Young man with a book We go through school without realizing if our learning strategies are inefficient even more so when some assessments support these practices as opposed to discourage it. Unfortunately, exams and graduation run the risk of giving us a sense that learning is over, that what we have learned does not change, or that there are not more effective ways of learning. There is no way of unlearning what we have learned in the past, so it’s always a sensible practice to reassess our knowledge on a constant basis. 

Zimmerman defines self-regulated learning when students actively participate in their own learning using feedback, behavior, motivation, and metacognitive skills for effectiveness.1 The problem is that active participation is not enough, learners also need effective learning strategies to acquire and maintain information highly retrievable and long-term retention. In a recent meta-analysis Dunlosky and colleagues2 identified a number of effective and non-effective learning strategies practiced by students. Although learning strategies are useful, their effectiveness might not reach their potential in a curriculum without frequent testing, interleaved practice, formative assessments, distributed practice.

Studying TechniqueEffect on Learning
Practice TestingHigh
Distributed PracticeHigh
Interleaved PracticeModerate
Elaborative InterrogationModerate
Keyword mnemonicLow

Table adapted from BigThink

In a recent lecture at Harvard University Dr. Robert Bjork, an educational researcher from UCLA, talked about learning strategies and their implications in self-regulated learning. The title of the talk is quite intriguing and appropriate: Forgetting as a friend of learning: Implications for teaching and self-regulated learning.

These are a few of the concepts he addressed:

  1. Active retrieval is a learning process and a skill unto itself; so it requires practice.
  2. New theory of disuse: storage strength vs retrieval strength
  3. Performance is measurable and observable, learning is not.
  4. Conditions that reduce retrieval strength can, therefore, enhance learning.
  5. Practice retrieval, rather than looking things up, as often as possible.
  6. Mass practice shows rapid learning, but no benefit for long-term retention.
  7. Spaced practice shows forgetting, but helps long-term retention.
  8. Desirable learning difficulties: conditions of instruction that appear to create difficulties for the learner, slowing the rate of apparent learning, often optimize long-term retention and transfer.
  9. Induction: the ability to generalize concepts and categories through exposure to multiple exemplars. Block/Mass allows the learner to notice characteristics that unify category. Interleaving makes it difficult.
  10. The image below depicts active research and where learners can go wrong when managing and assessing their learning.3

Self regulated learning graphic

This is a great panel discussion with Dr. John Dunlosky, Dr. Robert A. Bjork, Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal, Dr. Dan Robinson, Dr. Elizabeth Marsh, and Dr. Geoff Norman held at McMaster University last year.

These are a few of the points discussed:

  1. Effective and not effective learning strategies (mass learning, retrieval practice, etc)
  2. Myths in education (e.g. learning styles, MBTI personality types)
  3. Evidence-based education
  4. Desirable difficulties
  5. Cummulative exams
  6. Bloom’s Taxonomy
  7. Identification and emphasis of core knowledge
  8.  Technology might be helpful in learning (also consider cost)

Further Reading

Retrieval Practice: 10 benefits of testing

Image credit

Zimmerman B. Self-Efficacy: An Essential Motive to Learn. Contemp Educ Psychol. 2000;25(1):82-91. [PubMed]
Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 2013;14(1):4-58. doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266
Bjork R, Dunlosky J, Kornell N. Self-regulated learning: beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annu Rev Psychol. 2013;64:417-444. [PubMed]
Javier Benitez, MD

Javier Benitez, MD

ALiEM Featured Contributor
Javier Benitez, MD


Medical doctor, tweets not medical advice or endorsements. Interested in #MedEd & technology. Always learning. I'm no expert. No financial conflict of interest.
Javier Benitez, MD