How To Learn Better: Space Out and Get Tested, Early and Often

Happy Labo(u)r Day!   As millions of students in North America get ready to put away their whites, swimsuits, cut-offs or whatever else the kids are wearing these days, the New York Times hits the Back-to-School ground running with a nice Learning-about-Learning-themed article by Benedict Carey:

 Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits

(  (HT DRZ)

This is one of those “latest in learning research” stock pieces, part of a decades-old drumbeat of “Everything You Learned about Learning is Wrong” set of ideas which surprisingly haven’t become part of accepted wisdom among teachers, trainers, instructional designers and students (thereby creating ongoing opportunities for the multi-million-dollar industry of Instruction-About-Instruction books, seminars and workshops). Carey touches on a few of the proven methods of enhancing the effectiveness of learning which are seldom employed by teachers/students, and which are often ignored or contravened.

Why is this article news to anyone?

Why are the proven/validated “Learning-About-Learning” ideas so often ignored?  Some reasons include:

  • bad habits, especially bad institutional habits, die hard
  • these ideas require a bit of extra conscious effort to implement
  • these ideas don’t scale easily, especially in the traditional classroom/lecture-hall context
  • people who present these ideas often try to “make it their own” and/or mix in bits of flakey discredited research which poisons the whole thing

The typical opening of an average,  half-baked “Learning-About-Learning” sessions starts off with a description of The Right Brain Versus The Left Brain as a valid scientific concept.   In that moment, a good proportion of  the audience — myself included — mentally checks out… in fact,  there’s a part of me (my “left brain,” I suppose) that has run out the door screaming.  Indeed, the brain has some default (but changeable) localization of functions, and indeed, some of those functions occur on one hemisphere of the brain versus the other, but there is no truth whatsoever to the “logical” versus the “creative” side (or “thinking” versus “feeling” side) (or “nitpicky curmudgeon” versus “motivated idiot” side) in the brain’s bilateral symmetry.  None.  Whatsoever.  Not even close. We use both sides of our brain for math, both sides of our brain for language, both sides of our brain for painting or drawing and both sides of our brain for imagining the world with rainbows and unicorns dancing across poorly-designed PowerPoint presentations. Are all these Instructors-of-Instruction reading from a 1960’s-era Encyclopedia Britannica?  More importantly, don’t these supposed experts on instruction know how important it is to establish credibility with your audience from the outset?

Some of the Learning-About-Learning folks do a really good job:  John Medina’s book-DVD-website combo,  Brain Rules (HT KP) is a welcome breath of fresh air in this genre. He only quotes validated research, and does so in a way that is engaging and even entertaining. Also, as with many courses/books on this subject, there is a strong self-referential loop going on, and Medina gracefully walks his own talk and effectively uses the techniques he’s describing to teach those techniques.

Alas, it seems like the formula for speaking about this subject is to first inoculate against the prevailing nonsense.  In his article, before giving us the ideas that do work, Benedict Carey takes a few obligatory shots at the “learning styles” concept (I’ve got my $0.02222 on that, elsewhere… for now, here is a related, Not-Safe-For-Work(-or-Even-Home-Especially-with-Young-Children) video from The Onion), which may been well-intentioned as a concept (differentiation/diversity in the learning experience) but often exaggerated and abused to the point of ridiculousness. With that covered, Carey then proceeds to tell us about two things that students (and teachers) can control to improve their educational outcomes:  Time and Space.

Space, Spacing and Spacing Out

Learning a subject over time (Spacing Effect vs cramming-and-forgetting) and in different contexts (in different spaces, not just at a particular desk in a particular room), are two of the important-yet-often-forgotten ideas covered by Carey’s article. He also discusses the importance of mixing topics together, versus focusing exclusively on one topic at a time.

I’ve covered the Spacing Effect — learning at different times —  extensively already in previous posts, and the idea about mixing/linking topics — learning different stuff — seems to be beyond obvious, in terms of good educational strategies. What about this business of varying the learning context — learning in different spaces?

The concept of Variation /Generalization of Learning Context is all about the fact that we associate what we learn with where we learn it. This is one of the reasons that some people in the corporate training world now eschew the concept of a training room… the moment the learner leaves the room… poof! …what they learned has been left behind with the rolling tables,  flip charts, markers and overhead projectors.

Carey sums up the Variation / Generalization of Learning Context concept as follows:

” The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time …  regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. (…)  Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding. “

Ok, so that covers learning Spacing and learning Spaces. One type of spacing not covered by Carey’s article is the “Spacing Out” effect that I personally like to employ…. that’s the staring out into space and playing back in my own mind the content of a given topic/book/movie/conversation over and over again, backwards and forwards, with imagined variations and combinations, until it is fully “processed.”

Some people call this Reflective Learning, and some people call it a Required Step of Learning. Whatever it is,  I suppose this “Spacing Out” is a combination of the time-based Spacing Effect (periodic review) and the space-based Variation/Generalization of Learning Context, since I’ll often Space Out while I’m out gardening and pulling weeds from around my squash plants, puttering around the arborvitea at the edge of my yard, or slowly raking the crushed white quartz/granite sand in my Zen rock garden. Oh wait.  I don’t own a Zen rock garden, especially not the one I’m thinking of.   Well, you get my point anyway.

Getting Testy

Another concept included in Carey’s article is the Testing Effect:  The idea that having a student perform an assessment is itself a part of the learning experience. Carey writes,

..cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.


“Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test,” Dr. Roediger said. “Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have.”

Did you hear that, world-of-Dick-and-Carey-inspired-Instructional-Systems-Design?  Tests are not just the way that you confirm that you are slavishly meeting your Learning Objectives (which are observable, measurable and criterion-referenced, yada yada yada).  No.   In fact, you can take the SpacedEd approach and flip things around:  Teach by giving quizzes.  Yes.  First ask…  then — if needed —  tell.

The Assessment is the Instructional Strategy

We know this from webinars and e-learning:  In the absence of a live instructor, you need to do whatever you can to engage the learner and get them involved in the lesson. Assessments are a great way to do this in the online environment. In fact, I’ve improved my live classroom design and delivery technique simply by “porting” over the stuff I do online.  Assessments come in many flavors and colors, from a simple multiple-choice opinion poll to a full on role-play. Done well, assessments can be fun and instructive.   Done poorly… well, let’s not talk about how poorly they can be done!

So there you have it.  Use space to your advantage, mix things up a bit, stare at a rock garden and get yourself tested.  Do that early and often, and you’ll be well on your way to an exceptional learning experience.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on September 6, 2010, in Instructional Design, Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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