Published Online: April 21, 2011
Updated: March 24, 2012

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

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 studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader 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.

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 effectiveRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader 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 remember material during the course of one long study session than to recall material studied several days earlier.

As a result, studies show a student will feel more confident that he or she has “mastered” material after using study strategies that are less mentally difficult: studying short chunks of material rather than the whole batch, or else cramming in one long session before the test.

Unfortunately, those strategies don’t work, according to a series of studies presented at the AERA meeting in New Orleans this month. For her studies, Ms. Rawson asked college-aged students to study a pack of 35 flashcards that paired Swahili vocabulary words with their English translations. The students were asked to practice until they got the vocabulary correct using either the entire stack or five stacks of seven cards each. Researchers instructed students to study the flashcards until they had gotten each translation correct either once, five, or 10 times, before taking a final quiz a week later.

There was no real contest in the most effective strategy, Ms. Rawson found. “There was substantial effect in increasing from practicing until correct once to five times correct, almost a three-fold improvement in performance,” she said. Also, “one big stack is better than five little ones.”

Yet the test-takers didn’t predict that. Before the test, students reported that they expected studying smaller groups of flashcards would be more helpful than studying the big stack, and they expected no real benefit from studying more cards at once. They remembered about as many words as they expected to recall when studying the entire pack, 43 percent to 46 percent. Yet those who had studied the small stacks expected to remember nearly 60 percent of words and recalled only 17 percent.

“While you’re studying, the information is much more accessible in your memory if you do it all at once. It feels fresh and feels like you know it very well,” Mr. Kornell said. “The less accessible something is, the more you learn when you encounter it, but the more accessible something is, the better you think you know it.”

In replication studies, Ms. Rawson found that students would give up early on effective study strategies, such as spacing out study sessions, because they did not believe such strategies were helpful, and that eventually led to lower scores.

Bigger Isn’t Better

The stability bias works both ways: Not only do students give too little credit to effective study strategies that feel more difficult, but they can give more weight to ineffective strategies that make content feel easier to learn.

In the Psychological Science study, Mr. Kornell and researchers from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Kent State, and the University of California, Los Angeles, asked online participants to predict how easily they would remember vocabulary words after studying them once or multiple times. Some of the words were presented in the standard font size on the person’s computer screen, while others were presented four times larger—something that makes the text feel easier to process but prior research shows does not improve memory. In addition, for some words, participants were told they would be allowed to study more than once.

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The participants uniformly predicted that studying the words in larger font would help them remember more than studying the words multiple times. In fact, studying even once more improved their recall of the new words, while increased font size did nothing to help them.

“For a teacher trying to design an assignment, the ideal thing is to put your students in a situation where they are challenged. The more someone struggles with something, the more they are going to learn,” Mr. Kornell said. “You want them to eventually feel something is easy to process, but only because they’ve worked through it and made it their own, not because you made it easy for them.”

Robert A. Bjork, the director of the Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA, calls this sort of challenge “desirable difficulties.” Just as in physical exercise, the more students have to exert their mental muscles to learn a new concept or recall an idea, the stronger their memory and learning will become. Mr. Whitehurst agreed that the body of evidence is growing, but cautioned that researchers need to look at how students learn and remember in real classrooms. Word lists, as were used in both Mr. Kornell’s and Ms. Rawson’s experiments, represent “a pretty artificial task that is far removed from actual learning in the classroom,” he added.

Mr. Kornell warned, also, that challenging students “leads to a lot more errors and makes people feel they are doing worse. ... It’s a balancing act.”

Vol. 30, Issue 29

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