Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

For teaching and learning, what feels best may actually be worst.

Everyday experience makes it obvious: experts should explain something clearly so that students can understand the point effortlessly.  For students, reviewing their notes and materials, or practicing bits of knowledge or skill until they feel locked in - that's the most efficient, successful way to study.

However, research summarized in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) demonstrates that these obvious facts about learning are destructively misleading. (Some other good volumes summarize overlapping bodies of research and make similar points.)

I cringed as I read, remembering how counter-productive my own approach to college work had been:
  • When I could follow a lecture, point by point, I assumed that my preparation was adequate and that I'd learned what I needed .  (Taking a quiz even a day later would have shown me and the instructor that I really hadn't learned anything lasting.)
  • Drilling on a certain type of problem and getting it right each time once again misled me into thinking I had learned something that would last.  My delusion was reinforced by quizzes that typically covered only recent material; in that context, cramming seemed efficient.  
  • Partly as a result, I got average grades in my MIT engineering courses yet my bachelor's didn't prepare me to actually be an engineer. And by the end of my first year of doctoral work in management at MIT, I had again gotten B's and A's in six courses in economics (undergraduate and graduate) yet could recall almost none of it.
Research suggests that my faculty should have taught me differently, and I should have studied differently. For example:
  • When students have to work to recall something (e.g., on a quiz) they are much more likely to remember it than if they spend the same amount of time reviewing that material. (see p. 34 for some relevant research on this point) Working to answer the test questions helps students learn.
  • A variety of practice is important.  College baseball players who were thrown a mix of fast balls, curve balls and sliders didn't feel like their hitting was progressing. In contrast, another set of players was "studying hitting" by being thrown fast balls until they could hit them, then curve balls, then sliders; they could see their progress quite vividly. Yet, in game situations, those frustrated players who had practiced hitting a random mix of pitches had better batting averages. (pp. 79-82 in Making It Stick)
  • When students have to make predictions and then test them, the learning is more likely to last. For a vivid example of the failure of a hands-on lab that didn't take the time for students to learn through  predict-try-observe-repeat, watch the video, "Can We Believe Our Eyes?" It is part 1 of the series, Minds of Our Own. The videos are an excellent illustration of ineffective and effective approaches to teaching.  And each sequence begins with interviews with graduating MIT and Harvard seniors who still misunderstand ideas that they were supposed taught, often more than once, in middle school and onward.
  1. The kinds of teaching and study that intuitively feel most efficient and effective can easily result in an illusion of learning.
  2. The kinds of teaching and study that are best at producing lasting, usable learning may feel to the student, in the moment, to be difficult, time-consuming, and non-productive. Complaints may ensue.  (Make It Stick and several other equally good volumes are packed with examples of "desirable difficult" ways of teaching and studying, and the research that has demonstrated their effectiveness.
  3. Therefore, one important preparation for both faculty and students is to help them anticipate these difficulties and, where possible, to see early signs that really usable, lasting learning is beginning to develop. 
I'll be writing a second post on this material soon.

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