Studies Find 'Easy' Material May Not Be Easy to Learn

By Sarah D. Sparks

Ed Week

 

Emerging research suggests that, contrary to what students may think, material that’s easy to understand is not always easy to learn—and working harder can help them hold on to what they’ve learned.

It’s a typical school scenario: A student strolls into class on test day, telling classmates how he crammed the night before and certain he will ace the exam, only to be confounded by how little he actually remembers from hours of studying.

The cause of that pitfall is something cognitive researchers call the “stability bias,” which posits that people rely too much on current memory to predict how well they will learn and remember something in the future. In practice, it means people think they will remember material better if it is initially easy to understand.

“When people make these judgments about how well they know something, they tend to think about how easy it is to process the information presented to them,” said Nate Kornell, the lead researcher on a studypdf.gif of stability bias scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science and an assistant psychology professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

“Usually, that’s a good judgment; if it comes to mind quickly, that does tend to mean you know it well,” he added.

Memory Misperceived

In a series of experiments, students were asked to study lists of words and predict how many they could recall later on. Researchers found that students tend to overestimate how easy it is to learn material that seems easy to understand, such as text written in a large type font, and underestimate the value of study strategies that can appear more difficult, such as studying material four times vs. just once.

29stability-c1s.jpg

SOURCE: “The Ease of Processing Heuristic and Stability Bias,” Nate Cornell, et al

But that’s not always the case. A growing body of cognitive research, including Mr. Kornell’s study and a series of experiments presented at the American Educational Research Association conference earlier this month, suggests challenging material and study strategies—called “desirable difficulties”—help students remember material better and longer. By contrast, trying to take the route that feels easier can lead students to develop study habits that they believe are helpful, but that actively interfere with their learning.

The findings suggest that it may not be enough to teach students study strategies. Educators also must help students think about why and how they learn while studying, researchers say.

“It is counterintuitive for teachers in many instances, but I would rely on the findings rather than intuition to guide practice,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. “These findings deal with a pedagogical issue that’s one of the things that are missing in the curriculum materials given to teachers, and that’s a tremendous insight from this line of research.”

While learning does take place in the classroom, via instruction and other kinds of guided activities, "as students progress from elementary school through secondary school and into college, an increasing amount of learning is expected to take place outside of the classroom via independent study,” said Katherine A. Rawson, an assistant professor of psychology at Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio, who studies how students think about learning. “So increasingly, a student’s academic success is going to depend on how well they can effectively regulate study. But students aren’t particularly well equipped to do this.”

That’s because the same study strategies that have been found to be the most effectivepdf.gif at helping students remember material long term—among them self-testing long chunks of material and spacing out study sessions over days or weeks before the final exam—don’t make students feel they’ve mastered the material. A student has to think harder to recall the definition of a word in a list of 30 than in a list of five, and it’s also easier to …..

 

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