A review of commonly assigned textbooks for aspiring teachers shows that few cover strategies proven to help students remember what they learn.

Share story

When doctors see patients with diabetes, they don’t dive into the vast research literature to figure out what to do next, they consult a clinical guide that translates the best evidence to date into recommended treatments.

That was the idea behind a guide for teachers produced by experts in memory and learning published in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Education.

The authors boiled decades of research down into seven widely-accepted findings based on the principle that “learning depends upon memory, and that memory of skills and concepts can be strengthened by relatively concrete—and in some cases quite nonobvious strategies.”

For example, teachers should present key concepts at least twice, separated by weeks or even months, which makes learning more efficient than when the material is covered only once. Same goes for students ­– cramming the night before the final isn’t as effective as periodic quizzing and study.

In math and science classes, it’s better for students to alternate between studying examples of problems that have already been solved with problems they have to solve on their own. Typically students get a few examples with solutions, then they have to solve a block of problems.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

But aspiring teachers aren’t learning much about such strategies, according to a review published this month of 48 textbooks that often appear on required reading lists in teacher training programs, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

NCTQ found that none of the 48 textbooks covered more than two of the principles outlined in the 2007 guide.  It also found that the principle cited most often  ­– posing questions that require students to provide well-reasoned explanations ­– was described in only 41 percent of the texts.

Hal Pashler, a cognitive psychologist at the University of San Diego who led the team that produced the 2007 guide, observed the same problem in a 2010 essay in the journal Educational Researcher that he co-authored with University of South Florida psychologist Doug Rohrer.

“It is striking how often these strategies differ from conventional instructional and study methods,” they wrote.

They explained in the essay that flawed human intuition may explain some of the resistance, which “appears to reflect the widespread (but erroneous) feeling that these strategies are less effective than their alternatives,” according to the essay. 

For example, they cited a 2008 study of adults who learned about the paintings of 12 artists with similar styles, either by viewing the works of a single artist back to back or by alternating between artists. Then they were asked to identify the artist of a painting that they hadn’t seen and the alternating method proved more successful.

But even after the experiment was over, 78 percent of the participants predicted that the back-to-back method would work better.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.