Can we learn to be better learners through digital training? 

Reference: Bernacki, M. L., Vosicka, L., & Utz, J. C. (2020). Can a brief, digital skill training intervention help undergraduates “learn to learn” and improve their STEM achievement? Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(4), 765-781.

Can we learn to be better learners through digital training? 

Many students have a tough time transitioning from high school to college. With more challenging classes, newfound independence/lack of parental supervision, and more demands on their time, students may struggle with the rigors of higher education. Study strategies which might have worked in the less-demanding high school setting may no longer suffice. This may be particularly true for introductory STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes, many of which act as gatekeepers, preventing students from their desired major or slowing down progress to their degree if not completed successfully. As such, student learning and achievement in these classes is particularly important. Fortunately, there is a great deal of research to guide those who plan to study at the college level. 

Past research on learning-based trainings

This research has been used to create learning-based training interventions, in the hopes of improving students’ study strategies and grades (1). Students are taught in person by researchers (or teachers) that retrieving information – testing yourself – is more effective than merely rereading information; that studying should be spaced out over time rather than completed all at once; and that generating self-explanations can aid in remembering and understanding complex topics. While effective, these training sessions are time-intensive and often require administration on an individual basis, making it difficult to create positive changes on a large scale. 

A digital training intervention for self-regulated learning

To address limitations of prior work, researcher Matt Bernacki and colleagues created a digital training that taught not only about the above study strategies and self-regulated learning (monitoring, planning, goal setting, etc.), but also about how to apply this new knowledge to students’ current and future classes (known as transfer). 

The researchers created an online training that could be accessed via Blackboard (a platform for professor-student communication, assignment submission, and lecture storage). Sections of students in a large introductory biology course were assigned to either the control or the digital intervention groups. The total intervention lasted 90 minutes to 2 hours and included three modules. Each module focused on a different topic: module 1 on study strategies; module 2 on self-regulated learning; module 3 on transferring this knowledge to real-life contexts. Only students who completed all three modules were included in analyses (140 students in the control group, 87 in the training group). Students in the control group learned about topics related to current course material and made connections to previous lecture content – they did not receive instruction on learning or study strategies. The training intervention and control tasks took approximately the same amount of time to complete. 

Digital training improved learning behavior and achievement

First, the researchers wanted to see if the digital training changed learning behaviors, after accounting for their prior learning behaviors in the first week of the course (i.e., before the training intervention). There were three learning behaviors of interest measured throughout the semester: use of ungraded quizzes, use of planning resources, and progress on chapter learning objectives. Overall, the online training increased these learning behaviors throughout the semester – at least for some weeks. That is, those in the training group tended to engage in more learning behaviors (i.e., testing, planning, and monitoring progress) than students in the control group. 

Second, the researchers investigated whether those in the training group earned higher grades on quizzes and exams, after accounting for their grade on Exam 1 (which was completed before the training began). Overall, those in the training group tended to earn an additional 10 points on these achievement measures – equivalent to ⅓ of a letter grade. This boost could be the difference between having to retake a course or not! Lastly, the researchers were interested in whether the intervention was more useful for students who did not perform as well on Exam 1 (before the training). Students were put into three groups: those who received an A, B, or C (or lower) on Exam 1. They did not find support for their hypothesis – the intervention was just as useful for students who earned an A or a C on Exam 1. 

Scores on 4 quizzes (out of 11). On all four quizzes, those in the intervention scored higher than those in the control. There was only a statistical difference on Quiz 2 and Quiz 4. 

Percent correct on Exam 3 and 4. Students in the intervention scored higher on both exams, but this only reached statistical significance on Exam 3. 

Remaining questions about learning strategy interventions

Future research should explore whether this digital training is especially beneficial for students underrepresented in STEM, as they are more likely on average to switch to a non-STEM major or leave college than their overrepresented peers (2). Work should focus on transforming interest in STEM to career attainment. 

Yes, we can learn to be better learners

Students — even college students who have been in school for over a decade — can learn new strategies to aid in learning and class performance. Importantly, this training does not need to be weeks or months long, or individualized, in order to improve self-regulated learning behaviors and exam performance. Learning strategies such as testing oneself, spacing out study sessions, self-explanation, and planning and monitoring progress towards one’s goals could help dismantle the gate, opening up new career pathways to students who would otherwise be shut out. If you’re a college student yourself, try explaining out loud, and don’t study just the night before the exam. Use these strategies to be a more effective learner! Also, check out a previous CogBites post where Dr. Sara Goodman discusses when and why teaching others also helps us learn! 

Additional References:

(1) Dent, A. L., & Koenka, A. C. (2016). The relation between self-regulated learning and academic achievement across childhood and adolescence: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 28, 425–474. 

(2) Riegle-Crumb, C., King, B., & Irizarry, Y. (2019). Does STEM stand out? Examining racial/ethnic gaps in persistence across postsecondary fields. Educational Researcher48(3), 133-144.

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