Strategies to Improve Student Learning


Extract from Issue#13 of Teaching Tuesdays@CSU

All issues of Teaching Tuesdays can be accessed through the folder at this link

By Dr Victor Benassi and Dr Maryellen Weimer

(How to subscribe: Staff with a CSU email address can obtain the Magna Commons CSU subscription code from Ellen McIntyre

Evidence-Based Teaching in Higher Education: Strategies to Improve Student Learning draws from “science of learning” concepts to provide teaching ideas on how to structure content and how to help students gain long-term benefits from their learning.

The presentation refers to a few key texts that will be listed below, but the main reference is a 300-page FREE download book by Professor Benassi and co-authors:

Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology website:


Desirable difficulties:

Creating challenges and difficulties in the short-term to promote long-term gain for recall and application. The process includes allowing student errors and incorrect explanations, followed with correct information and explanation about why. Three manipulations to introduce desirable difficulties:

  • Spacing study – distributing practice over time – both as a teaching technique and as a studying technique for students. The opposite is “massing practice”, or cramming.
  • Interleaving – intermingling of new material with previously learned topics under varied conditions. The opposite is “blocked practice” – learning an entire topic once and then moving onto the next.
  • Retrieval practice – evidence shows a more direct benefit for learning, compared to knowledge tests. Feedback is essential to ensure that errors are not perpetuated.

Techniques for learning from texts:

Examines common reading/studying techniques that we all do, but are shown to have limited effectiveness for long-term learning. These include Re-reading, Highlighting, Notetaking, Accessing the teacher’s notes or PowerPoint slides. So what does work?

  • Giving guiding questions to answer – for every text that students read, provide questions to answer based on the text – for poor readers, produces significant increase in ability to answer similar conceptual questions, limited effect on increasing performance of high performing learners.

Cognitive Load:

If we try to impart all that we know and introduce interesting and seductive details, the amount of content can be more than students can process. Techniques to manage cognitive load include

  • Chunking
  • Spacing
  • Getting rid of seductive details
  • Challenge the assumption that “more is always better”

The transcript from this session includes answers to audience questions and a list of references for further study. Example: “should students be encouraged to take notes if they are in a lecture?”

Main extra references:

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M.J., Willingham, D. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.

Mayer, R. E. (2011). Applying the science of learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Roediger, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying Cognitive Psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 242-248. – Not available in our library, but we do have a more recent publication by the same author:

Brown, P., Roediger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make It Stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from

Presentation handouts, full transcripts and supplementary resources are available for download from the Magna Commons website if you don’t have time to listen to the seminar.