Some Not So Surprising Things About Reading and Recall

The New York Times has an article summarizing the research of Jeffrey Karpike of the Memory and Cognition Lab at Purdue University. The study Karpike conducted focuses on the effectiveness of different approaches to learning a reading passage on a scientific topic and was published in Science, a well-known scientific journal.

Karpike has put together four different studying scenarios together and measured their effectiveness soon after the study sessions and then a week after the study sessions.

  1. Have the students read the material in five minutes and then move on with their lives.
  2. Have the students read the material four different times for five minutes at a time.
  3. Have the students read the material and then draw diagrams of the material with the reading in front of them.
  4. Have the students read the material and then “test” themselves on it by writing for 10 minutes without the reading in front of them.

The assessments used by Karpike and his team seem to be well constructed since they ask questions that require the students to recall facts from the articles but also to make inferences from the materials. This type of assessment is common practice in reading research because it checks whether the student understands the materials but also whether he or she can apply it to a situation not covered in the reading.

Predictably, the first scenario where the student reads for five minutes and goes about his or her day does not work all that well in the assessment taken right after the study session nor in the assessment taken a week later. The next three scenarios all work fairly well both right after the study session and a week later, but the New York Times and Karpike go out of their way to point out that the fourth scenario works best, especially after a week’s time.

Here is the diagram the New York Times reproduced from the Science article to make this point:

Everything Karpike and his team are doing is well within the practices of the research I have read before. He has also conducted and published many studies quite similar to the one that the New York Times is treating as if it were ground breaking stuff. It is not, and that is a good thing.

I do, of course, have few problems with this article and the implications of it. (This is a blog, after all, so I must have a problem with somebody, right?) The New York Times’ headline writer is misleading by stating that students should quite studying and take a test. The “test” Karpike has the students use is not a question and answer test, but a free write where the student just rehashes as much as he or she can for ten minutes. It is just writing. There is nothing innovative in this approach, and that is a good thing.

Another problem is the one that all teachers confront when they read what appears to be relevant research. How can this be used with the lessons I teach to the students I have? Apparently, we should revise our lesson plans pronto:

“It really bumps it up a level of importance by contrasting it with concept mapping, which many educators think of as sort of the gold standard,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. Although “it’s not totally obvious that this is shovel-ready — put it in the classroom and it’s good to go — for educators this ought to be a big deal.”

I guess I am not sure why research that Karpike has been conducting and publishing regularly for the past ten years or so should suddenly be a “big deal,” especially since it deals with methods most teachers have been using for quite some time. The reality is that Karpike has conducted some solid research over the course of a number of years and deserves to get the attention that comes with being published in Science. He makes no grandiose claims for his work, and that is a good thing.

When I look through the list and try to see how my students might make sense of them, things get different. The first approach of reading for five minutes and then moving on is clearly not going to work as well when the only goal is reading comprehension. The problem is that students use this method most often not because they mistakenly think it works well, but because it is easy and fast. This approach is going to be quite enticing to both lazy and overworked students who, depending on the work ethic, either want to get back to their video games or finish studying for three other courses. Depending on the context, the first approach might be the best one.

Even if writing for ten minutes works better than reading repeatedly or doodling a concept map, it might not be the best approach all the time for all students. For some students, the task of writing bring in too many other issues and anxieties and might interfere with learning the material. And concept mapping is not only useful for learning how to present material to others but is also a good deal easier and more fun for most students. When you have been cramming for a number of classes, a change in approach, especially if it is less taxing on your working memory, might be a better way to go.

Writing, as Karpike points out in the article and other research he has done, is more difficult to do that re-reading or coming up with a concept map. This means it is probably far more taxing on working memory and less likely to be something a student can do over and over again when there are multiple assignments to be completed in a limited amount of time.

In the end, the New York Times article reads much like the articles in car magazines that compare the relative worths of different models of sports cars. They put the cars through idealized testing situations and then quantify the results with clearly defined winners and losers. The problem is that there is usually more to the situation than the numbers can pick up. In this case, writing a summary after reading an assignment is the high horsepower option, but it seems to burn more gas than the other models.

[At this point I was going to connect this article to grammar instruction, but I would rather post a picture of a really cool Alfa Romeo 159 from 1951 that produced 425 hp from a 1.5 liter engine. Yes, folks, that year and those numbers are correct:


The only problem is that it got 1 mpg. And that is not such a good thing.]

About Joseph Pendleton

I am the Reading Specialist--Basic Skills at Victor Valley College. I teach the reading courses in the English Department and the basic English grammar courses in the Basic Skills Department. My primary interests as a teacher is in how students retain the information and skills we teach them. View all posts by Joseph Pendleton

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