Evidence-Based Learning Strategies For Homeschoolers
The easy way to make your students learn more!
In some ways, this is not a very good article for me to write, because my son is three and primarily learns through playing with his Duplos and casual conversations about whether gorillas are “pie-mates.” But I haven’t seen anyone else talking about this, so here goes.
A review by several cognitive and educational researchers rates two learning strategies as most effective: practice testing and distributed practice. They rate three learning strategies as having much promise: interleaved practice, elaborative interrogation, and self-explanation. The following strategies were found to be ineffective: rereading, highlighting, summarizing the material in your own words, and using mental imagery. Unfortunately, schools rarely use the most effective learning strategies, and few textbooks use these strategies out of the box. As a homeschooling parent, you will have to customize your curriculum to use these strategies. Fortunately, they are relatively easy to incorporate in most curricula. Let’s talk about what the effective strategies look like.
Practice testing. Practice testing is exactly what it sounds like: creating tests and other situations where the student has to recall information from memory. Practice testing is useful for two reasons. First, if you try to recall something, your brain will decide that this is important information that needs to be remembered and store it in long-term memory. Second, if a student gets an answer wrong, they know they need to study that information in more detail.
Of course, one easy way to do practice testing is, well, tests. But there are lots of other options! If your curriculum has exercises, require your children to do them without consulting the book. Regularly ask your children questions that require them to recall key information from memory. (Luckily, this is something you can do anywhere from car rides to the grocery store.) You might want to use trivia games like BrainQuest which make recall fun. For older students, the flashcard app Anki might be useful. Unlike other flashcard apps, Anki only tests you on cards that you didn’t remember very well, which saves time and energy. It uses an algorithm which brings up old cards only when you are about to forget them.
Distributed practice. Distributed practice means spreading out your practice over time. You can do distributed practice within a single study session: for example, instead of drilling a single spelling word, you might have your student practice each spelling word once and then return to the beginning. You can also do distributed practice across study sessions: instead of cramming all at once, you do a little every day. It’s like learning a song: you would practice a little every day, and wouldn’t try to cram the night before.
Distributed practice is a straightforward and easy-to-use technique, so I don’t really need to elaborate on how to use it. The flashcard app Anki, which I previously recommended, automatically does distributed practice, because of how it spaces out cards.
Interleaved practice. Interleaved practice means practicing different skills in the same session. For example, in a non-interleaved math class, you study how to calculate the area of a circle and solve only circle problems, then how to calculate the area of a triangle and solve only triangle problems, then how to calculate the area of a rectangle and solve only rectangle problems. In an interleaved math class, when you study how to calculate the area of a rectangle, perhaps half your problems are rectangle area problems. The other half might be how to calculate the area of a circle or a triangle—or they might even be questions about parallel lines from last unit!
Interleaved practice is good for several reasons. First, interleaved practice is perhaps the easiest way to implement distributed practice. Second, once you solve a few problems of a particular type, you’re really not learning much anymore: you’re just robotically doing the same thing you did previously. By mixing it up, you can’t just repeat the same actions over and over again. Third, interleaved practice is the only way to practice the important skill of choosing which technique to use to solve a problem. If you are in the circle unit, then obviously every problem is solved by applying the circle formula. If there is a mix of different shapes, you have to learn to recognize the shapes and figure out which ones to use.
To incorporate interleaved practice, when you are assigning problems, assign a mix of new problems and review problems. If you use one of the above techniques to do practice testing, include both new material and old material. When creating an Anki deck, include a mix of flashcards within a broad area (“math”, not “formulas for the area of a shape”).
Elaborative interrogation. Elaborative interrogation means asking why something is true. Elaborative interrogation encourages students to actively think about what they’re learning and connect it to things they already know. It is useful even if the student’s explanation is wrong or incomplete. To use elaborative interrogation, think like a preschooler: ask “why” constantly. For example, if you’re reading a book or watching a documentary as a family, pause regularly to ask your student why things might be true. You might also encourage them to ask themselves “why” when they’re reading a book to learn. When doing a science experiment, going on a nature walk, or at a museum or zoo, ask your child why things are happening. When you observe something strange or interesting throughout your daily life, ask why it is happening. You might find lots of opportunities for “why”s when you look.
Self-explanation. Self-explanation is related to but distinct from elaborative interrogation. When you’re solving a problem, self-explanation means explaining to yourself why you took the steps you did. When you’re learning a new piece of information, self-explanation means setting the book aside and then explaining why the fact you learned must be true.
Self-explanation is the idea behind those infamous and widely hated “explain your work” questions. As a parent, you probably don’t want to force your child to suffer through something you despised that much. But self-explanation can work better in the homeschool environment than in conventional school. Many students are frustrated by having to explain problems where they just looked at it and found the correct answer; if your student has mastered the problem well enough that they don’t have to think about how to solve it, you can simply stop assigning those problems. Similarly, you shouldn’t require that the student solve the problem the way that the textbook thinks it should be solved.
In other subjects, you might encourage students to write paragraphs or essays where they explain why things they have learned are true. You can assign “why” questions when you have the student do problems; if your textbook does not have many “why” questions, you can write your own. You can also make sure to ask lots of “why” questions in your practice testing sessions.
I am a teacher and I endorse all of this - it also applies in the classroom. (For more tips in this style, I recommend the work of Willingham, starting with the book "Why don't students like school?", a lot of which could also be transferred to homeschooling.)