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Making effective learning strategies stick

Posted on 7 August 2018

What, how and when do Churchie boys’ study

How do secondary students study? When do they study? What strategies do they use? How do students decide which strategy to apply, when, and in which context? Why do students cram for exams? What do students bring to the table (i.e. anxiety, emotional intelligence, IQ, motivation, prior achievement and work ethic), and how does this impact on their learning/study behaviours outside the classroom? Do secondary students, like those in universities, prefer and rely upon low-utility strategies (such as highlighting, re-reading and summarising material and cramming) in preparation for exams? When we examine the literature in the fields of cognitive and educational psychology, there is very little regarding the secondary context, with a plethora of research and insights in the tertiary context. With little understood about the study behaviours of secondary students, it raises the question of whether the use of the low-utility techniques in the university settings have their origins in perceived prior success, comfort or the appearance of ‘doing’ study or work.

These questions are of critical importance to Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie) as it navigates the significant changes brought about by the shifts to the new Queensland Certificate of Education (QCE) and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme systems. Like all Queensland schools, Churchie is moving from the Overall Position (OP) system: school-based assessment and curriculum examines student understanding through a combination of assignment, projects and term-based exams. Their short-term nature supports, and even reinforces, students to use low-utility strategies and cram for exams. Cramming (or blocked/mass practice) is widely acknowledged as a deficit approach that works against the creation of enduring understanding in one’s long-term memory and the ability to be knowledgeable, think creatively and solve problems—the hallmarks of lifelong learners. It is imperative for schools to create an environment that supports students to be learners. This requires them to better understand the nuances of different learning/study behaviours and strategies, how they aid/hinder the construction of deep and connected understanding and the context or subject at hand.

The Making Effective Learning Strategies Stick project, in partnership with the University of Queensland’s (UQ) Science for Learning Research Centre (SLRC), will investigate how to best coach/teach students in the use and retention of proven study strategies, collaboration structures and thinking routines. It aims to develop student understanding of these proven strategies (dual coding, interleaving, interrogative elaboration and retrieval and space practice) and to improve their self-regulation (focus and metacognition) in learning now and into their post-schooling future. At the same time, the project will illuminate what motivates students to persist with and translate these strategies into daily practice, and not revert to previous low-utility approaches.

The project has devised a toolkit, comprising six strategies. Their design bridges the latest empirical research from the cognitive sciences, neuroscience and psychology with the nuances of a secondary schooling context. Each applies the integrated application of multiple cognitive behaviours and processes but adapted to be used by Year 7 to 12 students (aged 11 to 18 years) in all subject disciplines. The toolkit strategies (cognitive behaviours and processes) are:

  • Strategy #1 Quick Review (interleaving and retrieval and spaced practice)
  • Strategy #2 Brain Dump (dual coding, interrogative elaboration and retrieval and spaced practice)
  • Strategy #3 Flashcards (interleaving, interrogative elaboration and retrieval and spaced practice)
  • Strategy #4 What to Study When (interleaving and retrieval and spaced practice)
  • Strategy #5 To Collaborate (interrogative elaboration and retrieval practice)
  • Strategy #6 Read Organise Think (dual coding, interrogative elaboration and retrieval practice)
The formation of these strategies has been informed by an iterative design process at the school starting in early 2017. All strategies are developed, trialled and refined within the Churchie context.

The development of the toolkit, the strategies and the methodology behind their integration, has evolved through the systematic review of the associated literature. From, this review, the following researchers, their research, approaches and insights, underpinned the Churchie study skills program, as well as, the methodology and means of its evaluation: The collective research and insights, inform the identification and application of behaviours, routines and strategies that have shown the most significant promise. As a result, the Making Effective Study Strategies programme seeks to enhance the learning of all students at Churchie now and into their post-schooling future.

This article is one of a new series focused on learning strategies to be posted on the Churchie Research Centre blog.