Day 4: The student. What can students do to make their learning more effective?

Post written by guest authors Alexandra Webb, Lillian Smyth and Kat Esteves, ANU Medical School.


In this final day of the course, we are going to explore 3 evidence-based strategies for students to use to learn effectively and consider how we can support and encourage students to adopt these strategies:

  1. Retrieval practice
  2. Spaced learning
  3. Minimise distractions


Have you ever wondered how students study for your course? And are the strategies commonly used by students effective?

Person reading and studying on the bed
Image by Free-Photos, downloaded from Pixabay


What strategies do students most frequently use to study?

These results from a study by Blasiman et al. (2017) of students from a range of courses found that the most frequently reported study strategy was reading notes, followed by rereading the textbook, both of which have been criticised for their relative ineffectiveness for learning (Dunlosky et al., 2013).


So what should we tell our students? What strategies are effective for student learning?



Retrieval Practice

Image by tjevans from Pixabay

Retrieval practice or practice tests utilise active recall which has been shown to produce stronger long-term memory and enhanced learning compared to passive review practices. Active recall is the act of retrieving or re-accessing previously learned information without explicitly re-encountering it (e.g. quiz that tests recall of previously learnt information) whilst passive review is the act of simply recognising previously learned information when the information is re-encountered (e.g. re-reading text, re-watching lecture recording). Therefore, incorporating quizzes with feedback (Butler et al., 2008) as formative or low-stakes assessment (Roediger et al., 2011) can be used to stimulate students to use active recall of previously learnt material to produce an answer that they can then check if it’s correct and receive feedback. These can be provided to students inside the classroom (e.g. audience response systems, 1-minute paper, think-pair-share-task, scratch cards) or outside the classroom (e.g. quizzes in the LMS) or incorporated into a student’s self-regulated learning (e.g. create flash-cards). Additional benefits include they contribute to the creation of an active learning environment (Day 1) and enhance student attention and focus on the task at hand (Szpunar et al., 2013) (Day 4).


Further Reading:

ANU Coffee Courses

For more information on the additional benefits of retrieval practice see Roediger et al., 2011 Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice.


question mark Discussion: 

In what ways have you incorporated quizzes into your education environment? What technological solutions have you used to aid your delivery of quizzes?


And have you ever wondered how students distribute their study time during your course?


These results, also from the Blaisman et al. (2017) research, suggested that most of the students were massing their studying, beginning approximately 2 days prior to the exam. The results were comparable with previous studies that found about 50% of students were studying in a single session right before an exam (Hartwig and Dunlosky, 2012; Morehead et al., 2015). However, learning is more durable if repeated exposure to the material occurs over time (Dunlosky et al., 2013) – this is known as spaced learning.



Spaced Learning

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

Spaced learning/spaced retrieval/distributed practice is the implementation of a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities of the same content over time. Learning and memory are enhanced if study is broken up into short and frequent sessions over a longer period of time as opposed to cramming all study into one single long practice session (Dunlosky et al., 2013). Interleaving different content, by mixing up closely related topics, in between the spacing intervals (e.g. alternating learning about the upper limb and the lower limb) appears to further strengthen the spacing effect by requiring learners to compare and contrast what they are learning (Dunlosky et al., 2013). Teachers can encourage learners to distribute their study over time and avoid cramming by employing spacing and interleaving in curriculum design and providing students with activities throughout a course that revisit or reapply a topic. Doing this using effective learning techniques enhances the learning benefits of distributed practice e.g. quizzes/practice tests, problem solving activities.



Minimise Distractions

Image from Tweetyspics, downloaded from Pixabay

Researchers at California State University (Rosen et al., 2013) observed students whilst studying during a 15-minute period and recorded what they were doing as they studied. After approximately 2-minutes students’ ‘on-task behaviour’ started to drift as they began responding to texts, checking their social media feeds etc. At the conclusion of the 15-minute period, students had spent only about 65% of the observation period studying.

Prof Rosen: “We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices. It was kind of scary, actually.”


question mark Discussion:

What non-task related activities have you observed students doing during classes? Are there any differences or similarities during face-to-face compared to online classes?

Whilst many of us think we can effectively listen to a teacher’s instructions and finish the assignment due for submission in 2 hours whilst instant messaging our housemate to remember to buy milk and looking at those cute puppies just posted on Instagram……. research suggests that multitasking reduces our attention, impairs learning and memory and decreases productivity (Ophir et al., 2009; Uncapher et al., 2015; Melina et al., 2018). This is especially evident when students are attending to multiple streams of information and entertainment (‘media multitasking’) while studying or attending class.


