area to clearly show how effective self-explanation is. More studies are needed to determine how it works for specific groups of students, and the best ways to implement it. Since most studies tested students immediately after they learned material, the long-term learning benefits are unknown.

Teachers can easily engage in this technique by asking about students’ processing, not the content itself. For example, they might ask, “What new information does this sentence provide for you?” or “How does this relate to what you already know?” Also, research findings support two best practices for implementation: (1) make sure students do not have ready access to explanations, and (2) spend time up front teaching students how to ask good questions and construct thorough explanations. A drawback to this technique is that it can require a lot of time to successfully complete in the classroom.



Practice testing and distributed practice work across a variety of environments, content areas, and grade levels. They can be easily implemented in the classroom, and by students at home. Interleaved practice, elaborative interrogation, and self-explanation also show some promise, but more research is needed to determine exactly how and when they are most useful.


Berry, D. C. (1983). Metacognitive experience and transfer of logical reasoning. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 35A, 39–49.
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, 354–380
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Mitchell, N.J., Willingham, D.T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1), 4–58.
Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319, 966–968
Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2007b). Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language, 57, 151–162.
Pressley, M., McDaniel, M. A., Turnure, J. E., Wood, E., & Ahmad, M. (1987). Generation and precision of elaboration: Effects on intentional and incidental learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13, 291–300.
Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481–498.
Taylor, K., & Rohrer, D. (2010). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 837–848.
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