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E-learning can support good study techniques

September 9, 2010

A recent article in the New York Times collates the findings of several studies into effective studying habits over the last three decades, indicating that there is strong evidence for the following:

1. Alternating study environments leads to more successful recall of information than sticking to one place (e.g. one designated room) for studying.

2. Mixing content, i.e. ‘studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting’ leads to more effective learning than ‘focusing intensely on a single thing’ for long periods of time. By way of example: ‘… researchers found that college students and adults of retirement age were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing mixed collections (assortments, including works from all 12) than after viewing a dozen works from one artist, all together, then moving on to the next painter.’

3. ‘Spacing’ study sessions (i.e. studying in short bursts over several days) enables learners to recall information learnt for longer than cramming a lot of information in one intensive study session: ‘When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.’

4. Self-testing (doing quizzes and practice tests) is a powerful learning tool – much more powerful than simply revisiting/ revising the study material.

5. And finally, the popular notion of ‘learning styles’ (e.g. visual/audio, individual/collaborative) does not have enough well-researched evidence to back it up. They’re not saying that learning styles don’t exist, only that the experimental design of research that has been done in the field has not been rigorous enough to give evidence of the benefits of ‘meshing’ particular teaching styles to learners’ preferred learning styles.

While these findings were not directly related to e-learning, the affordances of online learning seem to be nicely in sync with them:

1. Online learners tend to study in a range of locations, from their bedrooms to their offices to the local coffee shop.

2. The lateral nature of online content presentation (e.g. hpyerlinking) seems to lend itself more naturally to ‘content mixing’ than the traditional, linear format of a book.

3. The proliferation of mobile devices, as well as cloud computing, can enable online learners to exploit small windows of time (e.g. while commuting, while waiting for a meeting), rather than setting aside several hours or a whole day on the weekend for their studies. (The DUCKLING project at the University of Leicester  found that when learners were given e-book readers, many of them changed their study habits dramatically as a result of the new-found portability of their learning materials.)

4. Self-testing is very easy to build into online learning programmes.

5. While the notion of learning styles may be contested, the best online learning programmes include materials in a variety of media (print, audio, video), and options for both individual and collaborative study, thereby catering for a range of learner preferences.

Looked at in this light, e-learning seems to have a lot going for it.

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