Why We Teach the Way We Teach

learning photo
Photo by Voluntary Amputation

Several recent posts on the SPCS Pedagogy CoP list have pointed toward recent research findings in cognitive science that tell us more about the way students learn — and therefore have direct impact on the way we teach. Here are three examples.

The Spacing Effect

Mike Dixon’s daughter challenged him to present evidence that regular reviewing is more effective than cramming as a learning strategy. He found an article both accessible to a 15-year-old and useful to adults alike: The Spacing Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximize Retention on Farham Street. The article introduces and explains the benefits of the “spacing effect,” which is described like this: ”There is a way to slow down the process of forgetting. We need only to recall or revisit the information after we originally come across it. Going over the information later, at intervals, helps us remember a greater percentage of the material. Persistence will allow us to recall with 100% accuracy all that we want to remember.” This theory influences the way Mike organizes his class and presents material. He puts it this way:

I have encouraged my students through weekly pacing guides, reminders, etc. to review what they’re learning regularly. I chunk my course material so that none is overwhelming to retain over time (I teach primarily online at-present). I teach music history primarily, so it’s critical they retain all the way through. Regardless, I still see the results of cramming: reduced retention of previously learned information as the semester progresses.

After finding this article for his daughter, he plans to share it with his students, too, to help them understand why he organizes and teaches his classes the way we does: “I’m thinking about also sharing with my students at the beginning of the semester, in an effort to drive home how the brain works best and why cramming won’t work.”

Small Teaching

Carol Wittig responded to Mike’s post with another resource that applies cognitive theory to learning that she read as part of a pedagogy book club, a book that several colleagues assign to students: Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James M. Lang. As Carol puts it, “the book highlights how we can change small things [in our pedagogy] — taking advantage of cognitive theory — to make a difference in how students learn and retain information.” The book summary offers this explanation for what the book accomplishes:

In Small Teaching, James Lang presents a strategy for improving student learning with a series of modest but powerful changes that make a big difference — many of which can be put into practice in a single class period. These strategies are designed to bridge the chasm between primary research and the classroom environment in a way that can be implemented by any faculty in any discipline, and even integrated into pre-existing teaching techniques. Learn, for example:

  • How does one become good at retrieving knowledge from memory?
  • How does making predictions now help us learn in the future?
  • How do instructors instill fixed or growth mindsets in their students?

Each chapter introduces a basic concept in cognitive theory, explains when and how it should be employed, and provides firm examples of how the intervention has been or could be used in a variety of disciplines. Small teaching techniques include brief classroom or online learning activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications in course design or communication with students.

Make It Stick

Later that same day, after Mike and Carol gave me permission to share their ideas in this post, Carol reached out to me and asked that I share another resource she had encountered earlier from her pedagogy book club. In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the authors — Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel — draw on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology that offer creative techniques for becoming more productive learners. The book summary offers this tantalizing preview of the book’s premise:

New insights into how memory is encoded, consolidated, and later retrieved have led to a better understanding of how we learn. Grappling with the impediments that make learning challenging leads both to more complex mastery and better retention of what was learned.

Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and durable learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.

These three ideas with unassuming, short, catchy titles — the spacing effect, small teaching, make it stick — belie the complex cognitive theory and research that support their findings. More importantly for SPCS professors, these ideas reveal the extent to which pedagogical methods are (and must) change to adapt to better understanding of the biochemical processes of remembering and habituation.

What are you doing to better match your teaching to updated understandings of the science of learning? What tools and skills do you recommend? And what do you want to learn more about? These are questions our community of practice might focus on as we enter the new year.

Daniel Hocutt

Web Manager and Adjunct Professor of English for the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies.