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October 2005

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Dennis Congos

It Only Takes Seconds in Class to Speed Learning

By Dennis Congos, University of Central Florida

There are quick activities that instructors may use that have the potential to speed learning. Each of these do not take much time during a lecture and can yield greater results in learning and recall. These are some of the college level skills for learning that students must acquire to learn what faculty have to teach. Each one is easily woven to a lecture.

1. Include mnemonics in lectures.

One piece of research shows that test scores were increased on the average of 77% when mnemonics were used (Miller, 1967). It only takes 15-20 seconds to attach a mnemonic to important details that will help students remember important details to main ideas. Some object to using memory techniques because they want their students to think, reason, and analyze the information and not memorize it. However, how can anything be thought out, reasoned out, analyzed, evaluated, applied or synthesized if it is not put into the memory in the first place? Writing out a mnemonic on the board may take an extra 30 seconds.

2. Model the proper use of notecards for self-testing.

Using notecards in learning promotes discovery of what has and has not been learned before a test is taken when students may still do something about it. The notecard technique has important details placed on one side of a notecard and the corresponding main idea on the other. Students may quiz themselves regularly to identify what they have learned and what must be studied further before a test is taken when they may still affect their knowledge and test grades.

This is done by looking at the main idea or a question made from the main idea based on the nature of the details (steps, stages, arguments, pros & cons, events, etc.) and reciting the details from memory as best as the student can. Then, the students may look at the back of the notecard and discover if the information was accurately and completely recalled or not.

Faculty members may speed student learning of what they have to teach if they would draw a box around main ideas and another box around details as a model of how to properly set up information on a notecard to enhance self-testing. This may take an extra 5 seconds.

3. Number steps, stages, characteristics, parts, etc. and include the verbal learners.

Numbering helps students more quickly identify important details. This increases understanding, notetaking speed, and organization of notes which in turn, increases learning speed and efficiency. This is especially useful in math, physics, and chemistry classes when steps in solutions to problems are sequentially numbered on the board. This will only take 4 seconds.

Simply put, some student's brains are wired to learn best verbally and some students learn better quantatively. Quantative learners tend to grasp solutions to problems by looking at numbers and symbols.

On the other hand, verbal learners find this difficult unless steps in a solution are written in words. Faculty members must decide how badly they want to include verbal learners as successful math students. Writing steps in solutions to problems may take an extra few minutes to help verbal learners become a success in learning quantative material.

4. Clearly and visibly separate main ideas and details.

The more clearly main ideas and details are visibly separated from each other in board work, overheads, and PowerPoint presentations, the more lecture notes are organized and easier to understand. Therefore, clear separation of main ideas and details in visual aids helps students organize the material that faculty members want them to learn, and it speeds understanding and learning. This takes no extra time. The same is true for clear separation of problems and solutions.

5. Test early in the semester.

Administering a short 5-question or 5-problem quiz within the first 2-3 weeks of a semester allows students to discover how well their study techniques are working for the class. Regular quizzing gives students a chance to modify and refine skills for learning to become more effective before it is too late to influence content mastery, major exam grades, or final course grades. This may take an extra 30 minutes but it is time with great value if faculty members want students to learn what they have to teach.

Many faculty members have seen improvement in content understanding and exam grades when they have incorporated the above suggestions into lectures. The small investment in time it takes to promote more efficient learning has huge payoffs for students in term of learning and grades and for faculty in terms of becoming a more successful educator.


Miller, G. R. (1967) An evaluation of the effectiveness of mnemonic devices as aids to study. Cooperative Research Project, no. 5-8438. University of Texas press, El Paso.

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