The Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education Hosts First Professional Development Workshop of the Fall Season

Published on 10 October 2017

The center hosted the first of its Fall 2017 Professional Development workshops on September 13. Led by Carolyn Dufault, Ph.D., assistant dean for education at Washington University School of Medicine, the discussion educated attendees on several key findings from cognitive science that can be utilized to improve teaching and learning.

Dufault’s presentation was focused on four key topics: the importance of creating the conditions to promote attentional engagement in the classroom, the benefits of using retrieval practice in learning, the significance of providing feedback to students and the positive outcomes associated with using the “spacing effect” in teaching and learning.

“From a lab-based perspective, cognitive scientists want to understand how the brain processes and retains information and how this affects what we know,” said Dufault. “As we gather this information in the lab, our goal is to turn it over to educators in order to help them make practical translations that can help their students learn more efficiently.”

Dufault, who is a cognitive psychologist and a member of the center’s Assessment Committee, began her presentation by noting the importance of finding ways to overcome attention lapses in the classroom. Citing a 2010 study on student attention decline, Dufault explained that while attention span decreases over time within a class session, regardless of how engaged a person is, attention lapses can be reduced by incorporating periods of active learning into lecture sessions.

“Activities like demonstrations, facilitated discussions and question and answer sessions can provide a reset or refresh for students that helps extend attention span,” said Dufault. “Built-in breaks and shorter lecture sessions of 90 minutes or less can also be helpful in retaining the attention of students and preventing information overload.”

Outside of the lecture setting, Dufault noted that successful learning can be achieved by utilizing retrieval practice. The strategy helps boost learning by encouraging students to deliberately call information to mind after initially learning it, rather than simply rereading the information over again without trying to recall it.

“Time and time again, retrieval practice has been found to be a more effective approach to learning and a more durable form of learning over time,” said Dufault. “The key ingredient is the effortful retrieval of information.”

Dufault also stressed the importance of feedback in the learning process.

“Numerous studies have shown that the amount of information students retain improves as a function of how much feedback is given,” said Dufault. “Feedback is a proven amplifier of learning.”

According to Dufault, feedback also plays an important role in learning by decreasing the amount of incorrect information students “learn” from multiple choice tests; improving subsequent performance on questions that students answer incorrectly and also improving subsequent performance on questions students answer correctly, even among those who had low confidence in their answers.

Dufault concluded her discussion by highlighting the long-term learning benefits of “the spacing effect.” The phenomenon, which has been studied by psychologists for over 100 years, offers evidence that learning is greater when studying is spread out over time, rather than taking place in a single session or sessions that take place very close in time.

“To get the best results from spacing, educators should expose students to key facts at least twice, place longer spaces between learning episodes to encourage long-term retention and consider using cumulative exams that promote spaced study,” said Dufault.

The workshop was the first in a series of events being hosted by the center to share best practices in education and practice principles.

The event was well-received by participants, one of which commented that she loved learning the data and evidence behind strategies to improve long-term retention of material. Other participants noted that the workshop was “excellent,” and was a “great way to bring faculty together.”

 For information on upcoming workshops, visit


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