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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Rehearsal and Repetition May Be Bad For Learning

Rehearsal and repetition may be bad for learning. They are even worse for learners at a distance for whom external influences such as work stress, frequent travel, deployment to war zones, and personal or family issues are creating learning anxiety. This is the conclusion reached by several learning specialists and educational psychologists who studied why students perform poorly even after adhering closely to the “practice makes perfect” traditional cognitive learning strategies of rehearsal, organization, and elaboration. This is Part I of a two-part series.
Susan Smith Nash at the University of the South Pacific Lodge, Suva, Fiji

Ironically, instead of helping students perform, rehearsal and repetition may have negative impacts on performance, as well as self-concept. Unfortunately, in this case, the learning strategies actually exacerbates learning anxiety, and worsens the learner’s ability to succeed. Not surprisingly, once a distance learner gets caught in the twin trap of situational anxiety and performance anxiety (heightened by negative self concept and insecurity about learning in general), it is very likely that he or she will not finish the course, and may even drop out of the degree or certificate program.
There are several reasons why rehearsal and repetition are the wrong learning strategy choices for an individual suffering from situational or performance anxiety:
Concentration is required for rehearsal and repetition: According to some educational psychologists (Kuhl, 1992), people have finite resources for cognitive and information processing. If too much capacity is dedicated to quelling one’s anxiety by self-reassurance and relaxation techniques, there is little capacity left for the actual task at hand.
Further, if the learning situation or setting creates distractions, more cognitive resources will be required to maintain focus.
Finally, if an individual is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or there are work or family conflicts, unwanted intrusive thoughts may create even more problems with concentration, and require the marshalling of cognitive resources.
Online rehearsal and repetition often take the form of automated, interactive forms, requiring good online access and time online: Many online courses rely heavily on automated, online quizzes and “skill and drill” activities.
While these are considered effective by some, particularly if the test is in the same format, there are questions about the efficacy of skill-and-drill in the attainment of deeper learning.
Nevertheless, this is a moot point for an individual learner who cannot access the quizzes or review materials because he or she has limited access to the Internet, and may be accessing the learning activities through a very slow dial-up connection or wi-fi node. Needless to say, the frustration involved when one cannot access the material contributes to learner anxiety.
Motivational control lacking as boredom sets in: Motivation is an important factor in success, and anxiety acts as a huge demotivator. Further, learners may find that rehearsal and repetition – particularly in isolation, is extremely boring. Educational psychologists (Pintrich and DeGroot, 1990) have traced connections between motivation and learning strategies.
Material is too compartmentalized, content too granular, and made irrelevant to real life: Skill and drill activities involving rehearsal, and repetition are, while very labor-intensive and expensive to develop, very attractive to computer-based training and online learning activities designers. The content has fine granularity and can be reused and redeployed in many settings and under many conditions. Further, it’s a scalable way to provide instructional activities. However, all the assumptions used to support using skill-and-drill automated activities must be re-examined when learners are in hostile conditions, have little online access, and are working in isolation.
Material must be made relevant, and reconnected to real life. Further, if repetition and rehearsal are used as learning strategies, it must be made clear to the learner that the content forms an foundational underpinning for situated learning to come in the future.
Effective rehearsal and repetition occurs in groups, where immediate support is available: Although it was not mentioned in the studies, one can surmise that traditional on-campus students have formed study groups, or are required to go to lab and discuss the course material. It might be useful to examine if rehearsal, organization, and elaboration are most effective in study groups and informal communities of practice. In distance settings, collaborative strategies rarely involve the cognitive strategies, but instead tend to stress practical application focused around a set of clearly defined outcomes.

Works Cited
Driskell, J. E., Copper, C., and Moran, A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance? Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 805-814.
Ferguson-Hessler, M. G. M., and de Jong, T. (1990). Studying physics texts: Differences in study processes between good and poor performers. Cognition and Instruction, 7, 41-54.
Karabenick, S. A., and Knapp, J. R. (1991). Relationship of academic help seeking to the use of learning strategies and other instrumental achievement behaviors in college students. Journal of Educational Psychology. 16. 117-138.
Kuhl, J. (1992). A theory of self-regulation: Action versus state orientation, self-discrimination, and some applications. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 41, 97-129.
Mueller, J. H. (1992) Anxiety and performance. In A. P. Smith and D. M. Jones (Eds.), Handbook of human performance (Vol 3, pp. 127-160). London: Academic Press.
Pintrich, P. R., and De Groot, E. V. (1990). Motivational and self-regulated learning components of classroom academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82. 33-40.
Seipp, B. (1991). Anxiety and academic performance. A meta-analysis of findings. Anxiety Research, 4, 27-41.
Snow, R. E. and Swanson, J. (1992). Instructional psychology – Aptitude, adaptation, and assessment. Annual Review of Psychology, 43, 49.
Warr, P., and Downing, J. (2000). Learning strategies, learning anxiety, and knowledge acquisition. British Journal of Psychology, 91, 311-333.
Weinstein, C. E., and Mayer, R. E. (1986). The teaching of learning strategies. In M. C. Wittock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed. pp. 315-327). New York, Macmillan.

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