Studying and testing is not learning

After I emailed the latest weekly TeachingTip to faculty at my college, (Practice + feedback = learning. Testing + grading ≠ learning), someone sent me an article (To really learn, quit studying and take a test). The article states that students who took a recall test after reading some topic, as opposed to those who had several study sessions, “learned” the information better. The conclusion was that testing was more effective than studying. Of course taking an immediate test on a reading exercise will produce better results than studying…but this is missing the point entirely.

First, these results are obvious because the recall test requires them to actively try to remember what they read so they could answer the questions. Studying is more passive as you read, re-read, and so forth, so the brain is engaged in a very different way; the active processing does more to “pull it together”. But again, this is not the issue we should be focused on.

The problem is that we’re looking at a relatively low-level expectation – what we too often refer to as “learning”. The recall test was more effective for, guess what – recall, than was the studying. We have to adopt a different definition of what learning is. Learning is not memorization and recall of information. Learning is how to do things, with good guidance and support, running into some roadblocks along the way. Did you learn how to cook by memorizing for a test? Did you learn how to read by passing a test? Did you learn how to teach and do research by studying the textbook and passing a test? Of course not. You learn everything you do in life by doing it. You make mistakes. You think again and try it differently. You ask for help. Eventually you get it…all without taking a single test.

Learning requires active engagement in a real context to help the brain find effective ways to organize, connect, and have it stick. That’s the higher level goal of what we’re after. It’s developing a robust mental model that provides true understanding and the ability to do something useful with that information.

One more quick point. Research has shown that high school students intending to major in math and science in college don’t often really understand the principles of the field. They scored very well on their exams…but when you sit them down and have them explain certain theories, principles, or solve some problems, their mental models of the subject are inaccurate…in many cases completely wrong. Do not assume that if your students score well on your exams that they understand the material. Sit down with them, one on one, and ask them to explain things. Brace yourself – it will most likely freak you out.

Let’s talk education…it needs it.

Haven’t posted in awhile, but time to start discussing education again. I’ve really been thinking lately about the disconnect between how we learn things, how our system (schools, communities, politicians) expects us to learn, and how people become successful in life. Most of it is simply so engrained in our expectations we don’t even question it…but once you do, you begin to realize how silly, inaccurate, and just plain wrong much of it is. Don’t shoot the messenger – it took me years to get to this point. If you don’t know me, I’ve been a faculty member in higher education for about twenty years, and I’ve focused the past several specifically on learning concepts and applying that to the classroom. I’ve worked with lots of teachers, and I run the Teaching and Learning Center at the college where I work. So, you may not like what I say, but listen, consider, and think about it for awhile. I’m not the only one thinking these things – lots of people in the field agree, so keep an open mind. What’s wrong with education is not the fault of individual teachers or schools – it’s a much larger issue that’s tough to deal with. But…we have to try, so let’s get started.

Enough – let’s focus on what’s really important

Actually, there are lots of things that drive me nuts about school systems. A friend from church was talking the other day about getting letters from the teacher complaining how their daughter was not focusing on her math facts and exercises. The parents were supposed to make her pay attention. The age of the child? Second grade. I asked the parents if she had any trouble working on other subjects. The predictable answer – no, she does fine with other topics. Enough said…don’t bother the child and let her explore what she’s interested in at this age.

Edutopia – George Lucas’s educational foundation

Many of you know I am extremely passionate about how people learn and how we need to be designing school instructional experiences that actually work. I’ve followed Edutopia for quite a while now, which was started by George Lucas (yes, Star Wars) in response to his own experiences growing up and watching his kids in school. They have lots of examples where schools and teachers are designing engaging and effective learning activities that ought to be the role model for all schools. If you care about children’s education, this is one source to check out.

Issues in music education

We just wrapped up the Psychology of Music Learning grad course today – they’re all music teachers in the schools, and it’s an amazing time of stepping back from what we all do and re-think what’s important about music education, what students really need and want, and how to go about doing that – all in the context of understanding how people learn new things. We talk a lot about learning theories, mental models, and such, but in a way that makes it relevant-real-to their situations. They’re a great group of individuals who you’d be proud to have teaching your kids. If I have time I might post a few more thoughts about what we discuss…stay tuned.

Google features Web 2.0 tools for education

When we talk about great ideas like having students collaborate and publish rich content in blogs, wikis, etc, educators are often understandably concerned about security – do we really want students’ stuff available out there? In some case the answer is YES – that’s the whole point, so they can get feedback from people in the community, such as professionals in a particular field. However, often we need a system that provides the power of Web 2.0 tools, but within a secure, closed system. Google, who seems to have an answer for everything these days, offers a special service for education institutions that includes GoogleApps, calendar and email, websites, and other tools. Here’s the URL:

I’m presenting mental models/card sorts at AECT

I’ll be presenting the idea of using card sorts for assessing students’ mental models at the AECT conference in Louisville this October. I did this last year at the Teaching Professor Conference in Orlando, and the concept is that card sorts can be used for a quick check of how well students are packaging the course material. It can also be used for more in-depth analysis for serious assessment purposes at the class or program/department level. The beauty of using card sorts is that you find out where students are coming from – you really need to get their picture and slant on things rather than seeing how much they’ve memorized for an exam. It’s a powerful complement to traditional assessment techniques – and it’s easy to do. I’ve used this technique in a variety of academic fields including recording engineering, music history, and physical therapy. If you are coming to AECT drop by and join the conversation. Meantime, you can find out more at my mental model assessment website.

It’s a good thing education doesn’t have to make a profit…

If educational institutions had to stay alive like real businesses do, we’d be long gone. What I mean is that a business has to stay on top of the current climate: economic issues, culture changes, customer/client needs, etc. If they don’t, they go under. If colleges and universities don’t, they applaud themselves as maintaining a long-standing tradition of excellence…and continue forever. Change is glacially slow…but then it’s logarithmic as well, which means that when you finally get that snowball started and rolling, it eventually picks up steam (ok, snowballs and steam don’t mix…stay focused here). Part of what I do at the college is show faculty the great things they can be doing that actually relate to the real world out there. Sometimes they get it, many times they don’t. It’s most often a major paradigm shift, and nobody handles that very well. But we have to keep trying…

Can Twitter/Facebook really be useful in class?

One of the most powerful features of Twitter and the “What are you doing now?” function on Facebook is the concept of real-time updates. Knowing what your friend’s cat just ate for dinner is a complete waste of time…but in class, having people post questions, comments, links to relevant material, etc can foster a really dynamic, interactive environment. The goal is to reduce the one-way stream from instructor to student. What you do is set up a separate overhead screen that shows the Twitter stream so everybody can see updates…and then respond or bring it up in class. Very interesting.