What can learning management systems do for effective learning?
In this article we will discuss a crucial part of financial education: learning and what learning management systems (LMS) can do to improve it. We will first introduce some of the principles of effective learning, focusing more specifically on memory consolidation. We will then discuss on how learning management systems can implement and promote them.
Learning is a very complex process but a good chunk of it is about being able to retrieve or remember information. This article focuses on the memorization aspect of learning but most of what will be discussed also applies to other aspect of learning.
Everyone who has been to school had to memorize some information, but very few have been introduced to how optimally do so. This is what we will discuss: principles and practices for effective learning.
Learning or retrieving
First, something must be said about what effective learning means: it is not just about the quantity of information one can remember but also about the depth of understanding as well as for how long this information can be retrieved.
When it comes to learning about investment and finance, we surely do not seek people to retain superficial information for a very short amount of time as if they were only trying to pass an exam and could afford to forget everything after. On the contrary, we care about the long-term ability to retrieve high quality information (principles and concepts not only facts) so that people are able to use their knowledge to make better financial decisions in their everyday life.
Memorization is often described in scientific terms as a threefold sequential process:
- Encoding: encompasses both the perception of new information as well as its understanding.
- Consolidation: the information is moved from short-term memory to long-term memory.
- Retrieval: the information is retrieved.
One of the most tricky and tedious part of the memorization process is often consolidation. It is easy to remember things in the short term especially if we keep reading the same material over and over. However, most people completely underestimate the rate at which they will eventually forget the information. This phenomenon is so pervasive that it has been given many names in the scientific literature: the illusion of competence or illusion of knowledge. Because of how easy it is to remember things short-term, especially when one is browsing at the information, most people end up lured by a false sense of mastery.
The problem of consolidation is of biblical simplicity: we forget fast, really, really fast. This phenomenon was originally discovered in the 19th century by Ebbingauss who illustrated it through the infamous forgetting curve (see picture below)
As can be seen, memories tend to fade in a matter of days, which is why applying effective learning techniques is of paramount importance. Notice, interestingly, that this seems to occur regardless of the content’s difficulty.
Before we present strategies, it is useful to state a core idea of effective learning: it implies active engagement from the learner as well as some – reasonable – effort and struggle. To put it in a nutshell: the more one fights against forgetfulness, the better the consolidation process.
What then are the evidenced-based principles and strategies for effective learning?
- Retrieval practice/testing: a common strategy used by students to memorize material consists in rereading and highlighting material which have been proven to be among the least effective strategies for memorization. In contrast, retrieval practice or, to put it in plain terms, testing, has been proven to be one of the most effective strategies for memory consolidation. To memorize, it is therefore better to read and then try to recall the material rather than read it again and again without testing retrieval. In an experiment  where students where either instructed to study multiple times or to use testing to practice, researchers found a 40% difference in the proportion of correct answer in a final test in favor of those employing a retrieval practice.
- Spaced practice: testing oneself is great, but there is a specific way to schedule practice sessions for maximum benefits which is what spaced practice is about. As we mention earlier, memorization is a struggle against forgetfulness and the consolidation process tends to be better when we have a harder time remembering the information. This means that if we have 4 hours to practice, it is much more effective to practice for an hour each other day rather than do a 4-hours session on a single day. A 2021 meta-analysis  showed that spaced practice was roughly two times more effective than massed practice for retention.
- Feedback: practicing and testing means nothing if the learner does not know whether she has done well. At worst, one might be consolidating the wrong information, at best one does not know whether performance improves. Feedback is a part of what helps the learner’s metacognition: the ability to monitor one’s own learning and to orient it in an efficient manner. A recent meta-analysis  have shown feedback to have a substantial role in improving learning performance although it also reminds us that it needs to be specific and appropriate in order to be successful.
- Desirable difficulty: originally labelled as zone of proximal development by Vygotsky during the 20th century. As efficient learning is difficult learning, struggling to retrieve some material is a good clue that it is likely to stick. However, too much difficulty would simply undermine the process as too little could be retrieved. Also, because learning is already challenging, any unnecessary difficulty is very unwelcome and will tend to deter learners. As all teachers know too well, fostering motivation is a non-negotiable component of successful learning.
- Sleep: this might seem blatantly obvious, but sleep is so paramount to memory consolidation. This article will not make an in-dept analysis of why sleep matters for learning, but it had to be mentioned as a core principle of effective learning. In a study  testing for people retention at one week and 6-months, interleaving sleep between learning sessions reduced the amount of practice needed to attain a target performance by half and lead to a 50% improvement in long-term retention.
How can learning management systems promote effective learning?
Given what have been presented about effective learning, there are a couple of things that a LMS can do to promote and help implement effective learning:
- Spaced retrieval practice/testing: when it comes to testing, Learning Management Systems can provide learners with very handy tools to test themselves at will and in different modalities. Moreover, as what matters is spaced practice/testing, LMS can help implement optimal amount of time between practice session and schedule them accordingly. It can be hard for busy learners to remember when they last practiced but also the material they covered. In short, LMS can schedule practice sessions, so the learner does not have to (which is already what flashcard software and apps such as Anki have been doing).
- Feedback: contrary to classic learning environment, LMS provides the opportunity for each learner to practice retrieval with instant feedback on their performance. Although some papers  point to the mixed results in using technology for feedback, if LMS does not operate alone but with a teacher or supervisor, it frees time to provide more complex and personalized feedback when needed. LMS can provide a lot of basic feedback at a very cheap cost compared to having a human review for everything.
- Desirable difficulty and personalization: so far, we operated under the assumption that human beings learn in pretty much the same way and encounter the same learning problems. While this is mostly true, it is also the case that everyone faces different challenges during the learning process. A test practice that might be of adequate difficulty for some students would be way too hard for others. This is where classical learning environments tend to struggle as uniformity tends to be the norm (for practical and economic reasons mostly). Thanks to their flexibility, LMS can avoid some of those caveats and provide a personalized learning experience. Interestingly, recent research  suggests that learners tend to display similar learning rate (about 2.5% accuracy gain per practice session): contrary to popular belief there would be no fast and slow learners. There is, however, a difference in where people start their journey. The study covers 1.3 million observations and 27 datasets involving the learning performance of students within an online practice system. Its goal was to see how much practice opportunities would be necessary for students to reach a given level of performance (defined as 80% level of accuracy). On the initial test, the worst performing students started with a median accuracy score of 55% whereas the best ones had around 75%. When comparing the median number of practice opportunities required to reach mastery (80% accuracy) students from the bottom half required about 13 opportunities whereas the top half students needed only 3 practice sessions, so roughly 4 times less. In such a context, LMS are powerful tools because they can provide as many practices opportunity as needed for students of different levels, something that a classic environment can struggle to do.
- Getting ahead of the curve: one of the big advantages of Learning Management Systems is its capacity to gather specific data about the learners. In the study we quoted above, the data made available by the standardized numeric environment made it possible to uncover the similar learning rate between students as well as their different starting point. In that way LMS offers the opportunity to uncover trends and test whether a given learning program is working or not.
To conclude, while Learning Management Systems cannot be a simple magic bullet that would solve all of financial education learning problems, it nonetheless offers significant opportunities to better implement some of the core principles of effective learning in a convenient and cheap way.
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