Watch Out For The “Swiss Cheese Effect”

Steve Kolowich has a very interesting (and very long) piece on InsideHigherEd about using data to personalize learning. The whole thing is worth reading, but one passage in particular caught my eye. It’s about how even if a students seem to be doing OK, the concepts they don’t understand will come back to haunt them later on:

“’It’s the Swiss cheese effect,’ says Philip Regier, executive vice provost of Arizona State University Online. ‘You can’t have a big hole in your knowledge. If you get a C, you know 70 percent’ of the material for one course. ‘But the missing 30 is likely to be important to passing the next course.’” (Read more here.)

This is an important point to keep in mind. Mathematics, for example, is “ruthlessly cumulative” (Steven Pinker’s phrase), and so missing a chunk of it early on can cause big problems down the line. Many other disciplines also build complex knowledge on top of more basic knowledge—another reason to pay attention, not just to the grade a student gets, but to the depth and completeness of understanding he or she has achieved.

Have you ever had an encounter with the “Swiss cheese effect”—realizing that there was a gap in your knowledge that you needed to fill before you could learn more?

3 Responses to “Watch Out For The “Swiss Cheese Effect””

  1. Yes. Only, at the time, I didn’t know what it was that I was missing, just that I should be able to do something that everyone else could do–and I didn’t know how, or why I couldn’t. 20 years later, I’ve figured out that I was missing a fundamental education in logic, something that is no longer taught in schools, either explicitly as a logic class, or implicitly in the form of diagramming sentences and so on. I’m seriously considering homeschooling my daughter, partly because it’s been such a handicap to me not to have that education. The LSAT is straight-up logic. Advanced mathematics and science (AKA psychology is biology is chemistry is physics is math) is all based on logic. Good writing is based on logical organization. It’s everywhere, and key to everything–and I am completely ignorant of it, as are all the public school graduates that I know.

  2. Chitra says:

    I can connect with the “Swiss cheese effect.” During my first year of college, I changed my elective from German to Office Management. That meant I had to change my class batch as well. In the new class, the mathematics teacher had covered a lot of ground, so I completely missed learning basic algebraic equations. I found it very difficult to catch up on build on this later on.

  3. Music is a classic example of a discipline that builds complex knowledge on top of more basic knowledge. Far too often people try to skip around or ahead which only leads to frustration. What’s worse are teachers who tend to scatter shoot concepts hoping something will stick – …and more frustration. I tell my students that I cannot put my finger on a single ‘light-bulb’ moment in my music learning experience but through accumulated study and repetition it seems, one day I had the knowledge and skills to play, understand, and teach music at a fairly high level. It was through the application of my knowledge (and in particular, playing live performances) that this information finally manifested itself and made all the connections come together. From then on both the learning and ability to apply new ideas comes much more quickly.

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