Katherine Rawson [ Kent State @ HILT ] I have two basic points I’d like to talk about today. The first concerns why it’s important to make sure that students are well equipped to effectively regulate their own learning outside of the class and the second point — the one I’ll be focusing on primarily — is that Successive Relearning arguably is the most important tool for students to have in their study strategy toolbox.

To begin, why do students need a toolbox in the first place?

Consider what happens to students as they move from primary school through secondary school and then hit college

First they’re expected to learn more. The sheer volume of information that they’re expected to learn increases both within and across classes.

At the same time, students are spending the same or less time actually in class — which necessarily means that more and more of this learning is expected to take place outside of the class.

And finally — it’s the perfect storm here –as students move on, they get less and less guidance – structured activities – to support that learning.

We tend to assume that by the time they hit college they know what they’re doing. They know how to learn. Go forth and learn.

So the idea is that students do need a toolbox to engage in self-regulated learning

What tools might students have in their study strategy toolbox?

We recently published a monograph in which we reviewed the research literatures for 10 different study strategies. We try to focus on strategies either that students do or can use in principle, on their own, with minimal guidance from instructors outside the class

For each of these ten, in essence, we distill down the literature to assign it a utility rating — either low medium or high utility strategy. We base these ratings on factors like what are the magnitude of the effects, how general are they across materials, learner outcome, measures, have they been shown to work in authentic education contexts and so on.

Five of the ten got low utility ratings either because they don’t produce very big effects or have very very limited use.

Among these five, let me point out that two of them are the strategies that students most frequently report using when they are regulating their own learning outside of the class.

In contrast two and only two of the ten got the highest utility rating — distributed practice, that is spreading your study out over time, and practice testing or self-testing.

If you put these two together, if you self-test spread out over time, you in essence have the two key ingredients for Successive Relearning.

There is a little bit more to it than that — I’ll explain that in a moment.

But let me situate it in the larger view here.

My argument is that students do need a tool box with study strategy tools. They do also need to know how to use them and they have to be able to pick the right tool for the right task.

Just like carpentry.

I’ll propose that one important or common learning goal, particularly in early or entry-level courses, is for students to acquire a foundational knowledge base.

This might include key terms, key facts, concepts, theoretical assumptions, formulas – what-have-you –depending on the domain.

But we do generally often believe that students need foundational knowledge so that when they move into advanced coursework they can build on that in a cumulative fashion.

Students often need to have some facility with this foundational information to be able to engage in higher level processing, in critical thinking.

My argument here is that, for this purpose, Successive Relearning is arguably the best tool for the task.

Successive Relearning produces very durable learning, long-term retention, and is relatively economical with respect to the time that it requires for students to implement.

So what is it, without further ado.

Successive Relearning begins with an Initial Learning session that involves self testing and, in particular, of the form of retrieval where you’re trying to actively recall information from memory with restudy as needed until you can do it –until you can correctly recall the target information.

The simplest way to think about this is flashcards

The f-word.

You have a cue on one side, you attempt to retrieve the target information, flip that card over and, if you’re wrong, you restudy it as needed, put it in the back of the stack and try again until you can do it.

And then you can take it out of the stack.

Initial learning is the important first step but it is not the place to stop.

The potency for long-term learning comes from relearning — which in essence just means do it again.

Do it again on some other day, preferably more than one other day, pick that stack of flashcards back up, practice so you can correctly recall again and do it again on another day.

That’s it.

It’s simple.

It’s a very mundane strategy.

But it doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective.

It’s highly effective for durable learning.

To that end, I want to show you a bit of data from three illustrative studies that can give you a sense of the potency of Successive Relearning for enhancing retention – durable learning.

The first of these studies, just with simple verbal materials — beginning at the shallow end of the pool here — foreign language vocabulary translations, word pairs, Swahili-English — we had students learn 70 of these items.

Everybody engages in Initial Learning again with a computerized flashcard program

We give them Swahili. They have to recall English. They get it wrong, to the back of the stack it goes – until they can get them all right.

So they walk out the door on the first day knowing all seventy items.

If that’s all they did, if it was just Initial Learning, one week later we give them a test to find that only twenty-eight percent of the items were learned.

They remember now, if we have them come back to the lab, on some other day, for one relearning session — just practice them again so you get them right, it’s very very quick, they’re in and out of the lab in a few minutes — one week later they’ve more than doubled their retention of these items.

If you add a second relearning session we almost triple retention of these word-pairs with a few additional minutes of practice.

Of course those are simple word-pairs.

Much of what we want our students to learn involves more complex materials.

I regularly teach Intro Psych and there are lots of concepts we want students to learn so, in this study, I use key concept definitions from Intro Psych and

To give you a sense, just an example, here is a concept availability heuristic from the topic of judgment decision-making and here’s a one sentence definition of this concept.

In this study we actually counterbalanced assign these concepts either to be Successively Relearned or to a baseline control condition.

Baseline control we didn’t have them practice. We didn’t help them learn. But we did test them on our dependent or outcome measures because these are Intro Psych students — teaching them Intro Psych concepts — we want to know how well they know these concepts.

Just from exposure in the classes.

For the successively relearned items, everybody gets Initial Learning just like I described. We give them the concept, they have to do it the hard way. They have to come up with a definition.

Note here we emphasize – it doesn’t have to be verbatim. We want the meaning of the concept. Use your own words if you want, as long as it’s right.

We want the meaning of the concepts.

And you go until you get them all right.

Now the key manipulation is: how many times did we have them come back to the lab to relearn these concepts?

Anywhere from one to five times

And then everybody – after their last relearning session – one month and four months after relearning

They come back to the lab, take final cued recall tests — do you remember the meanings of these concepts?

And these are not arbitrary intervals.

