My wife and I are going to Spain in January, so I have been practicing Spanish. One of the effects this has on me is that it gets me to think a lot about how memory works and what makes learning easier*. And in that respect, there are a few great papers out there looking specifically at empirically-based techniques that help learning (and by transposition, help teaching too).
One of these papers is this: Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
There are two techniques highlighted on Table 4 that appear to fall in the high utility category. These are: Practice testing and Distributed practice, and I can proudly say I use both in my lectures (although I am not sure I use them as much when I study).
Practice testing simply refers to being tested or testing yourself. This technique has been studied extensively in recent years and it has proven very effective. In other words, if you want to learn something well, there is no better way than testing your own knowledge of the subject matter. For instance, if you want to memorize the names of all of Henry VIII’s wives, you can first read the list, then, for the sake of argument, you can either read the list again (study), or try to retrieve the list (test). Evidence shows that test beats extra study: more information is retained when you do a test rather than when you study the list again.
Distributed practice, on the other hand, refers to the spacing effect: learning material over time “(either within a single study session or across sessions) typically benefits long-term retention more than does massing learning opportunities back-to-back or in relatively close succession” (Dunlosky et al., p. 35). So, to give you an example, you could try to learn the names of all of Henry VIII’s wives by studying the names five times in a row, or you could study the names once, then go on to study something else for a while (e.g., history of uphill bowling), before going back to studying the wives’ names again for a second time. You are spacing the learning and giving your brain some time to breathe (not literally) – this is another technique that works fairly well.
Finally, you can combine spacing and testing to obtain even better results. Do try it at home!
*To be honest, that is what I do for a living, too.