Let’s get to work with productive learning strategies: All-in-one

By Tine Hoof, Tim Surma, Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

This blog provides an overview of a series of eight blogs on productive learning strategies, originally written by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma & Paul Kirschner, and published on excel.thomasmore.be.

A new term has recently been circulating within the ExCEL (Expertise Centre Effective Learning) team. In Dutch, it’s called ‘werkvormisme’, which can probably be best translated as ‘instructional methodism’. The term refers to the emphasis on one or more specific instructional methods, without carefully considering if the method, in itself, would lead to better learning. One example is the idea that people learn more through ‘active’ instructional methods, such as group or project work, compared to so-called ‘passive’ instructional methods, such as reading, listening, and completing individual assignments.

We hope you’re not too shocked when we say that ‘active’ methods aren’t necessarily more effective than ‘passive’ methods and vice versa. First of all, the terms active and passive are deceptive and just plain WRONG. There’s no such thing as ‘passive learning’. We always need to be ‘active’ when learning, also when we read, listen, or watch!

Also, there’s group work in which people learn a lot and group work in which people might be ‘busy’ but not necessarily learn anything. Similarly, you can’t tell from a lack of physical activity (e.g., when people sitting still while reading) whether they are also thinking actively and deeply about what they’re reading or just daydreaming. In the end it’s that active and deep thinking that leads to better learning, apart from whatever physical activity they may be carrying out. As instructors, we must therefore sufficiently monitor and stimulate that our students engage cognitively with the learning material, for example by teaching them to use productive learning strategies.

In this blog, we present an overview of eight blogs about productive learning strategies, aka generative learning.

In 2015, Richard Mayer and Logan Fiorella published their book ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ describing eight generative learning strategies. They’re called generative (also productive) because they allow/force learners to ‘remould’ the subject matter and based on that, create their own output, such as a summary or a drawing. In other words, as a learner, you generate/produce something yourself based on what you’re learning so that you’re moving it further along. In addition to summarising, Mayer and Fiorella also discuss mapping, self-explaining, drawing, teaching others, self-testing, imagining, and enacting.

When people use these learning strategies in an effective way, they go through three cognitive processes. First, they select the main ideas from the information source (a book, instructor, multimedia presentation…). Then they think about the meaning of those core ideas and the connections, which they then organise into a coherent structure. Finally, they link this new subject matter to their prior knowledge and then it’s integrated into their long-term memory.

We’ve written a blog for each of the eight productive learning strategies, based on Mayer and Fiorella’s work. Each blog explains what the strategy entails, why it’s effective, how it can be applied in an instructional context, and what its possible limitations are. To make it easier for you, we’ve listed them below with hyperlinks to find them.

  1. Summarising
  2. Mapping
  3. Self-explaining
  4. Drawing
  5. Teaching others
  6. Self-testing
  7. Imagining
  8. Enacting

Now, let’s get to work with productive learning strategies!

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