If you take an intro class in the fall, you have one month winter break before you come back for advanced coursework in the spring.

We hope that students remember some of what they’ve learned to build on.

If you take a course in the spring you’ve got four months of summer before you come back in the fall.

Here is performance on those cued recall tests over what I would argue are meaningfully long delays.

First. Note the dotted line along the bottom – that’s baseline control. That’s how well students knew these concepts from exposure in their class.

Mind you, students told us that they had learned 50% of these concepts in class.

In contrast, look at the levels of retention that we get, across these long delays, and again these are Kent State students and not Harvard students. This is pretty impressive for us and importantly — sad but true our arrivals at the basketball games chamt, “can’t read, can’t write, Kent State” — catchy, but not particularly what you want to be known for.

At any rate, note the improvements you get from increasing the number of relearning sessions — at least to intermediate levels. There’s pay off. There’s bang for the buck.

Finally, you might be wondering , does this really work, in a classroom, to enhance learning outcomes?

One of our most recent studies, again Intro Psych students in a large section, but this time we worked specifically with their instructor and we got their key concepts.

We said, “give us what you think are the most important concepts you want your students to learn.”

And she gave us core concepts from eight of the units they were teaching — 64 — we split them in half, Successively Relearned half, baseline control for the other, to see what students could do on their own.

For the Successively Relearned concepts – again, we start with an Initial Learning session, go until you get them all right. Three relearning sessions subsequently and we synchronize these with Sharon’s class so that they began learning or practicing concepts in the same week that she was introducing them in their class.

And it went on, in a cascading fashion, over the course of this semester

Now the fun here is that we got permission to look at the course exams, so we could go in and identify the questions that we had for the 64 target concepts that we used in the experiment.

I’d like to note that Sharon’s exams were all multiple choice, no surprise for Intro Psych, but the majority of her questions required comprehension, application or inference.

Very few of her questions were direct memory – do you know what this concept is?

So it is transferred.

On those exam questions we saw more than a letter grade improvement for the successively relearned items –concepts — relative to the baseline control — the business-as-usual, the whatever students did to learn these concepts on their own outside of class.

Now, you might wonder, “what is business as usual?”

Most students report cramming the night before.

That’s generally good enough, actually, to squeak by on an exam.

The bad news is, it’s very, very bad for durable learning.

It’s very bad for long-term retention.

We often worry that students do just squeak an exam and rapidly forget what they’ve learned.

We were also concerned about this.

To evaluate it empirically we had students take follow-up cued recall test — do you remember the meaning these concepts? — 3 days and 24 days after the exam.

Just three days later, look at the level of retention for the baseline concepts.

So the concern is warranted.

The good news is, Successive Relearning protects against loss – drives good retention of the successively relearned items.

I focused here primarily on a strategy for students to use outside of class but there are important implications for instructors here too.

Because, in principle, it’s a strategy that students could use. In practice it’s a strategy that they don’t – or don’t use properly.

So students are going to benefit from some coaching from instructors.

Imagine just taking a few minutes class time near the beginning of the semester to talk generally to students about how to approach their learning outside of class and describe this strategy as one that could be particularly useful for many of their learning goals.

If you do this, I would suggest emphasizing to students the importance of full retrieval attempts — don’t just look at the cue and say, “oh yeah that’s familiar, I know that.”

Also, check that what you have produced from memory is right. Students often mistakenly believe that they came up with something, it must be right –without checking for accuracy.

But other than that –  it’s strategy.

Again, it’s very mundane, very potent though.

Students probably also would benefit from a little bit of guidance about what to submit to Successive Relearning.

On study guides, help them identify the core concepts that are particularly amenable to using this strategy.

Finally, at least some students probably would benefit from some guidance for time management.

Cramming the night before does not require very much planning at all.

Successive Relearning will require planning because it necessarily requires spreading your study out on different days.

For example, in a methods course that I teach regularly, the study guide loosely identifies sets of concepts, in order of presentation to the class. And then I recommend to my students a schedule two weeks out from the exam schedule: you’re practicing this way to relearn these items.

And they do report appreciating this guidance with respect to time management.

To bring it home, to wrap it up, again – two key points.

I think as instructors we need to focus not only on what we’re doing inside the class but on what our students are doing outside of the class and making sure that we’re helping them identify the right tools for the right tasks.

Finally, for many tasks, I would argue that Successive Relearning is a must-have tool.

Highly durable learning, relatively economical with respect to the amount of time it takes, and it’s a very good multi-purpose tool for the toolbox.

I have a polling question for you and a couple of follow-up suggestions for discussion.

My polling question is this :

I have proposed to you that Successive Relearning can be very effective for helping students regulate their learning, enhance their durable learning, are you enthusiastic about the possibility – the strategy?

Are you skeptical? Are you somewhere in between?

And then maybe talk with the folks next to you. If you’re an enthusiast maybe talk about the content that you believe it could help you or your students learn.

If you’re skeptic, among other things, I’d suggest you maybe talk about what else you would want to know about Successive Relearning before you are willing to use it or to recommend it to your students.

So thanks very much for submitting poll responses just hurry briefly I will admit I expected many more skeptics.

I would offer to everybody, if you have additional interest in Successive Relearning, I’m happy to talk with folks later in the day and also feel free to email me

I’m happy to provide you with suggestions , recommendations.

and I would particularly like to hear from the skeptics or The Inbetweeners about concerns or reservations you have about the utility of this strategy

so please do feel free to get in touch with me

I’d love to have a continued discourse about this strategy and other strategies that will help students regulate learning outside of the classroom.


Katherine Rawson, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University.

The Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) annual conference is an event designed to engage Harvard faculty (and some students and academic professionals) in a university-level dialogue about teaching and learning innovation.


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