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Ranking Learning Techniques: Moderate Efficiency

Let’s continue our rediscovery of efficiency of learning methods.

Moderate Efficiency Study Methods

Elaborate interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice received moderate utility assessments.  They are rated as moderate because more research needs to be done in the efficacy of the methods, the efficacy was variable across tasks and topics, and/or some in-depth training was required.  But the general consensus from the various research studied in the meta-analysis show that it works.

Elaborative Interrogation (Moderate)

Elaborative interrogation is the process of asking yourself why in an attempt to understand concepts. For instance, if you are learning about E=MC^2, a starting question you might ask yourself is “why does E equal MC^2?”.  This method is extremely simple to use and require no training; however it does require some familiarity with the topic (and related topics) to be effective.

This method is particularly efficient with time as one study on self-paced learning showed that elaborative interrogation took 32 minutes (reading + elaborative interrogation) compared to 28 minutes for the reading-only group.  This is particularly good news as reading is generally monotonous thus elaborative interrogation done during reading can enhance learning by taking away the monotony.

However, the thing is that elaborative interrogation is rather limited in its application; its application is limited to answering factual statements, such as the E=MC^2 statement above.  When learning about a complex chain of relationships, such as digestive system.

Tips for elaborative interrogation: Elaborative interrogation can be very effective when done frequently.  So as you are reading, be sure to check your understanding of the material by asking yourself questions every couple of paragraphs or so. Research suggests that the gains from this technique are diluted when elaborative interrogation is employed once every 1-2 pages. To make further use of this technique, use a notebook to write down the questions you are asking as well as the answers as you are reading along.  This practice of writing down your questions/answers further commits the material to memory.

Self-Explanation (Moderate)

Self-explanation is a close relative of elaborative interrogation.  This method involves the participant explaining and recording how one reaches an answer or conclusion.  This is actually a popular method for solving abstract problems and similar to the requirement in many math classes to show your work.  This was found to be more effective when done during the initial learning stage, instead of after learning.  A strength of this learning strategy is that it can be applied to a whole variety of tasks and subjects.

However, studies show that this method does require some training and is one of the more time consuming methods of study.  Additionally, there have not been too many studies that have tested long-term retention of the material learned through self-explanation; most studies administered testing minutes after the conclusion of the tasks.

Tips for self-explanation: When doing self-explanation, it helps to write out the questions that you want to ask yourself and then write down the answers.  The process of writing the questions and answers down further commits the concepts to memory, and lets your brain organize the importance of the materials.

Interleaved practice (Moderate)

Interleaved practice is when the student studies the topic at hand but also blends the study with previous topics/concepts at the same time.  For instance, if a student is learning the concept of polynomials this week in Algebra but learned about simplifying algebraic equations, and solving inequalities the previous couple of weeks, then interleaved practice means that the student should spend most of his time studying polynomials but also spend a fair amount of time simplifying algebraic equations and solving inequalities.

This method was talked about extensively in Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers.  She is a heavy proponent of interleaved practice and its cousin, spaced repetition.  The studies show that this method has tremendous potential to improve learning and retention of science and mathematics in students.  Additionally, interleaved practice helps in many other cognitive skills.

On the not-so-positive side, although studies on this method are sparse, a few of them show that the method may not work in some scenarios.  However, this may be because of implementation, a lack of training, or because interleaved practice does not work across a broad range of subjects.  The authors of the study acknowledged that there seems to be a lot of potential in this method, but there needs to be more research done before it is regarded as a high utility method.

Tips for interleaved practice: Interleaved practice is a must if you are doing math and science.  The practice of going back through previous chapters and topics act as a much-needed refresher because much of math and science builds on previously studied material.

Interleaved practice also shows great promise for learning foreign languages also.  Thus what you should do is mix in work from previous topics/chapters in with your current work when you are studying.  This process of interleaving also solidifies your knowledge base as you gain a greater understanding of when to use certain methods and when not to.

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