Henry L Roediger III and Mary A. Pye, “Inexpensive techniques to improve education:  Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Vol. 1, Issue 4 (December 2012): 242-248.

Reviewed by Lew Ludwig, Professor of Mathematics, Denison University

Based on numerous studies from the field of cognitive psychology, this easy to read and understand article condenses several successful practices into three low-cost techniques that can be used to help improve student learning.  The three general principles considered are

  1. distributed practice and interleaving of material
  2. testing to improve retention of knowledge
  3. exploratory questioning

The authors reference a number of studies supporting their claims and provide a number of everyday examples of how these techniques can be used in and outside the classroom by instructors and students.  As a mathematics professor, I found these techniques invaluable in helping my students better understand the material and its application.

Distributed practice and interleaving of material

While many students are convinced that mass studying, or cramming, before a test is an effective study technique, studies have shown that this method does little for long-term retention.  This is why students often perform lower on cumulative finals than on tests during the semester which cover more focused material.  Instead, students should spread out their studying (distribute) and should study a variety of topics at a time (interleaving).  A common saying in mathematics is that the problem is half solved if you know which section it came from in the textbook.  Sections are often broken down by mathematical techniques, so if you know the section, you know the technique that should be applied.

To help my students with distributed practice and interleaving, in class every Tuesday I give them ten minutes to work on four or five questions that are review topics from several sections – I call it Test Tuesday.  After ten minutes, the students discuss the answers with a neighbor.  We conclude by checking the answers as a class.  This formative assessment takes about twenty minutes, allows students to gauge their understanding, emphasizes distributed practice, and the material is interleaved as it comes from several chapters.

Testing to improve retention of knowledge

To study for an upcoming test, many students believe it is useful to reread their notes, possibly several times.  As studies in this article show, this is not as effective as learning material and then taking a test on the same material.  Researchers believe that the act of trying to recall information from memory in a testing situation actually strengthens long-term retention of that information.

To employ this technique, I do something similar to the Test Tuesday method described above.  After in-class discussion on new material, I often test students on their understanding by giving them several problems to work on without the aid of notes or the text.  After several minutes of working on the questions, the students then compare answers, and we conclude by discussing the solutions as a class.

Exploratory questioning

In my opinion, this is one of the more advanced methods discussed in the article, but it can also have the most profound affects.  With this technique, students monitor their learning by asking questions as they engage with the material:  Does this passage make sense?  How does this concept relate to what I already know?  Why is this statement true?  Studies have shown that learners who can effectively engage in this technique have significant learning gains over students who just passively read or review material.

As noted, this is a more advanced technique for students to develop.  To help them in this process, I provide students with reading notes.  These notes are a series of questions that the students must answer as they engage with the material.  Some questions are straightforward, while others may take more thought and reflection, or require students to apply previous knowledge in a new situation.


I highly recommend this article.  It is very easy to read and understand.  The techniques mentioned can be used in a variety of settings and disciplines.  Best of all, the methods can be enacted with little effort, but have significant benefits to student learning.

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