Let’s Test This Out for Ourselves

First up, let’s do a baseline attention task:

Watch this video (1:21) from start to end – Your task is to watch the video carefully and count the number of times the white team passes the ball.

This task is a neat demonstration of what’s called inattentional blindness. Our brains are not computers and we do not have infinite resources. When we are focused on a task (e.g. counting the number of white-team passes), the perceptual input we process and attend to is the input relevant to that task. The gorilla is relatively obvious, once you know he’s there, but he’s also irrelevant to your task and, often, you are blind to him on the first watch.  So multi-tasking is not something that happens naturally – when we are focused on one task, we automatically tune out other things. But what if we were deliberately focused on more than one thing? Does putting effort into multi-tasking make it an effective strategy?


Let’s have a look at another attentional task:

Read this blog (3:32) and complete the activities.

This simple task is a good demonstration of the fact that “multi-tasking” is really just frequent task-switching with the associated time and effectiveness costs.

“The easiest and most obvious way we can help to focus our attention is by reducing the amount of distractions in our environment.” Professor Jason Mattingley, Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, The University of Queensland

It is possible that our students (and ourselves!) have a wildly inflated idea of how many things we can attend to at once. But given the detrimental impact multitasking has on our attention and learning, it is something we should all reflect on and take positive action to rectify.


question mark Discussion:

Avoiding multitasking is challenging in our technology-saturated world. What strategies do you apply to encourage students to focus on one task at a time and diminish multitasking activities that are distracting?


Further reading:

Science of Learning Research Centre



Dunlosky J, Rawson K.A, Marsh E.J, Nathan M.J, Willingham D.T. (2013). “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychol Sci Public Interest, Vol 14, issue 1, 4-58. Available: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1529100612453266

Butler, A. C., Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. III. (2008). “Correcting a metacognitive error: Feedback increases retention of low-confidence correct responses.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Volume 34, issue 4, 918-928.  Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.34.4.918

Roediger, H. L., Agarwal, P. K., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. B. (2011). “Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: Long-term improvements from quizzing.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Volume 17, issue 4, 382-395. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0026252

Szpunar KK, Moulton ST and Schacter DL (2013) “Mind wandering and education: from the classroom to online learning”. Front. Psychol, Volume 1, issue 4, 495. Available: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00495

Ophir E, Nass C & Wagner A.D. (2009). “Cognitive control in media multitaskers”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2009, 106 (37) 15583-15587. Available: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0903620106

Uncapher M.R & Wagner A.D. (2018). “Minds and brains of media multitaskers: Current findings and future directions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2018, 115 (40) 9889-9896. Available: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1611612115

Uncapher, M.R, Thieu, M.K & Wagner A.D. (2016). “Media multitasking and memory: Differences in working memory and long-term memory”, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 23, 483–490. Available: https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-015-0907-3



8 thoughts on “Day 4: The student. What can students do to make their learning more effective?

  1. I was trained to provide a quiz at the end of each week in a 12 week course, so that is what I do routinely. I find the Moodle Quiz tool a bit tedious to set up, but once done it works fine.

    I especially like the feature for numeric questions. To check students understand a formula, I can get them to do a calculation. Moodle will give each student a random set of starting figures (within parameters I set).

    Especially I like that I can have each student get a random set of questions from the bank each time and I don’t have to mark the quizzes manually. After the deadline I have the Moodle Gradebook sort the quiz marks in ascending order to see which students are having difficulty and need to be offered help.

    These routine quizzes also are useful for prompting even the best students to study: “I would love to come to the pub, but I have to do this quiz, it is for *marks*”. 😉

    1. I do this too, Tom! I used to just have a weekly quiz as optional homework, not linking it up to any assessment. Then this semester I decided to have each quiz count for 1% of the course and each quiz to close at the end of the week in question, so that the pressure is really low but there is incentive to interact with the content in a test-like environment each week. At first I was worried the students would resist a new assessment piece, but given that it’s just rewarding what was already homework, they’ve responded well to it. Looking forward to seeing if it lifts the average for the mid-semester test in a few weeks…

      1. Gemma, last semester I took the marks off the weekly work, just as you were putting them on! 😉

        In first semester I had students who did not sign up for an online course. Previously it was just me tutoring several hundred students online (with one assistant to help moderate the peer assessment). But last semester there was a tutor for every seven students. So I removed the marks for the weekly work, reasoning there would be enough tutor pressure on them.

