Last week, Mr Steven Taylor (Acting Director of Staff Development and Research at Churchie) focused on the “power of retrieval practice”. In his article, Mr Taylor used the term “utility” to describe the effectiveness and efficiency of retrieval practice. We often refer to a technique’s utility when we aim to focus student and teacher attention on which study strategy to use (and the ones to try to avoid). But what is utility, and why does it matter?

The concept of strategy utility was catapulted into the spotlight by a groundbreaking article authored by influential cognitive psychologists and scientists Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, and Willingham in 2013, titled “Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology“. This pivotal research undertook the comprehensive evaluation of ten common study strategies using field-based collective empirical evidence. What truly sets this study apart is its ability to distinguish between high-impact (Strategy #2: Retrieve It and Strategy #3: Space It), moderately effective (Strategy #6: Connect It and Strategy #3: Jumble It), and low-impact (highlighting, rereading, and rewriting) strategies. The discernment of these common techniques, backed by the synthesis of numerous studies, presents both teachers and students with some clear advice on which strategies return the greatest learning for the time and effort invested. In our specific context, the insightful assessment led to the identification of the six strategies that now form the bedrock of A Learner’s Toolkit, empowering students with the most potent and efficient tools for academic success.

What is Utility?

The utility of a strategy refers to the learning for invested time and effort. In short, we often refer to a simple mathematical equation to frame the concept of utility.

Learning = Effort Applied x Time Invested

The simple equation we present here offers insights for  both students and teachers alike. At its core, the concept of utility showcases a powerful relationship: as effort increases, time decreases, and vice versa. Embracing this concept can help students to recognize the benefits of using certain strategies over others. Let’s take a closer look: Strategies like Retrieve It, Space It, and Jumble It may demand more effort initially, but the payoff lies in the significant reduction of time needed to achieve specific learning goals. On the other hand, lower-effort strategies such as highlighting, rereading, and rewriting may seem convenient, but they often demand a more substantial investment of time to yield comparable results. By understanding this equation and harnessing the idea of utility, students can optimize their study routines, making them more efficient and effective. Likewise, teachers can model this knowledge, training their students in the most impactful study methods.

Why is it Important to Understand the Utility of Different Study Strategies?

The utility of a study strategy is crucial as it determines how effective the strategy will be in helping you learn and remember information in a given period of time. Given that time is not infinite and students require balance in their lives beyond study, we want students to use those strategies that give the most significant learning gain for the time invested. Furthermore, we want this investment of time to yield learning that leads to the development of understanding (or schemas which is a cognitive structure that represents our knowledge about a particular topic or domain). Understanding is critical as it allows students to remember for longer (by regulating their cognitive load), aids the speed and accuracy (known as automaticity) of future recall and supports critical thinking and problem-solving.

Here are some additional key studies that support the use of high-utility study strategies:

  • Roediger and Karpicke (2006) found that retrieval practice (testing oneself on the material) was more effective than restudying for learning and remembering information.
  • Karpicke and Roedgier (2007) found that spaced practice leads to more robus learning when compared to massed practice (also known as cramming) for learning and remembering information.
  • Bjork and Bjork (2011) found that varying the conditions of practice through the application interleaving (mixing up different types of problems or concepts) was more effective than blocking/massing (doing all of the same type of problem or concept in a row) for learning and remembering information. The application of interleaving increased the effort through the concept the Bjork’s coined as “Desirable Difficulties”.