Increasing learning and long-term memory

What kinds of review and practice are most effective in producing learning? Professor Frank N. Dempster, of the University of Nevada, analyzed research studies in this area to learn how the frequency of review, the time interval between review sessions and the form of review – whether it was a practice session or a test – affect learning and long-term memory of knowledge.

Dempster drawings the following conclusions:

1. Even when the total amount of study time is the same, two or more study sessions are more effective than a single one. In science, this proved especially true for recall of concepts, but seemed to be less true for recall of facts.

2. The time between review sessions appears to be an important factor in long-term retention of knowledge. Reviews that occur very close together account for only slight improvement in performance. However, review of the material after a longer interval is twice as effective in increasing learning. Moreover, this advantage increases with the number of times the material is reviewed. This appears to be true for all ages and ability levels, as well as for a wide range of content areas (science, math, vocabulary) and instructional models (lecture, computer-based instruction, etc.).

3. Taking a test may be a more effective way to increase learning than reviewing for one. Testing to increase learning appears to be most effective if the material to be learned is initially tested soon after its presentation. Tests, like review sessions, have a greater impact on learning if they are spaced apart; more learning occurs if the spaces between tests are increased with each successive test.

Review sessions and tests underutilized

Dempster concludes that review sessions and tests are underutilized in terms of their potential for improving classroom learning. He found, for example, that students who took weekly quizzes and cumulative monthly tests had significantly higher final exam scores. There is also evidence that repeated reviews foster deeper conceptual understanding of the material and not just better memory of facts.

Yet, Dempster observes that many subjects are touched upon only once in the classroom, that careful spacing of review sessions is not common practice, and that tests are generally used as instruments of measurement rather than as teaching vehicles for promoting learning. He, therefore, urges teachers to set aside discussion time for brief reviews of the main points of previous lessons and assignments and to provide feedback on quizzes and tests. He encourages teachers to use cumulative tests more frequently as an integral part of their regular classroom instruction.

“Synthesis of Research on Reviews and Tests” Educational Leadership April 1991 Volume 48, Number 7, pp. 71-76.

Published in ERN November/December 1991 Volume 4 Number 5

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