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Study Finds Testing Helps Students Retain Information Taught Online

By Amna H. Hashmi, Crimson Staff Writer

A new study conducted by psychology researchers at Harvard suggests that early and frequent testing improves students’ retention of educational material taught through a virtual platform.

With the rapid emergence over the past year of massive open online courses offered through initiatives like Harvard’s virtual learning platform edX, preventing students’ minds from wandering when studying at home remains a challenge for which there is “shockingly little” hard scientific data, said the study’s author Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard.

“Students are trying to focus on a computer screen, and like in a classroom, they may be faced with distractions like the television, smart phones, family members, or day-to-day demands,” said Karl Szpunar, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology who worked on the study with Schacter.

In one experiment of the study, published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of students watched a statistics lecture that had been broken up into four segments of approximately five minutes each. After each segment, students completed several practice math problems. Some of them were immediately tested on the material from the statistics lecture, while others were just offered more math problems.

Students who were tested on the lecture’s material between each segment daydreamed less and retained more information, compared even to those who had the opportunity to study later, said Schacter in a press release.

During a second experiment, the researchers interrupted the lecture to ask students if they were paying attention to the material being presented. At any given time, 40 percent said they were not.

“It’s a pretty sobering thought about how much attention is actually being paid to the course material,” Szpunar said.

The researchers also found that frequent testing reduced student anxiety over tests due to their familiarity with the questions on the final cumulative exam and their increased incentive to focus.

Szpunar said he thinks the findings might be applied to improve student learning experiences in both the brick-and-mortar and virtual classrooms. He suggested they might be applied to Harvard’s edX courses in order to make them more effective.

“From here forward, we are hoping to work with the folks at edX to actually implement some of these strategies in an online course,” he said.

According to Szpunar, researchers hope to test whether their findings will hold up with students in their actual home learning environments.

“We would like to see how they work for people who are learning from home, where there are more distractions,” he said.

—Staff writer Amna H. Hashmi can be reached at amnahashmi@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @amna_hashmi.

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