Learning Research

Learning Research by Annie Murphy Paul: Distributed Practice, Repetition and More


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For the past year, Knowledge Guru® creator Sharon Boller has been a recipient of Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter on the science of learning. As a result, many an article has been forwarded around the company, and it’s always an interesting read.

Annie Murphy PaulAnnie Murphy Paul’s bio tells us she is a “book author, magazine journalist, consultant and speaker who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better.” Most importantly for learning professionals, she has sifted through loads of research on the science of learning, synthesized it, and presented it to us in easy-to-read chunks, (usually) once a week.

I’m highlighting two specific studies found in Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Report, as they are particularly relevant to the learning principles we use in our Knowledge Guru game engine.

Distributed Practice

It turns out that the learning tactics most commonly used by both students and professionals are also the most ineffective. A 2013 report by the Association for Psychological Science examines ten learning tactics, rating their utility based on evidence gathered by five leading psychologists. The team was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky. Re-reading material, highlighting and underlining key points were all deemed “ineffective” learning tactics by the research, showing little value beyond simply reading the text.

Murphy Paul notes that “the learning strategies with the most evidence to support them aren’t well known outside the psych lab.” A prime example is distributed practice, or intentionally breaking learning into chunks and spacing study sessions out over time. The report shows that multiple repetitions, spaced out over time, build long-term memory better than other study methods. Murphy Paul also notes that “The longer you want to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.”

Takeaway: Instead of delivering training all at once, space it into smaller sessions. No cramming!

Practice Testing

The Association for Psychological Science report also noted Practice Testing as a highly effective learning tactic. Giving learners more evaluations, often not graded, will aid in further learning. Because learners must bring information to mind multiple times, they are more likely to remember it. Murphy Paul notes that flash cards are a familiar method to use for practice testing.

Takeaway: Have learners retrieve information multiple times in a “practice” setting.

Pretesting

It might seem counterintuitive, but giving learners a pretest before they have studied the material will actually enhance long-term memory. In Issue 14 of her Brilliant Report, Murphy Paul explains how completing a test on information you do not yet know, then receiving feedback afterwards, is an effective learning strategy. She cites three studies, one of them authored by Williams College psychology professor Nate Kornell and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. She explains:

Kornell and his coauthors theorize that searching our minds for answers (even if we come up empty) creates “fertile ground” in the brain for encoding the answer when it is eventually provided.

Takeaway: Allow learners to try, and possibly fail, before learning your content.

Learning Principles at Work in Knowledge Guru

Annie Murphy Paul’s research dovetails nicely into the work done by John Medina for his book, Brain Rules. We based the design of the Knowledge Guru game off of learning principles discussed in Medina’s book, and they are further validated through the research Annie Murphy Paul has compiled. Some examples:

  • Distributed practice sessions, accomplished via the separate Guru Grab Bag mode. Players return to the game to play the new game mode, with repeat content, after they complete the regular game.
  • “Practice Tests”, accomplished via multiple repetitions. Each learning objective in Knowledge Guru has one or more question sets, which include three iterations of the same question. Learners must successfully answer all three questions to master the topic. The multiple repetitions enhance long-term memory.
  • “Pre-Tests”, accomplished via asking questions, then providing immediate feedback. When Knowledge Guru is used as the primary learning method, learners answer questions they may not yet know the answer to. When they get the question incorrect, they receive immediate feedback and then try to answer the question again.

Read Annie Murphy Paul’s Upcoming Book

If you’re interested in learning more about, well, how we learn, then have a look at Annie Murphy Paul’s blog and keep an eye out for her upcoming bookBrilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. You can also subscribe to The Brilliant Report, her email series on learning science.

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  1. […] Sharon Boller highlights a few items from recent learning research, including studies about distributed practice and practice testing. However, the bit that caught my […]

  2. […] For the past year, Knowledge Guru® creator Sharon Boller has been a recipient of Annie Murphy Paul's Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter on the science of learning. As a result, many an article  […]

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