Extract: Dunlosky's Strengthening the Student Toolbox in Action by Amarbeer Singh Gill

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Date published 22 June 2022

Last updated 21 March 2024

Building on the hugely influential paper by John Dunlosky, in his new book Amarbeer Singh Gill looks at ways teachers can use recommendations from 'Strengthening the Student Toolbox' to consolidate knowledge and enhance the learning that takes place in their classrooms.

Singh is a tutor at Ambition Institute. In this handpicked extract, he explores the classification process.

Exemplifying the ‘spectrum of effectiveness’

Let’s look at two strategies at opposite ends of the effectiveness spectrum to try to illustrate the classification process: practice testing (most effective) and highlighting (less useful).

Practice Testing

Testing is a word that is rarely met with cheers, and it’s something most school age students do not welcome. However, practice testing is rated by Dunlosky and his colleagues as one of the two most effective study strategies (I emphasise the “practice” aspect here and will unpack this in chapter 2). Practice testing has been shown to have positive learning effects for:

  • A range of formats including free recall (e.g. blank-sheet retrieval), cued recall (e.g. responses to a question), fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice-style questions.
  • Comprehension (on top of recall) as well as some procedural tasks (e.g. resuscitation procedures) and tasks that involve predicting future outcomes (e.g. an input-output function). Furthermore, there is evidence of benefits to learning even when the format of the practice testing doesn’t match the end test (e.g. the practice uses free recall and the final test uses multiple-choice or a short paragraph).
  • A wide variety of ages, from nursery/kindergarten students all the way up to university students and even beyond with middle-aged and older adults.
  • Individuals with varying levels of prior knowledge and with varying levels of ability (one study showed an impact for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other memory impairments).
  • A range of subjects and topics including languages, general knowledge, scientific and historical facts, arithmetic, spellings and definitions. Alongside these verbal materials, benefits have also been shown for visual or spatial information such as: features of maps, animals and plants; locations of objects; and symbols.
  • A range of retention intervals, ranging from a few minutes to weeks, months and, in some cases, years.
  • Real-life educational contexts and materials (i.e. in actual classrooms with curriculum materials rather than in lab conditions with constructed materials).

Dunlosky and his colleagues tested this strategy’s applicability across a vast array of measures, finding multiple sources of evidence demonstrating impact and more than 100 years of significant evidence to back up their categorisation of practice testing as an effective strategy

Highlighting and underlining

On the opposite end of the spectrum are highlighting and underlining. Some readers may be keenly highlighting or underlining this very book, so I’ll begin this section with some reassurance: Dunlosky definitely doesn’t urge us to throw our highlighters away and stop underlining. This is why it’s helpful to think of these strategies on a spectrum of effectiveness, rather than simply as “good” or “bad”. If our purpose is to pick out key information from a text and make it easy to locate later then highlighting is a perfectly good strategy to use. However, if our goal is to retain information for later recall then we’ll likely be better served by a different strategy.

Dunlosky and his colleagues not only found little evidence demonstrating the benefits of highlighting or underlining on learning, but also a number of studies that demonstrated “no benefit of highlighting (as it is typically used) over and above the benefit of simply reading”. The researchers determined that this strategy wasn’t widely applicable across their criteria and in some cases was detrimental to making inferences within a chapter of text. It’s also limited to written materials, particularly prose-friendly materials. It’s worth making one point explicit: practice testing isn’t “good”, just as highlighting isn’t “bad”. It could even be argued that practice testing done really poorly may be worse than highlighting done really well. The aim of this book is to light a path towards good use of these strategies and offer a starting point for further investigation, before we take the strategies into our classrooms and refine them to achieve the best outcomes for our students.

Amarbeer Singh Gill
Tutor, Ambition Institute

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Dunlosky's Strengthening the Student Toolbox in Action by Amarbeer Singh Gill

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