Traditional teaching methods may not be supported by research

Teaching, it may surprise you, is very traditional.  We hold onto ideas for a long time.  Many teachers tend to teach the way they remember, or think they remember, being taught.  We tend to like our units of study.  We like to organize the material into blocks of study so that it is easy to organize it.  It certainly makes it easy for us to teach, and we think, intuitively, that by blocking concepts into chunks of study, with lots of repeated practice time built in, we will be helping our students to learn and retain information.  Unfortunately the research does not support these practices.  Below I have summarized some of the psychological research behind learning.  I’ve added a few links to some of the scientific work for those skeptics (I am one so I know).  If you want more of the research send me a message.

Massed Versus Distributed Practice

Intuitively we would think that if students needed to learn something new then they should practice it over and over again in a short period of time so that they “really know it”.  For centuries we have organized schooling this way:  we teach all about multiplication for 4 weeks; we have students write poetry for 4 weeks; we have students identify the main idea for 4 weeks; we have students memorize vocabulary words for 3 weeks; we have students play volleyball for 4 weeks and so on.  However, psychologists have known through controlled experiments that this just isn’t true.  In fact, for over the last 100 years, psychologists have replicated the following:  people retain new information better if they allow time between the practice of new concepts or skills.  The retention of information is greater if there is elapsed time between practice sessions.

Let’s take a simple example:  you need to learn 20 new vocabulary words.  You would think that practicing the definitions of these new words every day for 10 days would make sense.  Then if you were tested on day 11 you’d do quite well.  That tends to be true.  But, if you are tested on day 30, you will remember very few of them.  However, if you practice your 20 new words for 5 days and then rest for a few days and practice for 5 days and then rest for a few days, then when you are tested on day 30 your score will be significantly better.

Research:  Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Cepeda, Nicholas J.; Pashler, Harold; Vul, Edward; Wixted, John T.; Rohrer, DougPsychological Bulletin, Vol 132(3), May 2006, 354-380.;

How We Learn. Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Allocating Student Study Time. “Massed versus “Distributed” Practice.
Willingham, Daniel T. American Educator, v26 n2 p37-39,47 Sum 2002

Interleaving versus Blocked Learning

Intuitively we would think that if students need to learn 3 new concepts (A, B and C) it would make sense to teach them A, then B and then C.  And this is typically how we have taught.  Take a look at any textbook and it is organized into discrete chapters.  Particularly in mathematics you will note that the chapter on addition is distinct from the chapter on subtraction which is distinct form the chapter on multiplication.  In recent years in reading instruction we looked at all the strategies readers used (visualization, making connections, inferencing etc) and thought that we should teach one per month.  However, psychologists have found, over and over again, that the reverse is true.  If you really want to understand a concept deeply you should learn it “interleaved” with other, preferably similar concepts.  So we should teach ABCABCABC not AAABBBCCC.

Not only does retention improve immensely, but an analysis of errors shows that students make “better errors” when taught in an interleaved fashion.  Students are less likely to simply memorize procedures as they must, as they are learning, choose between multiple options.  Students, as they are learning, develop the skills to see the similarities and differences between concepts.

Let’s look at a mathematics example.  Students need to learn to find the area of a parallelogram, a triangle and a trapezoid.  Instead of teaching them separately, if they are taught together then students are less likely to memorize a formula and more likely to see how the formulas are related to each other.  They are more likely to make sense of the mathematics.



Intuitively we think that “practice makes perfect”.  If students want to master something they should repeat it many, many times in a row to make it stick.  If you want to play middle C, do it 20 times.   If you want to know how to do long division, do 100 problems.  If you want to be able to spell a difficult word, write it out 25 times.  However, psychologists, from their research, will tell you that just isn’t true.  While overlearning does increase retention in the short term (like for the spelling test tomorrow) it does not appear to have long lasting benefits.  Practice is only helpful to mastery.  Once you have mastery, any extra practice is irrelevant.  So, we need our students to practice new skills, but once individual students have demonstrated mastery, any further practice is a waste of time.  It does not increase retention; it may lead to disengagement.


What does all this mean for teaching?  If you consider the three concepts together I think that it can change how we approach planning and teaching.  It would appear that there is something to be gained from teaching lightly and often.  We can come back to concepts many times over the course of the year so that students have time in between learning sessions to “percolate”.  We can teach related concepts together to help students identify similarities and differences.  We can honour that different students may need different amounts of practice time.

As you begin to plan for next year, you may wish to think about how these concepts relate to your subject.  Could you create long range plans that allow for a more recursive approach?  Where you spiralled key ideas though out the year?  In fact, spring being a good time to try new things, so is there something left to teach that you could play with in this way?  See what happens; no one will die.


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