CETL Learning Tips: Shuffle your learning

This learning tip comes from Dr. Fabia Ursula Battistuzzi, associate professor of biological sciences at Oakland University. She not only teaches OU students, but often collaborates with them on research and publications. Here, she reminds us that, while class material is often linear, how we apply that knowledge may draw on a lot of prior knowledge in an unpredictable order. To practically apply what we have learned to complex problems, Dr. Battistuzzi recommends “shuffling your learning.”

How do you know what you know and what you don’t know? You read the book and flip through the slides, and when you test yourself with flash cards you’re able to recall the information. Then, exam day comes and you can’t answer the questions. What went wrong? I think there are two main issues here: first, is assuming you’ll be able to recall the information when prompted (and under stress); second, is the belief that, if you memorize everything, you will be able to reason through a question or solve a complex problem. This is where shuffled learning is useful. 

Move from a line to a web. As instructors, we present material in our classes in a way that clarifies the connections between topics. As students, you likely follow this logic when you study. However, topics are often not connected linearly, but rather, in a web that we can often envision as a concept map. One powerful way to practice this type of interconnected web-thinking about class content is to review the material in a different order from how it was presented in class.

Start from Week 10, jump to Week 2, then go to Week 6 and so on and look for connections among topics. If the connections aren’t clear, this is good feedback for what you need to review more deeply — it’s better to draw a blank now rather than during an exam! Shuffling your learning in this way has the same effect of building a concept map and gives you a powerful new way to look at the material: suddenly, to recall topics in Week 2, you do not have to rely only on Week 2 notes, but you can reason from Week 10 or from Week 6 to make the connections you need.

Shuffling your learning helps you see the bigger picture. While this learning strategy is helpful to improve performance in a class, I think I value it even more for another reason: it provides students a bird’s-eye view of what you have learned. Knowing how everything connects is a fundamental skill not only for college but for a career in general. How do multiple projects within a company connect to each other? What is the common thread among multiple clients or patients? All our lives are built around connections, and learning how to make them is as valuable as the information itself.

Don’t abandon your flash cards: instead, rather than simply flipping through them one by one, recalling information on the flip side, set a bunch in front of you, randomly grab two or three, and ask yourself, “How are these connected?” That’s where deeper learning happens.

Students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to share tips for academic success. If you would like to contribute a learning tip to this column, contact Christina Moore at [email protected].

For more learning tips, visit oakland.edu/teachingtips.