Asst Prof Steven Pan: Studying smarter through harnessing the science of human learning

The secret to studying less and scoring higher – this has been the holy grail that students seek in their academic journeys.

It is also what informs the research of Assistant Professor Steven Pan, Director of the Learning Sciences Laboratory at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ Department of Psychology. Recently ranked among the top 40 most prolific early career scholars in the influential Educational Psychology Review, Asst Prof Pan’s work revolves around harnessing the science of human memory and learning patterns to empower students to become more effective learners.   

The young scholar’s early passion and flair for the field is evident. At California State University, Los Angeles, he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Biology through the University's early entrance programme for gifted young students, and later completed his Master's degree and PhD in Experimental Psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

Asst Prof Pan continues to chalk up strong academic credentials. His work has earned him highly competitive research fellowships and accolades such as the University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in the US, and the American Psychological Association Early Graduate Student Researcher Award.

In an interview with NUS News, the cognitive psychologist spoke about his passion and research, and how efficient learning techniques and technologies are shaping the future of education.

Your research interests lie in the fields of cognition and education, i.e. educational psychology. Can you briefly explain what educational psychology is about? 

Educational psychology is a branch of psychology that addresses how people learn, and educational psychologists represent a plethora of perspectives, including cognitive, developmental, neuroscientific, social, and more. I am a cognitive psychologist by training and my research bridges the fields of cognition and education, with a focus on the mental processes that subserve the acquisition, retention, and application of knowledge and skills. The overall goal of my research laboratory, the Learning Sciences Laboratory at NUS, is to identify and investigate conditions that make the learning process more efficient and effective. 

You have an interest in how people learn and retain memory. What sparked your interest in this field?

I have long been fascinated by a recurring phenomenon: A student may spend less time studying for an exam than another student, yet score substantially higher on that exam.  Assuming that the higher-performing student did not have some special advantage that the other student could not possibly possess, that result implies that the amount of time that one spends studying is not necessarily commensurate with the amount of learning that occurs or how well that learning is retained over time.  Rather, it is what one does while studying – and especially the learning strategies that are used – that can be crucial. That observation led me to investigate more efficient and effective ways to learn.

You developed a series of YouTube videos called ‘How to study less and remember more’. What motivated you to come up with the series?

Survey data reveal that most undergraduate students do not receive expert guidance on effective ways to learn. Consequently, they tend to use techniques that, whilst popular, are often the least effective for generating comprehensive, long-lasting learning. The video series on “How to study less and remember more” grew out of a series of workshops that I had developed in the US to teach undergraduate students about effective learning strategies. The videos were designed to reach an even wider audience than the students that were able to attend the workshops. 

Are you currently carrying out similar workshops here and what has the response been like? 

At NUS, I have incorporated lessons from my workshops into the course content for a large core module that I regularly teach in the NUS Psychology Department called Cognitive Psychology (PL3103). My discussion of effective learning strategies occurs in the context of lessons pertaining to learning and memory processes as well as metacognition (our thinking about our own thought processes and other aspects of cognition).  Last year, I also developed an online tutorial that is now being used to teach effective learning strategies to secondary school students in Singapore. 

Now, after years of investigating different learning strategies, I can make evidence-based recommendations. In more than one instance, I have had students approach me after a mid-term exam, frustrated with their performance, asking for advice on better ways to study. I always offer guidance on how they can incorporate effective learning strategies into their exam preparation. These discussions usually lead to changes in study habits, and in turn, improved exam performance. In fact, I have had students transition from struggling in the class to achieving the top grade in the entire class. That impressive result can be attributed both to their efforts and their adoption of more effective ways to learn.

What research projects are you currently working on?

My research lab is currently focused on several learning strategies that show considerable promise but have yet to be investigated thoroughly.

One of them is prequestioning or pretesting, which involves attempting to answer questions about subjects or topics that one has yet to learn. Doing so typically involves a substantial amount of guessing that often ends up incorrect. Remarkably, engaging in such prequestioning can improve learning and memory, provided there is the opportunity to study the correct answers afterwards. My research team and I are currently investigating the efficacy of prequestioning for learning across different educational contexts, the cognitive mechanisms that prequestioning engages, and how students and instructors might adopt prequestioning in their own learning and instructional activities. 

Another strategy of interest is interleaved practice or interleaving. It involves learning in a manner that repeatedly switches, or alternates, between different concepts, topics, or skills during one or more learning sessions. Interleaving is the opposite of the traditional, one-topic-at-a-time approach that is favoured throughout much of education. In some cases, the use of interleaving can substantially improve memory and the ability to apply learning to new situations. As with prequestioning, my lab’s investigations of interleaving are addressing its efficacy, its underlying cognitive mechanisms, and how it might be implemented in real world situations. 

A third area of interest involves how engaging in everyday tasks, such as writing, can improve learning. We’ve found that if the writing activity does not merely involve transcribing information from a readily available source, but rather, organising one’s own thoughts, generating new ideas, and/or retrieving information from memory in order to write it down, then memory performance is likely to improve. Those patterns are consistent with a recent study of flashcard learning in which we found that the manner in which one writes down information can affect how well that information is remembered.  Of the three potential ways in which writing can help learning, I would argue that retrieving information from memory – a strategy that learning scientists call retrieval practice – is the most beneficial

Our research findings are shared in many different ways like published commentaries or even instructional guides so that more and more people can benefit from these various learning strategies.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learnt in your research?

So many of the learning strategies that I investigate reflect an underlying principle about how memory works in the human brain. Specifically, accessing memories (or stored knowledge and skills) can strengthen those memories and make them more detailed and/or longer lasting.  In that sense, the human brain is quite unlike a computer. In most computers, retrieving a file typically leaves that file unchanged, whereas in human beings, the act of retrieving a memory can have profound consequences for the memory itself. Some of the most effective learning strategies are effective precisely because they take advantage of that principle of human memory.

Several colleagues and I recently published an in-depth review of the literature on effective learning strategies. In that review we catalogued evidence showing that some of the most promising strategies can be effective for learning with individuals as young as just a few years old to well over retirement age.  That finding shows that there are ways to learn more efficiently and effectively at any age, which is fantastic news indeed.