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How We Learn


I recently read Benedict Carey’s How We Learn, The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens.  Carey does a nice job providing an overview of ed-psych, cognitive-psych and neuroscience literature on memory by relating it to his experiences as a learner.  It’s filled with research-based suggestions for memorizing and learning.  A few passages continue to tickle my brain:

“The harder we have to work to retrieve a memory, the greater the subsequent spike in retrieval and storage strength (learning)” (p.38).

I didn’t know this and I suspect students are similarly unaware.  I’m wondering how I can integrate increasingly difficult retrieval  challenges into learning activities.

I’m also thinking about desirable difficulties and productive v. unproductive cognitive load.  We want students to exercise their brains in meaningful ways, not waste energy on confusing instructions, unclear formats, disorganization, or other learning impediments.  We want students’ brains to be focused on retrieval and long-term retention.

“A test is not only a measurement tool, it alters what we remember and changes how we subsequently organize that knowledge in our minds. And it does so in ways that greatly improve later performance” p.83.

Carey delves deeply into pre-testing and self-testing as learning strategies.  I have been selling testing short and I’m pretty sure students have too. The past few years I’ve moved away from quizzing, but I’m reconsidering.  I experimented with student-developed examples last term in accounting.  It was an eye-opening experience for students and teacher. The process revealed students didn’t understand the material as well as I thought they did, or as well as they  thought they did.  It’s a lot harder to develop an example than they or I thought it would be. It’s this kind of “hard” thinking that’s desirable for learning.  Given how much attention students pay to “tests” we should leverage them for learning, not just assessment.

“You can teach facts and concepts all you want, but what’s most important in the end is how students think about that material-how they organize it, mentally, and use it t make judgments about what’s important and what’s less so” p.98.

Teachers often present material once and move on.  Then we’re surprised students haven’t retained it for the long-term. To increase retention, teachers need to be more intentional about getting students looping, repeating, and reorganizing content.  The more novel the repetition, like switching media or adding humor, the better.  Each time students interact with a chunk of content, more connections to other memories are made and strengthened.  It’s not enough for the teacher to say, “Remember… we saw this in chapter 4.” Teachers need to create opportunities for students to organize and make judgments.

The more I read books like How We Learn, Make it Stick The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel), and The New Science of Learning (Doyle & Zakrajsek), the more convinced I am that graduate schools should require future professors (all of us, not just those in Ed programs) to complete at least one course on “how people learn” or “how brains work.”

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