MindEdge Online Learning

For Course Designers, It’s All About Retention


For Course Designers, It’s All About Retention

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Designing to help students remember what they learn

By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
The good news for those of us who work in the field of online education is that the low-cost, flexible alternative of online instruction continues to attract increasing numbers of students, even as college enrollment overall is down.1 Furthermore, we can feel good about our work: plenty of research supports the efficacy of online learning.2
students rarely walk out of class, but there's no social pressure to keep a browser window open.
The bad news is that online courses face one significant hurdle that face-to-face learning does not. That’s the ability—and tendency—of learners to click away from the course at the first feeling of difficulty. Students rarely walk out of class, but there’s no social pressure to keep a browser window open.
This liability of virtual education has implications for course design; instructors need to ensure that the learning experience is as frictionless as possible. But there is a deeper tension here, between what feels comfortable to the learner and what leads to genuine learning.
It turns out that a number of techniques shown to increase retention can feel difficult to students, decreasing the likelihood that they’ll stick around.
One of these uncomfortable-but-fruitful learning practices is called ”interleaved practice,” which is practice that varies the skills being exercised. Interleaved practice is more effective than the comfortably familiar “massed practice” which is, essentially, doing a lot of the same type of problem.
Unfortunately, our educational system is dominated by massed practice. In elementary school, children are given 20 pairs of fractions to multiply, one after another, in one sitting. In basketball, athletes practice shot after shot. In piano, a student plays the same measure repeatedly until it’s right. Massed practice leads to quick mastery and, more importantly, the quick feeling of mastery that learners associate with a successful learning experience. Students look for that same feeling in their online courses.
In fact, research suggests that all this repetition does not lead to greater long-term mastery. In a famous study, one group of eight-year-olds practiced throwing beanbags into a bucket three feet away. Another group practiced throwing beanbags into buckets two and four feet away. Then both groups were tested on how well they threw a beanbag into a bucket three feet away. The result? The group that practiced throwing the beanbag varying distances did significantly better than the group that practiced only on the target distance of three feet.
How can you explain to a student that this course will never give him any practice at the actual task he's being asked to perform?
Based on these test results, a successful course in throwing a beanbag three feet would have the learner practice throwing it two and four feet, instead. But how can you explain to a student that this course will never give him any practice at the actual task he’s being asked to perform?
Luckily, other research does not support the idea that students become good at tasks by never practicing them. Rather, these studies suggest that switching tasks frequently leads to a better understanding of each one individually. This is the power of interleaving.
But this power is hard-won. It’s difficult. It doesn’t feel to the learner as though she’s mastered anything.
In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel recount a study in which two groups of students were asked to calculate the volume of four geometric figures. One group was given multiple problems at a time on a single figure, while the other was given the same practice problems in no particular order. During the practice, the group working on the massed problems (problems only testing one type of volume calculation at a time) performed significantly better on the calculations, but on a test a week later the massed problems group averaged 20 percent correct, while the interleaved group averaged 63 percent correct.3
While learners are right to say that repetition leads to quicker mastery, that mastery fades more quickly. So how does an instructional designer negotiate the divide between a positive learning experience—one that keeps students around—and a beneficial learning result?
Into the breach comes “spaced practice,” a learning strategy that calls for practices to be broken up into shorter sessions, over a longer period of time. A course can offer learners the massed learning they appreciate and then gradually space out the practice and review, interleaving the new topic with older ones. The act of forgetting (a little) and then retrieving the new information or skill cements it in long-term memory. The quick boost to short-term memory that is massed practice will gradually shift to the more permanent long-term memory.
Say you are designing an art history course that teaches students the characteristics of different periods. After presenting the characteristics of Renaissance art, you might have students explain how a few particular works of art exemplify the period (massed practice). The next task might be to pick out the seven Renaissance paintings from among a group of 14 paintings.
However, after students have completed a unit on the Baroque, they should be asked to differentiate Renaissance artworks from Baroque artworks from those that are neither. After the unit on the Baroque, students’ knowledge of the Renaissance is likely to be fuzzy. Interleaving Renaissance and Baroque works will sharpen their knowledge of the Baroque period while it shifts their knowledge of the Renaissance from short-term to long-term memory. After each new period, students can be asked to review Renaissance art in the context of recalling an increasing number of periods.
As designers, we want our students to enjoy our classes and feel a sense of mastery. But we also want to set them up for long-term success. A good instructional designer works to keep students on the page—and to make it worth their while to have been there.


1Straumsheim, C. A Volatile but Growing Online Ed Market. Inside Higher Education, May 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/05/02/report-finds-growth-volatility-online-education-market/
2Most recently, a meta-analysis of research by the U.S. Department of education. The report contrasted online to face-to-face education and found students in an online environment had modestly better outcomes. Evaluation of Evidence-based Learning Practices in Online Learning. U.S. Department of Education, September 2010. https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf
3Brown, P, Roediger III, H., McDaniel, M. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Press: Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 49-50.
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