Change how students think about course material to promote learning that endures

March 28, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Lang (2016) proposes that improving a course does not require a complete tear-down and overhaul. He argues that faculty can gradually improve the quality of student learning in their courses if they make small adjustments to teaching strategies and assignments each term.

 Today’s tip suggests changes in how we design assignments. An effective assignment ensures that students practice the cognitive skills we want them to develop. Effective assignments require students to use study strategies know to promote long-term retention of new material.

 Students who use rote memorization rapidly forget the material they learned. Forgetting curves for newly-memorized information are among the best-documented phenomena in memory research. Herman Ebbinghaus (1884) published the earliest data on the speed of forgetting. His work was followed by dozens of studies of massed and distributed practice in the 1960s and comparisons of rote rehearsal to other encoding strategies from the 1970s onward. An illustration of the rapidity of forgetting, even in high-performing students, is based on a joke a physician friend would tell about his life as a medical student. He claimed that the one thing he learned in medical school was that he could remember anything for 24 hours. Even the best students sometimes rely on rote memorization to retain massive numbers of facts long enough to earn a good grade on an exam. Then they “erase the tape.”

 Craik and Lockhart (1972) asked the question: which is more important – the amount of time a student spends studying, the student’s intention to learn the material, or how the student thinks about and encodes the material. The result is surprising and contradicts students’ intuitions about learning. Researchers have replicated this finding in scores of laboratory studies and countless classroom demonstrations. Craik and Lockhart found that the way students think about new material has a greater impact on learning than does the amount of time a student studies or the student’s intention to learn. Students remembered more words on a list when they thought about what the words meant or how the words related to other things the students knew. In contrast, students who thought about superficial characteristics (the shape of the letters, the color of the font, the way words sounded when spoken) could recall no more than a few words, even when they were tested immediately after the finished studying the words. The contrast increases when students take a test after longer delays (e.g., two weeks later). Increasing the number of rehearsals of a specific word during study (rote repetitions) will improve memory for that word when students are given a test immediately after studying. However, students were unable to recall words that had received many repetitions during study when they were given a delayed test, even when the test occurred as soon as 15 or 20 minutes later. A brief period spent thinking about other things was enough to produce significant amounts of forgetting (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

 The lesson from this research is that the type of thinking a student must use to complete an assigned task benefits learning more than the amount of time the student spends completing the assignment or whether the student intends to learn. Assignments that produce the most enduring memories require students to think about meaning, develop connections between new material and concepts they already know, and articulate connections between ideas (Bergey, n.d.; Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). Assignments that force students to spend large amounts of time thinking about superficial qualities of new material do not produce enduring knowledge structures (memorizing definitions on flash cards, memorizing isolated facts).

Learning as the development of expertise. One of the hallmark differences between experts and novices is that experts not only know more “stuff,” but the “stuff” they know is represented in complex, interconnected mental representations. Experts possess more than an encyclopedic mass of facts. Their knowledge is organized and interconnected. These interconnections serve two functions. First, they create multiple means for retrieving information. Second, the organizational structure creates opportunities for experts to discover and articulate new patterns of connections and meaning that are not apparent in a listing of isolated facts. They “connect the dots” and discover new knowledge from the structure. We need to design assignments that encourage students to create the kinds of knowledge structures used by experts.

What do your course assignments ask your students to do when they think about course material?

 Can a student complete an assignment or answer exam questions by retrieving isolated facts? Or must they connect ideas and skills in your course with ideas and skills they learn in other courses or apply these ideas and skills to problems they encounter in everyday life? Design assignments that entail constructing an interconnected knowledge base instead of compiling a list of isolated facts.

 Resources

 Bergey, B. (n.d.). Making it stick: How to design engaging and effective learning activities. Workshop handout, Teaching & Learning Center, Temple University.

 Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

 Craik, F. I. M., & Watkins, M. J. (1973). The role of rehearsal in short-term memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 599-607.

 Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lang (2016) proposes that improving a course does not require a complete tear-down and overhaul. He argues that faculty can gradually improve the quality of student learning in their courses if they make small adjustments to teaching strategies and assignments each term.

 

Today’s tip suggests changes in how we design assignments. An effective assignment ensures that students practice the cognitive skills we want them to develop. Effective assignments require students to use study strategies know to promote long-term retention of new material.

 

Students who use rote memorization rapidly forget the material they learned. Forgetting curves for newly-memorized information are among the best-documented phenomena in memory research. Herman Ebbinghaus (1884) published the earliest data on the speed of forgetting. His work was followed by dozens of studies of massed and distributed practice in the 1960s and comparisons of rote rehearsal to other encoding strategies from the 1970s onward. An illustration of the rapidity of forgetting, even in high-performing students, is based on a joke a physician friend would tell about his life as a medical student. He claimed that the one thing he learned in medical school was that he could remember anything for 24 hours. Even the best students sometimes rely on rote memorization to retain massive numbers of facts long enough to earn a good grade on an exam. Then they “erase the tape.”

 

Craik and Lockhart (1972) asked the question: which is more important – the amount of time a student spends studying, the student’s intention to learn the material, or how the student thinks about and encodes the material. The result is surprising and contradicts students’ intuitions about learning. Researchers have replicated this finding in scores of laboratory studies and countless classroom demonstrations. Craik and Lockhart found that the way students think about new material has a greater impact on learning than does the amount of time a student studies or the student’s intention to learn. Students remembered more words on a list when they thought about what the words meant or how the words related to other things the students knew. In contrast, students who thought about superficial characteristics (the shape of the letters, the color of the font, the way words sounded when spoken) could recall no more than a few words, even when they were tested immediately after the finished studying the words. The contrast increases when students take a test after longer delays (e.g., two weeks later). Increasing the number of rehearsals of a specific word during study (rote repetitions) will improve memory for that word when students are given a test immediately after studying. However, students were unable to recall words that had received many repetitions during study when they were given a delayed test, even when the test occurred as soon as 15 or 20 minutes later. A brief period spent thinking about other things was enough to produce significant amounts of forgetting (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

 

The lesson from this research is that the type of thinking a student must use to complete an assigned task benefits learning more than the amount of time the student spends completing the assignment or whether the student intends to learn. Assignments that produce the most enduring memories require students to think about meaning, develop connections between new material and concepts they already know, and articulate connections between ideas (Bergey, n.d.; Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). Assignments that force students to spend large amounts of time thinking about superficial qualities of new material do not produce enduring knowledge structures (memorizing definitions on flash cards, memorizing isolated facts).

 

Learning as the development of expertise. One of the hallmark differences between experts and novices is that experts not only know more “stuff,” but the “stuff” they know is represented in complex, interconnected mental representations. Experts possess more than an encyclopedic mass of facts. Their knowledge is organized and interconnected. These interconnections serve two functions. First, they create multiple means for retrieving information. Second, the organizational structure creates opportunities for experts to discover and articulate new patterns of connections and meaning that are not apparent in a listing of isolated facts. They “connect the dots” and discover new knowledge from the structure. We need to design assignments that encourage students to create the kinds of knowledge structures used by experts.

 

What do your course assignments ask your students to do when they think about course material?

 

Can a student complete an assignment or answer exam questions by retrieving isolated facts? Or must they connect ideas and skills in your course with ideas and skills they learn in other courses or apply these ideas and skills to problems they encounter in everyday life? Design assignments that entail constructing an interconnected knowledge base instead of compiling a list of isolated facts.

 

Resources

 

Bergey, B. (n.d.). Making it stick: How to design engaging and effective learning activities. Workshop handout, Teaching & Learning Center, Temple University.

 

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

 

Craik, F. I. M., & Watkins, M. J. (1973). The role of rehearsal in short-term memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 599-607.

 

Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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