Why is self-directed study more effective than “following along”?

A common idea in educational theory is that “active” or “self-directed” learning tends to be better than passive forms of instruction. That is, as compared to watching a lecture or listening to a discussion, students learn more effectively when they take an active role in deciding what to learn and how to learn about it.

The notion that self-directed control of learning improves outcomes relative to passive observation is supported by many studies in the lab. These experiments have often used “yoked” designs in which a self-directed participant controls the flow of information during study, whereas a yoked partner observes the same information but plays no role in its selection. By yoking participants in this manner, all aspects of the learning experience remain identical between conditions except the control that people in the self-directed condition can exercise over the information.

In general, the results of these experiments point to a consistent learning advantage for the self-directed participant, across a range of domains including rule learning and causal learning. In recent years, a numbers of studies have shown a similar effect on episodic memory, such that self-directed exploration or manipulation of a set of stimuli is associated with better recognition memory than yoked observation of the same information.

For example, in an experiment by Voss and colleagues, participants had to memorize a grid of objects. The catch was that only a single object was visible through an aperture at a time. Voss and colleagues found that items studied under self-directed control (i.e., being able to move the aperture around the grid during study) were recognized more often than items studied under yoked conditions (i.e., being forced to observe the same study sequence as chosen by a previous participant).

What is the explanation for this self-directed advantage? Why does the same objective information give rise to such different results, depending on whether or not its selection is controlled? It turns out that this question is difficult to answer, both in real-world and laboratory settings, because self-directed and yoked conditions typically differ along multiple dimensions of control, each of which could contribute to the divergent outcomes.

In our recent paper, we argue that it is useful to “deconstruct” self-directed learning into a hierarchy of control processes in order to identify the sources of the advantage (of which there may be many). As a first step, we distinguish between control over the content of study (i.e., deciding what material to study) from control over thecoordination (or presentation) of that material (i.e., deciding when new items appear or how long they’re studied before moving on).

Our study aimed to separate these two levels of control that have often been confounded in earlier work. In a series of variations on the grid memorization task used by Voss and colleagues, we incrementally removed an aspect of control from the self-directed condition, up to a final experiment in which the self-directed condition involved nothing more than deciding when new items (presented in a fixed sequence and for constant duration) would appear onscreen. In this final experiment, yoked participants saw the same items, in the same order, and for the same durations as their self-directed partner, and only differed in that they could not control when new study episodes occurred.

Across all experiments, we repeatedly found an advantage in recognition memory from self-directed study, even at the “minimal” level of control that did not involve decisions about which items to study or in what order to see them.

Importantly, these results do not imply that control over what content to study is unimportant — on the contrary, as we have shown in other domains, being able to select useful information can be a powerful benefit of self-directed learning. However, the results do suggest that even simpler forms of control over a study experience can lead to a distinct advantage.

One possible explanation for this striking effect may be that controlling the pacing of study allows people to synchronize the presentation of new information with fluctuations in their attention or readiness to learn, a kind of low-level coordination that is likely to be beneficial regardless of the content being encoded.

Although there are still many questions to be answered about how self-directed control interacts with memory, our study further reinforces the idea that any control will be advantageous relative to passive conditions in which the flow of information is independent of the learner’s state. “Following along” during learning may thus be disadvantageous on multiple levels: in addition to forgoing the opportunity to collect useful information, a passive student may also have poorer memory for the information they observe at someone else’s pace.

(This post is a summary of the Clifford T. Morgan Award-winning paper “Deconstructing the effect of self-directed study on episodic memory” by Douglas Markant, Sarah DuBrow, Lila Davachi, Todd M. Gureckis, published in Memory & Cognition.)

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