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The “Best Learning Techniques” Are Useless If Students Won’t Do Them — A Critical Take On A Well Done Study


(See Dan Willingham’s response in the comments)

I value and respect the work of Dan Willingham, the co-author of a recent well-publicized study on the effectiveness of different learning techniques. And I have equal respect for Annie Murphy Paul, who has written a widespread article summarizing its findings.

I have no reason to doubt any of the findings in the study. At the same time, though, I question its usefulness to many of us in the classroom for the same reason I have raised questions in the past about Dan’s critique of regular student use of explicit reading strategies (see How Reading Strategies Can Increase Student Engagement):

The “best” learning techniques are useless if students won’t do them.

Here’s how the study evaluated ten techniques:

Practice testing and distributed practice received high utility assessments because they benefit learners of different ages and abilities and have been shown to boost students’ performance across many criterion tasks and even in educational contexts. Elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice received moderate utility assessments.

Five techniques received a low utility assessment: summarization, highlighting, the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, and rereading. 

I don’t feel a need to repeat word-for-word my previous post on reading strategies and engagement. But I don’t think the students in our school are that different from millions of others who face many challenges, including motivational ones, in — and out — of the classroom.  I’d suggest that the study’s list could be done in precisely the opposite order for showing how to help students successfully engage with what’s going on in the classroom.

I appreciate good education research. What I’d appreciate even more, though, is a little recognition that the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry
    I more or less agree. I think this article represents part of the puzzle, but it’s a relatively small part. It’s really about how kids can best *study* and it presupposes that the child is motivated to do so. That said, some of the techniques we talk about can be implemented by teacher–e.g., interleaving.

  2. Thanks Larry, we are struggling with the same issues . . . ” . . . are useless with students who won’t do them.” We have read a great deal on motivation, some from your blog, some from other places. We still have this same issue, kids who profess a desire to go to college but who lack any personal initiative to exhibit the appropriate behaviors. Some have demonstrated this behavior of lousy worh ethic for so long that they struggle with the basics of reading, especially with comprehension in reading, and formulating worthy ideas on paper. Greg

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