Teaching Tip: Variety is the spice of learning

This week’s post summarizes and comments on two closely related principles from the Life Long Learning at Work and at Home website.

Principle 2: Varying learning conditions makes learning more effortful but results in enhanced long-term retrieval.

Principle 3:  Learning is generally enhanced when learners are required to take information that is presented in one format and “re-represent” it in an alternative format.

Both of these principles emphasize how important it is to vary the conditions of learning if we want students to remember and use information once they leave the classroom.  In order to understand why variability is important, it is helpful to understand how our brains store and access the things we learn.

Essentially, humans can process information in two systems, visuospatial and auditory-verbal. Information can be stored in either one of these two systems or in both of them.  According to the most commonly accepted theory in cognitive psychology, information that has been stored in both systems is more easily recalled than information that is only stored in one system or the other, so when we ask students to process information in varied ways, they are able to use multiple cues from both systems to help them remember.

One way to vary learning conditions is to present information in both major modes. For example, a reading assignment might be paired with an exercise where students must extract information from a video, a picture or a chart.  If you are in a field that is primarily visual, asking students to read about what they are seeing provides similar variation.  One caveat here – the students have to actually use both modalities.  If the students find that they can succeed using only one method, they will naturally tend to skip the other one.  Our challenge is twofold – finding good ways to use both modes and organizing our classes so that students must use them both in order to succeed.

Varying modes of presentation has distinct advantages in a classroom with diverse learners.  We all have cognitive strengths and preferences – some of us prefer auditory learning while others are visual (and still others prefer a kinesthetic approach, but that’s another story). Research on these learning style preferences suggests that trying to personalize instruction based on individual learning style does not enhance learning, and when you consider the dual storage theory, it makes sense that using multiple presentation modes with all students will provide the kind of variability that leads to increased effort and storage in both systems.  Plus, when multiple styles are used, everyone has the chance to use both their preferred and non-preferred styles.  This can help students who are non-traditional learners since it gives them a shot at the material using their preferred style as well as practice that can improve their non-preferred skills.

Not only can you vary the presentation mode (the input channels, if you will) but you can also vary the output channels to enhance retention and learning transfer.  Asking students to draw pictures or create graphical representations such as concept or knowledge maps that summarize the main points of a reading assignment or lecture works well for this purpose.  Research suggests that graphical representations are particularly useful because they force students to think about the types of relationships between concepts and information.

Assigning a concept or knowledge map exercise is most helpful if students have some prior instruction on how to complete the task. O’Donnell, Dansereau & Hall (2002) provide a good overview of knowledge maps and how to use them.  You can ask students to construct their own knowledge maps or you can give them knowledge maps instead of or along with texts and lectures.  Research indicates that giving students knowledge maps that you have constructed can help students (especially weaker students or non-native speakers) grasp material more effectively.  Giving your students pre-constructed maps might be more appropriate for less advanced classes, while students in advanced classes can be challenged to produce their own.

In addition to concept and knowledge maps, arguments and problem solving procedures also are good candidates for visual diagramming methods.  The University of Texas Center for Teaching and Learning presents a simplified version of diagramming arguments while this pdf presents a more detailed and formal  version drawn from philosophy.

Principle 2 above also indicates the downside (at least from the student perspective) of using variable learning conditions – the need for more effort.  When students are asked to learn material under varied conditions or “re-present” material in a different format, as in Principle 3, they have to work harder. The bottom line is obvious to the point of being somewhat trite.  When learning requires more investment of effort, it is more likely to be retained

Because of the increased effort required, students may seem to learn more slowly when you vary the conditions of learning.  Don’t despair and don’t give up.  When a single modality is used (e.g. readings and lectures accompanied by exams – all verbal mechanisms) both you and the students may falsely assume that they understand the material on a deep level.  Requiring students to use different methods and media for their learning may result in poorer performance initially, but the research suggests that long term learning is enhanced.

You are likely to hear from students that multimodal work is harder than traditional single-channel methods.  Validate their correct observations!  Students need to understand why you are “doing this to them.”  Sometimes students who are very able in one modality (like most college professors) are particularly resistant to trying new and challenging modes.  And many of us are reluctant to leave our comfort zone as well.  But the research is quite clear that doing so enhances learning and transfer.

What methods do you already use to vary the conditions of learning in your classes?  What would you like to know more about? 

If you want to read further:   

The Lifelong Learning at Work and at Home website provided these summarizes and recommends these articles for additional reading

Mayer, R. E. (1993). Illustrations that instruct. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 254-284). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  This book chapter explores the uses of text and illustrations as teaching aids, primarily in textbooks.  The author examines how different types of illustrations (i.e., decorative, representational, organizational, and explanative) affect cognitive processes—selecting, organizing, or integrating information—that are involved in learning.  Explanative illustrations show how elements in a system are related and underlying principles governing the system.  Although underused in textbooks, these types of illustrations best promote all three types of cognitive processing that enhances learning.

Meyer, B. J. F., & Poon, L. W. (2001). Effects of structure strategy training and signaling on recall of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 141-59.  Training older and younger adults to use textual cues that highlight conceptual relationships improved their overall recall of the text as well as recall for main ideas.  Training produced positive transfer to remembering everyday materials such that these individuals also better recalled details from informative videos, relative to individuals who were given motivational training or no training.

Wallace, D. S., West, S. W. C., Ware, A., & Dansereau, D. F. (1998). The effect of knowledge maps that incorporate gestalt principles on learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 67, 5-16.  Learning aids were presented in one of three different formats: text, unenhanced map, and enhanced map.  The enhanced map differed from the unenhanced map in that it used the gestalt principles of similarity and proximity to group related concepts.  Those who studied using enhanced maps demonstrated superior recall over those using unenhanced maps or text.



O’Donnell, A.M., Dansereau, D.F. & Hall, R. H. (2002). Knowledge maps as scaffolds for cognitive processing. Educational Psychology Review, 14 (1), 71-86


Coming up next:  The importance of prior knowledge to present learning.


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