Saturday, September 11, 2010

Today's Education Story

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.

This is from a story in today's NYT (New York Times) titled Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. Well, unless you knew that already, like say a music teacher, athletic coach ... or any professional educator who pays attention.

It turns out [gasp] that varying materials, techniques and learning strategies during the instructional implementation stage improves student learning outcomes! Can't imagine where I ever heard that before, unless it was in Gail Marshall's Teaching Methods course 25 years ago...

"Research Upends Traditional Thinking on Study Habits" is the webpage title of this story, but I see nothing really new or upending in it. Also, after the first several grafs, there's not much about study habits, and quite a bit about teaching styles. This despite the following quote:
“We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” [...] But individual learning is another matter...

Okay, I'll get back to this in a moment, but "Why don't students like school?" Hmmm. Hell, why don't most adults like their jobs? Most adults more or less chose their line of employment, right? Do kids get to choose which classes to sit through? Do they get to choose which hours to show up, do they get paid at the end of the week? No, but adults do, and they'd still rather be somewhere else. What a dumb question!

And furthermore, who says students don't like school? I can't really answer this for the Korean system, as I simply don't know many of the kids I teach very well(communication problem); but back home, I'd say the vast majority of my students liked school well enough. All things considered. I haven't seen this guy's dumb book, but if someone sends it to me, I'll read it!

Anyway, the article goes on to describe a straightforward experiment whose outcome is more or less predictable to an experienced teacher:
The advantages of this approach to studying can be striking, in some topic areas. In a study recently posted online by the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, Doug Rohrer and Kelli Taylor of the University of South Florida taught a group of fourth graders four equations, each to calculate a different dimension of a prism. Half of the children learned by studying repeated examples of one equation, say, calculating the number of prism faces when given the number of sides at the base, then moving on to the next type of calculation, studying repeated examples of that. The other half studied mixed problem sets, which included examples of all four types of calculations grouped together. Both groups solved sample problems along the way, as they studied.
A day later, the researchers gave all of the students a test on the material, presenting new problems of the same type. The children who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent.

In other words, learning something ("both groups solved example problems along the way"), relating what you are learning now to what you've learned before, dealing with new situations in which you must apply your past learning and your present learning ... why, it's almost like these guys invented Bloom's taxonomy! Brilliant!

Oh, wait. Someone already did that!

Next comes this gem of "education news": "When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found."

So, like, if those dumbass teachers would think of some system whereby they could make students (at least the ones who give a crap) study for a while, then also study for a while some other time, then study for a while on third and fourth occasions... Hey, I know! How about we test or quiz the students periodically through the the unit rather than just one time at the end, so they won't just cram all at once. Yeah, that might be something to upend traditional thinking ... that we've been doing for a millennium or two.

Another new thing that I thought I knew already but about which I was clearly in denial until the NYT came along and set me straight: testing is more than just a means of assessment, it is also a tool of learning!
[C]ognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

Dammit! I clicked on this link hoping to find some useful information about new research into the human mind and how it learns, but I was sadly, and by now sarcastically, disappointed. Alas, this story doesn't upend a damn thing I know, but instead reaffirms some things I already knew, and have tried to apply for years. So I guess that's good, really. It's just not news. At least, to me.
None of which is to suggest that these techniques — alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing or all the above — will turn a grade-A slacker into a grade-A student. Motivation matters. So do impressing friends, making the hockey team and finding the nerve to text the cute student in social studies.

Don txt me, NYT, L txt U

Bonus Photograph: The newest Korean beer offering, Hite Dry Finish.

Hite Dry Finish

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