Middle school, high school and college students: put down those textbooks and stop cramming for tests. There’s more to the science of learning than re-reading a textbook. Instead, space your learning, test yourself repeatedly (with flashcards), and try to solve a problem BEFORE you understand the question. These actions have been shown to increase recall, which usually means a higher test score.
While you’re at it – it would be helpful if you had a growth mindset and a lot of curiosity.
Science of Learning
The authors, cognitive researchers (and one storyteller), neatly summarize current learning research. They weave results throughout the book – using stories and repetitive recall – all while interleaving new information with the old.
It’s been a fascinating read and there are a number of small changes any teacher can make to assist students with learning and remembering content.
It’s difficult to be creative and use information in a new way if can’t remember, or don’t understand, the basics. For example, it’s difficult to apply multiplication to a new situation (or to learn from your experience), if you don’t know that 3 x 2 = 6. The authors are not in favor of ‘drill n kill,’ but they indicate a need for basic understanding before one can apply knowledge in a creative way.
Learn two different but related tasks at the same time
I struggle the most with this bit of research. The authors note that focusing on one area (e.g. determining the volume of a cube), is not as valuable as trying to figure out the volume of a cube, a cylinder and a cone – all at the same time. So, instead of getting the formula for the cube down pat and then moving on, they suggest learning all of the formulas at once. The learning will be slower, but later recall is shown to be stronger than if you focus on one topic before moving on. The theory is that we do not apply our learning in isolated ways. Instead, we may have to figure out the volume of geometric solid and we don’t know which one it will be. By practicing all of the formulas, we are better equipped to know which solution to choose.
New learners are better than experts at teaching
Although I learned this tidbit during my own experiences, it was nice to see it validated by research. It turns out that students are much better at figuring out how to teach content than a subject expert. The reasoning is that experts have internalized the ‘basics’ of their subject, whereas new students recognize where they struggle with learning. They know which concepts are more difficult because they themselves are trying to process the information.
Feedback is more important than grading
As an educator, I’ve always hated the way tests are used for high-stakes decisions. Are we testing for knowledge acquisition, or do we want to use the tests to help students learn more? It turns out that feedback is incredibly important. Teachers know this, but can’t always put it into practice. Testing is a valuable tool, but there needs to be accurate feedback for students’ knowledge to grow.
“Test” your students often
But not with such high stakes. The authors found that frequently asking students to recall information interrupted the process of forgetting. It was much more effective than re-reading material (and highlighting, etc.). Asking yourself questions – without looking at the book – was better at solidifying the information in your brain. At the start of class, teachers can ask questions about the day’s topic of discussion. Students can create flashcards to “quiz” themselves to keep from forgetting the information.
Immediate testing isn’t good at predicting later recall, however, spaced testing does a great job of strengthening recall. For teachers, introduce new material and then allow a day to pass. Test your students – ask them questions at the start of class – to strengthen their recall of previous material. I think I might put a note on my calendar a week later, two weeks later, etc. to remember to bring up the topic again.
Try to solve the problem BEFORE you know how
I find this particular tidbit to be quite fascinating. The authors’ discovered that when learners tried to answer a question – before they knew the correct way to do so – it strengthened the learning on the subject. So, try to solve that hard math or sociology problem and then learn about the topic. I wonder it has to do with alerting your brain to pay attention. It sounds like something from Making Thinking Visible.
Encourage a Growth Mindset
We could also label this section, “mind over matter.” If you think you aren’t good at something, you never will be. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Carol Dweck’s research on having a ‘growth mindset’ has shown that students who are praised for effort work harder on the next challenge. Those who were praised for being smart and failed to solve the problem, gave up on the next challenge.
Learning something new is supposed to be hard
As much as educators like to make learning fun and help students find interest in what they are doing, there comes a point when we acknowledge that making new connections in your brain can be a difficult task. But, hopefully we can let students know that it’s supposed to be hard, but that if you keep trying it will get easier. Teach them how the brain works. “Try, try and try again” is an old adage that has fallen out of favor in our high-stakes world of testing. We expect students to learn, retain information without giving appropriate feedback, and then we get all huffy when they give up. Perhaps, rather than grading students on content, we could grade effort. Elementary school assessment could be portfolio-based, thus encouraging a growth mindset.
The brain is not a muscle, but the more we use it, the more we deliberately practice, the stronger our neural connections become. Since we adopted a growth mindset four years ago, we have seen remarkable effort and retention in our own lives (and not just for our children). Now, when French learning gets hard, I think that perhaps, I’m not learning it in the way that I should be, rather than thinking that I’m just not good at languages. I still struggle with certain topics and it is still frustrating to know that learning doesn’t come easily, but knowledge is power.
Why do we require certain subjects in school?
Since it’s outside of the scope of this book, there was no discussion about WHY we are teaching the subjects that we do. WHY do high school and college students need to take certain courses? WHY do we think it’s okay to place such pressure on a high stakes test for entrance to college? WHY do we require a generalist education when we really value deep learning? WHY is trigonometry and physics and four years of English required for college admissions? WHY can’t students pursue their own interests – and still get into college? Can you tell this is passionate topic of mine?
The authors’ tips on how to study are very valuable to a high school or college student, but in the end, it does seem just like a way to “game” the system. Are you really internalizing that information for the long haul? Is it relevant? They’ve noted that being an expert in one field does not transfer to another topic. Yes, making connections between different topics helps to strengthen your knowledge, but you still have to put in the effort to learn a new subject. Why not give high school students the choice of what topics to pursue – maybe ensuring that they choose three “easy” ones and three “hard” ones. But, the subject matter would be up to them.
Tips for Lifelong Learners
There were three major “tips” the authors gave for lifelong learners. That’s those of us who are not learning in a classroom, but are still learning by choice or for a career. To be honest, they sounded a lot like the things we do in project-based learning. So, maybe it’s not such a bad thing for teachers to incorporate into their classrooms…
In order to truly understand a topic, you need to generate something about it (hence, this blog post). Your grasp of the material starts out awkward, you aren’t sure where to begin or how to organize anything, but if you can just “blurt” something out, you have a place to begin. Then, your brain takes over and even when you are not consciously acting on that topic, your brain is still making connections. It’s still processing the subject. But you have to engage the material, not just passively absorb it. Suggestions include: creating an interactive program to show what you learned, writing a blog post, or drawing a picture that helps you to remember how everything is connected.
While you are generating a piece (written, produced, etc.) on your newly acquired topic, be sure to reflect on what you have learned. What mistakes did you make and how could you correct them? What choice would you make instead of the one you chose? How do others in the field go about solving that problem? Can you visualize a new situation.
Practice and exposure to the topic is important, but deliberate practice matters more. Deliberate practice is hard. It is often regimented and you may need a coach or mentor to help you through. It makes me recall the words of a French teacher. She said that she employs a wide variety of French exposure (cartoons, books, visuals with words, songs) because to truly know another language, you have to “get it in your fingertips.” I think of that expression every time we tackle a new subject.
So what else have I gotten out of this book? I think it’s time to step up my French learning. I need to do more generation and elaboration. And I need to do more frequent testing. I’ve been using Duolingo, but I need to tie it to more consistent learning. It might be time to break out the flashcards.