Effects of Repetition: Solving Problems vs Remembering Solutions

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Problem-solving versus remembering solutions


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Is problem-solving the key to unlocking better learning over memory recall?

This research questions how engaging students in problem-solving rather than relying on memory recall can significantly enhance their retention and understanding …

Why Problem-Solving Enhances Learning

On interpreting the effects of repetition

Jacoby’s research (1978) highlights a shift from rote memorisation to active problem-solving; today, we would use the phrase metacognition.

The research contrasts cognitive retention when students recall a solution from memory with when they solve the problem anew. This approach shines a spotlight on ‘active retrieval’ — a cognitive strategy where engaging with the material through problem-solving leads to deeper learning.

The study highlights the difference in memory retention between “remembering a solution” and “solving a problem,” signposting why earlier teaching strategies that stimulate cognitive processing rather than passive recall are likely to yield larger benefits.

Understanding why active problem-solving trumps rote learning is crucial for the classroom.

Jacoby’s findings indicate that solving problems re-engages the cognitive mechanisms necessary for deeper (meaningful) learning – see Ausubel –  and durable memory retention.

This is crucial as it supports the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, essential for students’ success in real-world situations. This approach emphasises the importance of teaching problem-solving in the classroom to foster students’ greater curiosity and intrinsic motivation. The result? It makes learning a more engaging and enjoyable experience, and something which I believe can still be achieved in today’s crowded curriculum.

The problem with assumption …

Only this week, when I shared some of my latest research on questioning, a teacher rebuked me: “Yeah. I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he said.

The number of times I have heard this phrase, and when speaking to school leaders behind the scenes, it is often the member of staff who causes the most difficulties across the organisation. When pushed, it is also that person who is reluctant to share ideas with other colleagues.

Now, it is not the first time I’ve been shouted down by another teacher.

Some people are cynical about education research, and I share this research paper from the 1970s to highlight that anything we discuss in today’s landscape is not new. However, it suggests how far teaching has moved forward and how earlier research set the foundations for our practice today. If anything, it backs up everything we do in the classroom and gives the profession much more credibility with the wider public.

Here, Jacoby’s research highlights 40 years ago that if teachers are not developing problem-solving skills (not using problem-solving tasks) to develop critical thinking in their classroom, they are unlikely to benefit their students in the long term. Remember, intrinsic motivation is deeply motivated.

Reflection questions for teachers

  1. How can teachers prioritise problem-solving in lesson planning?
  2. What types of problems could best illustrate the key concepts of your subject?
  3. How might spacing problem-solving activities over time aid retention in your students?
  4. What role can technology play in facilitating problem-solving in your classroom?
  5. How can you assess problem-solving skills effectively without relying solely on memorisation or tests?
  6. What resources are available for teachers to help foster a problem-solving environment?
  7. How can teachers support students who struggle with critical thinking?
  8. Can peer teaching and group work enhance problem-solving skills among students?
  9. What are some immediate changes teachers could make to their teaching to encourage more problem-solving?
  10. How might these approaches differ in primary, secondary, and further education settings?

Implementing Problem-Solving in the Classroom

The research by Jacoby concludes:

It is incorrect to conclude that because an event is repeated the processing of that event is also repeated. Rather, repetition of an event can result in the solution being remembered without the necessity of engaging in the activities that would otherwise be required to obtain that solution.

Take a look at some resources on critical thinking, developing study skills and working memory to help …

Download the full paper.

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