        What happened was about 80% of the students still did the quizzes, but only 10% answered the questions in forums. I suspect they did the quizzes because they are easy and they get the instant reward of a score, even though it doesn’t count for anything. They didn’t do the forum answers because they are harder and there was no reward of an instant automated score.

        Tutor pressure to have students do work does not appear to have worked as well as marks did previously. Also peer assessment of assignments last year worked just as well as the tutor marking this year.

        My conclusion is that with one assistant online I can do the work of about 20 tutors. Of course, this is for a topic suited to online delivery (computing) with very computer literate final year students, and with two instructors who are qualified in online education. But it does suggest some efficiencies can be made with better course design and tutors trained to teach online. Rather than sack all the tutors, perhaps there could be an approach where the student has a tutor for a whole semester, or degree program, plus online instructors for specific topics.

  2. I don’t have a way to detect non-task related activities by students in class. Unless their activity is disturbing the class, it is none of my business. I am particularly sensitive to this because I like to take notes on my laptop in class and have several times been told to stop surfing the web and pay attention. After being falsely accused of goofing off, I really don’t want to go back to class.

    With online classes I can happily type away taking notes, as long as I turn my microphone off. Obviously it is much easier for students to be distracted when online and so we have to give them lots of things to actively do, with short deadlines, to keep them busy. Spending hours just talking at students online (or in a lecture theater) is a waste of everyone’s time. Recently I have been interested in how to adapt hackerthons for fast paced active learning (see the posts linked to my name).

    ps: The notes suggest most students are “massing their studying, beginning approximately 2 days prior to the exam”. They don’t do that in my courses, as I don’t have any exams and there is assessment every week. There are usually a few people who get zero each week, until I point out that if they don’t do the weekly assessment they can’t pass the course. Most then start work, but a few quietly withdraw at this point. I have only had two students who did no work for a whole semester and then came to see me to ask how they could pass, to which I replied: “Unfortunately the course is over”. It may sound harsh, but I don’t want people who can’t schedule their work passing, graduating or practicing in my profession: they would be a danger to the public.

  3. Students need to learn to juggle competing priorities and multiple tasks using technology, as that is how it is in the workplace. A hackerthon environment is good for this. There is a constant barrage of messages arriving which the students have to learn to cope with. Obviously we need to build the student’s confidence with simpler, less stressful learning first.

    Also VR can be used to simulate a confusing, noisy and possibly dangerous workplace. It is better students learn in a safe simulation than a real workplace where the consequences of not coping can be fatal. An example is Stephen Aiello’s work on wearable technology to simulate being in a low flying helicopter for emergency medical staff (click on my name for the link).

  4. Thank you Tom for the suggestions/examples. I’m very interested in Aiello’s work, especially now, when we have difficulties bringing students together in the same physical space,

    Spaced learning is nothing new, as ancient Latins said: “Repetitio est mater studiorum” (repetition is the mother of studies). I always believed that learning a new language (whether it be an actual spoken foreign language, or terminology and concepts of a subject studied), you cannot cram it in just a couple of days or weeks effectively. On the other hand, if you return to it in short bites regularly, and build knowledge gradually, you will remember better, and more importantly, be able to apply that knowledge.
    Based on these ideas, I try to use scaffolded teaching that includes revisions and quizzes to help students to reflect on their progress. I provide weekly quizzes, which are not marked or compulsory, but they close before we start the new weekly topic. I introduced this system to guide the students’ study management, though I received a lot of push-back, especially from our postgrad students, who were very upset with the timed closure of the quizzes (NB. the students were told at the start that the quizzes will be re-opened later in the course, so that they can use them in their exam preparation,). At the end of the theme, we covered with the weekly topics, quizzes included more complex problem solving exercises, case studies to demonstrate to students how they can apply their knowledge to solve problems, clinical cases,

  5. Thank you Gemma and Tom for sharing the ways in which you incorporate quizzes into your courses and discussing your experiences on the attribution of marks to these quizzes ………or not. It is great to get insight from other courses to help with the efficient and effective integration of quizzes into a course. Tom – tell us more about how you conducted the peer assignment assessments previously.

  6. Thank you Krisztina for sharing how you apply these principles in your educational environment. An interesting component of the Blaisman et al. (2017) study was that at the start of the semester the students they studied intended to begin studying earlier and more frequently and to use a mix of effective and ineffective study habits. But during the semester, the students relied on the relatively ineffective study strategies and massed their study prior to the exam. With this in mind, have you found that explaining why you structure the course to provide regular quizzes and spaced learning improves student use of effective learning strategies? Isn’t it great when 21st Century research confirms the wise words of the past 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *