Familiar Strategies Feel Fluent: The role of Study Strategy Familiarity in the Misinterpreted-effort Model of Self-regulated Learning

October 12, 2022

Even though there are many dynamic study strategies available to students, many choose to use more familiar but less effective strategies instead. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh asked: Why do learners not choose ideal study strategies when learning?

Main takeaways include:

  • Perceived mental effort is the biggest obstacle preventing students from choosing the most impactful study strategies.
  • Less impactful study methods may be difficult to leave behind because they are typically utilized in formal education through a student's academic development.

women reading at a table

As students progress into higher grades, they are tasked with taking charge of their own learning, and self-regulation skills become increasingly important. Learners must make personal learning decisions regarding how to study, such as planning the order in which to study information and making judgments about ideal strategies. Previous research in cognitive psychology, however, has shown that students often choose inefficient study strategies.

More information is needed to understand why learners often do not use optimal learning strategies when studying. Learning Research and Development Center's Scott Fraundorf and Jessica Macaluso tested whether study habits and familiarity can explain some of these study strategy choices. In their studies, the team researched two different study strategies: interleaved and blocked. Interleaved learning involves learning study items from various categories in an intermixed fashion, such as learning words from multiple topics, such as animals, foods, and colors. In contrast, blocked learning involves a learner studying items within a single topic before moving onto the next topic. The team tested the two strategies among a sample of 705 college students.

Analyses revealed, for each of two experiments, when learners felt that an interleaving presentation was more effortful, they also believed that they learned less from it and were less likely to use it again (replicating Kirk-Johnson, Galla, and Fraundorf, 2019). In fact, however, this less familiar interleaving presentation resulted in better learning. The team found that most participants preferred a blocked schedule over an interleaved schedule, even when participants were explicitly told that ninety percent of learners learn better when items are interleaved. The team deduced that people are not evading strategies because they find them to be effortful; they attempt to pick the optimal strategy, but, due to perceived mental effort, people mistakenly believe that a blocked schedule is best for learning. Novel to this study, they also found that learners did not choose familiar strategies simply because they were habitual, but because they believed they were learning more from them.

Future work could investigate whether results can be replicated across multiple stages of development, from childhood to adulthood. By pinpointing a general time range in which these patterns appear, researchers can carry out interventions to restructure this train of thinking (e.g., by reframing the misconceptions of mental effort indicating poor learning and/or that familiarity indicates that information is well-known).

One of the reasons that blocked practice feels more familiar and habitual to most learners is that blocking is typically used by teachers and professors in formal education. Thus, it would also be valuable to investigate educators' perceptions of mental effort, learning, and familiarity with study strategies such as blocked and interleaved. By bringing educators' attention to the positive impact of effortful learning and promoting an understanding that familiar study strategy habits are not necessarily the most beneficial, more effective teaching methods can be implemented into the classroom.

Kirk-Johnson A., Galla B.M., & Fraundorf S.H. (2019). Perceiving Effort as Poor Learning: The Misinterpreted-Effort Hypothesis of How Experienced Effort and Perceived Learning Relate to Study Strategy Choice. Cognitive Psychology.

Macaluso, J. A., Beuford, R. R., & Fraundorf, S. H. (2022). Familiar strategies feel fluent: The role of study strategy familiarity in the misinterpreted-effort model of self-regulated learning. Journal of Intelligence.