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One thing that research in cognitive psychology has gifted to us over the last decade or so, is clear evidence that learners are delusional when it comes to judgements about their own learning. The big name in the field is Bjork, along with many other high quality researchers, who says that learning is “quite misunderstood (by learners)…. we have a flawed model of how we learn and remember”. There’s often a negative correlation between people’s judgements of their learning, what they think they have learnt and how they think they learn best – and what they’ve actually learnt and the way they can actually optimise their learning. In short; our own perceptions of learning are seriously delusional. This is why engagement, fun, learner surveys and happy sheets are such bad measures of what is actually learnt and the enemy of optimal learning strategies.

Desirable difficulty
Most learning is illusory as it is too easy. Learning requires Desirable (accomplishable) and difficult learning that requires real effort for high-retention to take place. This is why so much online learning fails. To simply click on faces and see speech bubbles of text, drag and drop labels, choose true or false, even multiple-choice questions, rarely constitutes desirable difficulty. This is click-through learning.

The solution is to provide effortful, retrieval. This means moving beyond the traditional model of text/graphics punctuated by multiple-choice, towards cognitive effort, namely retrieval through open input. This effortful learning gives significant increases in long-term retention and recall. Online learning needs to adopt these techniques if it is to remain credible.

Retrieve and recall what you need to know Bjork (1975) results in much higher levels of retention. Rather than read, re-read and underline, look away and try to retrieve and recall what you need to know. Rather than click on True or False or an option in a short list (MCQ), look away, think, generate, recall and come up with the answer. The key point is that research has shown that retrieval is a memory modifier and makes your memory more recallable. Counter-intuitively, retrieval is much more powerful than being presented with the information. In other words it is more powerful than the original ‘teaching’ event.

Take a learning experience that you have probably been through many, many times – the airline safety demonstration. Try to think through what you have to do in the right order – find life jacket, put over head, then what….. not easy is it? Ah yes… inflate it through the blow tube… then there’s the whistle. No. Many choose the ‘inflate’ option but to inflate it inside the aircraft is a BIG no, no. In fact, airlines should set up a spot in the airport, where you actually sit down then have to DO the whole thing. Next time you sit there, watch, then afterwards, close your eyes and retrieve the process, step by step – that also works.

Roediger & Karpicke (2006) researched studying v retrieval testing (without feedback). One week later the retrieval tested group did much better. They also asked them how much you are likely to remember in one week’s time for each method – oddly, the majority of learners got it completely wrong.

Making errors is also a critical component of successful learning. According to Kornell, Hayes & Bjork (2009), generating the wrong thing, then getting it right, leads to stronger learning. The reason is that you are activating the brain’s semantic network. Retrieval testing does better than reading or watching, as it potentiates recall. So are unsuccessful tests better than presentations? The work by Kornell (2009) shows that even unsuccessful testing is better. Retrieval testing gives you better internal feedback and works even when you get few or no correct answers. Testing even before you have access to the material, as a learning experience, also helps learning. Once again, almost bizarrely, Heustler ; Metcalfe (2012) asked learners what worked best and they were largely wrong.

From Gates (1917) who compared reading and re-reading with retrieval, to Sptzer (1939) who halted forgetting over 2 months with retrieval in 3000 learners, to Roediger (2011) who got a full grade increases with retrieval techniques and McDaniel (2011) who increased attainment in science, the evidence is clear. For a clear summary of this, and detail on the research, this excellent talk by Bjork is pretty good.

Online learning
In online learning the mechanics of this have also been researched. Duchaster & Nungester (1982) showed that although MCQs help you answer MCQs, they are poor in actual retention and recall. Kang (2007) showed that retrieval is superior to MCQs. At the really practical level, Jacoby (1978) showed that typing in retrieved learning was superior, as did MacDaniel (1986) and Hirsham & Bjork (1988) who showed that even typing in some missing letters sufficed. Richland (2005) did real world experiments that also proved efficacy.

We have the tools in Natural Language Processing and AI to do this, so technology has at last caught up with pedagogy. Let’s not plough the same furrow we’ve plowed for the last 35 years. Time to move on.

I wrote, in a rather tongue in cheek manner (25 ways you which your e-learning sucks), about why I think most current e-learning is click-through and therefore low retention eye candy. This research shows that our methods of online learning are sub-optimal. The problem we face is that immediate success often means long-term failure. More focus should be given to retrieval, NOT presentation, clicking on items and multiple-choice. We need to be presented with desirable difficulties, through partial or complete open input. This is exactly what we’ve spent the last two years building with WildFire.