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Royal Holloway, University of London have conducted research which reveals that learners improve their long-term learning after they have slept on new material following classroom teaching.

Professors from Royal Holloway at the Department of Psychology taught a group of students new terms from a fictional language which was unknown to them, they found that the learner became aware of rules relating to the new language at that when being taught, but it was only after resting that they were able to relate it to new, untrained terms.

Royal Holloway’s Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Kathy Rastle, commented: “Teachers have long suspected that proper rest is critical for successful learning.  Our research provides some experimental support for this notion.  Participants in our experiments were able to identify the hidden rule shortly after learning. However, it was not until they were tested a week after training that participants were able to use that rule to understand a totally new word from the fictional language when it was presented in a sentence.”

She continued: “This result shows that the key processes that underpin long-term learning of general knowledge arise outside of the classroom, sometime after learning, and may be associated with brain processes that arise during sleep.”

The study, which appears in the journal ‘Cognitive Psychology’ also, revealed that the learners required time to comprehend the rule-based knowledge before being taught new terms or new language. If the exceptions were taught at the start of the vocabulary learning period, learners were not able to build knowledge regarding the general rule.

The studies have significant implications for in-class language teaching. It is fairly common for teachers to throw in ‘tricky words’ or exceptions to the rule-based examples when teaching kids how to read phonetically. For example, when teaching kids the rule for pronouncing CH applies to church, chest, and chess, but not necessarily to chef or chorus.

The study proposes that exceptions should not be taught until the kids have fully comprehended the standard rule after a good night’s rest; otherwise, they will be less likely to build the required knowledge.

Professor Rastle clarifies: “Our research suggests that including such exceptions at the time of initial learning could block the formation of general knowledge about the rule being taught.  If we want learners to extract general principles from a set of examples, we need to think carefully about the structure of that set of examples.” 

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