If you’ve ever used flash cards to study for a test, you’ve probably run through a deck several times in a row. The second round felt easier than the first—a clear signal that you were learning and spending your study time wisely, right?
Actually, you were experiencing the fluency illusion. An immediate, second study session feels powerful (because the material is so familiar), but it provides almost zero benefit. Your subjective experience during learning is often unrelated to the quality of that learning.
In fact, many conditions of learning that feel difficult are far superior to the alternatives. Robert Bjork at UCLA calls these conditions “desirable difficulties.” Study protocols that feel more difficult are often much better at engaging the mental processes that support learning. Of course, the desirable part is not the extra hurdles during studying; it’s the higher test score at the end.
Unfortunately, most students haven’t read Dr. Bjork’s work. They use intuition to guide their study habits. But because what’s good for your brain is often counterintuitive, students usually wind up spending their study time poorly. For example, it’s better to let some time pass—hours or even days—before you run through a deck of flash cards again. The second round will be harder, but your score on a later test will be higher (a phenomenon called the spacing effect).
At Amplifire, we’ve assembled a Science Advisory Board that includes Dr. Bjork and other esteemed professors and researchers. We’ve based our software on thousands of pages of their research, plus work from other labs. The result: Amplifire makes a big impact on test scores and grades.
One of our clients helps law students become lawyers by preparing them for the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). These learners spend hundreds of hours preparing, and must continually make decisions about how to spend that time. Then they take the test and get the score they have to live with.
We analyzed data from their practice exams to determine whether they would have scored better if they had used more Amplifire.
This type of analysis can be a bit tricky. Comparing two groups of learners (a between-subjects design) would either be unethical or invalid. Obviously, we couldn’t withhold Amplifire from some learners and require it of others. On the other hand, if we let learners choose whether to use Amplifire, any differences we found might have been due to study habits or motivation or anything else that varies from person to person.
We had to compare learners to themselves. But this can be tricky, too. We couldn’t have each student take the MBE twice—once with Amplifire and once without.
Instead, we looked closely at each individual’s behavior in our software.
Getting ready for the MBE requires studying dozens of topics. Learners can choose to do more or less work in Amplifire on each of those topics.
Our hypothesis: The more Amplifire you do, the better you’ll score. For example, if a learner completed 20% of Amplifire on Topic A, but 80% of Amplifire on Topic B, we expected them to score relatively higher on Topic B than on Topic A. This within-subjects design controls for the effects of aptitude, motivation, sleep quality on the day of the exam, and everything else that varies between learners. Any observed differences must therefore be due to Amplifire.
We analyzed data from 3,352 learners preparing for the MBE and presented the findings at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society. The data supported our hypothesis. The more Amplifire the learners did—independent of everything else they could have done—the better they scored.
Doing all available Amplifire work increased the proportion correct on a simulated MBE by 3.6%. That may not sound like much, but keep in mind that these learners log hundreds of hours of other work on those same topics. The fact that Amplifire nevertheless made a difference is a testament to the ability of the software to adapt to what learners need according to the principles of learning and memory. Also, the MBE is a pass-fail exam. For many people, a single correct response is the difference between becoming a lawyer and becoming a lawyer’s assistant.
The cognitive phenomena that Amplifire harnesses are robust and have been demonstrated in many different contexts. The spacing effect, for example, is such a fundamental property of how brains work that it can be found in the rudimentary nervous systems of sea slugs.
Yet as we enter 2018, many educational settings still feature conditions of learning that merely feel better, but are actually far from optimal—and can even be counterproductive. Learning researchers have lamented for decades how infrequently their findings make their way into the classroom and other educational settings.
The benefits of Amplifire provide yet another validation of these scientists’ efforts, and give them reason to celebrate. Through our software, their findings are now reaching millions of learners.
If you’d like your students to start benefiting from hundreds of counterintuitive discoveries about how people learn, reach out here.