Small changes in teaching: Spacing out learning

In a series of articles in The Chronicle from his book “Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning“, James M. Lang presents simple and practical ideas which can produce big learning gains without requiring large changes in teaching or use of technology. In the sixth article, he suggests spacing out learning over time by giving students multiple opportunities to learn each topic:

  1. Return to important materials several times, including in assessments: if there is particular material that the students should retain, then giving them many opportunities to work and reflect on it will clearly help deepen their understanding. Although some students like each assessment to be self-contained and on a sub-set of the material, ideally each assessment should also return to the range of topics that have been covered. Often we do this only in the final examination which means that students will need to revise topics that they have not studied for weeks or even months.
    Often short quizzes and MCQ tests are used in semester to provide feedback and assistance to students: it will help ensure that this feedback is useful and acted on if they know that they will be assessed again on the material before the final examination. One way of doing this is to let students know that a few questions from earlier topics will be used in each quiz.
  2. Return regularly to the syllabus and learning outcomes for the unit: to help ensure that students know what they should know, regularly spend a few minutes going over the learning outcomes covered so far in the course. To help the students self-assess their understanding of some older material, set them a quick MCQ quiz, perhaps derived from old exam questions. If multiple choice questions do not fit your class, you could ask them to write a paragraph on the material.
  3. Spread out tests and deadlines: to reduce stress for your students and the markers, space out tests. Giving a number of short quizzes may be better than giving one longer one. Students will have more time to absorb and practice and will be less likely to be tempted to cram. If assessments are designed to be cumulative, as suggested above, it means that feedback can be given between tests and students will be able to learn and act on it.
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