Learning, and one’s ability to retain it, depends on the distributed frequency of related study sessions over time.
Clark Quinn’s recent post, to do with the effectiveness of crammed learning, brought to mind a discussion I had with a colleague some years ago. We’d been inquiring about the rate of return of assignments from a distance learner who had crammed the equivalent of several months’ study into one day.
Does learning have a half-life?
Clark cited an article by Inga Kiderra outlining the research findings of Hal Pashler. What is learnt during a study session seems to decay. The rate of decay has a dependency based on the number of related study sessions in a series and its duration. A series of study sessions over a significant period of time has a cummulative effect and can lead to longer lasting retention.
Learning diminishes at a rate that relates inversely to the pace of distributed study sessions over time. It means that a series of crammed sessions, during the week before an examination, is unlikely to bring about learning that's useful a year or so later.
Competence over time:
A simple example of the properties of learning over time is how the skill and knowledge is remembered that’s needed to solve a quadratic equation in mathematics.
Though this is not an easy skill to obtain, it is one that can be acquired by a competent student of mathematics by cramming over a few days. To do this, competent learners have to grapple with new ideas, some concepts and some content. One piece of content that the experienced student needs to know is the formula for the solution:
A learner who has acquired the skills and knowledge during a few days of crammed study may be hard pushed a year or so later to remember that such a formula even exists, let alone how to apply it. If the practice of solving quadratic equations is not revisited during the interim period, there may be little remembered of the activity.
The learner who has gained skills and knowledge over several months of regular practice may not be able to remember the exact formula a year or so later either. However, recollection of the concept of solving a quadratic equation, as well as recalling that the formula exists, is more likely. It may be that the solution is only a Google search away.
What is really being assessed?
Every learner is different in the way they assimilate what is learnt. What one can gain usefully from a paced rate of learning may not be equivalent to that acquired by another, even if their end assessments are identical.
The ideas brought forward by Pashler’s research have implications for the results of tests that lead to qualifications, as in the New Zealand Qualifications Authority standards. One has to ask what is being assessed in these tests.
There is no doubt that a good result in a standard assessment shows that learning has occurred. This is a measure of the ability of the learner to learn and perhaps understand through study.
How do we test long-term retention?
Depending on what study has gone before, and the pattern of that over time, however, a grade in a standard test may not be a useful measure of learning that may be put to use in the future.
There are similar implications for the results obtained through online assessment. Study that’s performed online, by a learner who is able to access all the resources for a unit of learning, may not be carried out in the best way possible to enable long-term retention.