Change Your Standard Of What It Means To Understand

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I posted earlier about a recent study on how frequent quizzing improves students’ performance in online courses, but the website PsychCentral has posted a more in-depth look that includes some fascinating insights from the researchers themselves:

“A common barrier for students attending home-based virtual classes is a barrage of distractions including email, the Internet, text messages and television as well as disruptions caused by roommates and friends.

Researchers believe the solution is to test students early and often. By interspersing online lectures with short tests, student mind-wandering decreased by half, note-taking tripled, and overall retention of the material improved, according to psychologist Daniel Schacter and Karl Szpunar, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology.

‘What we hope this research does is show that we can use very strong, experimentally sound techniques to describe what works in online education and what doesn’t,’ ‘said Szpunar. ‘The question, basically, is how do we optimize students’ time when they’re at home, trying to learn from online lectures? How do we help them most efficiently extract the information they need?

‘Some students I’ve talked to say that it takes them as long as four hours to get through an hour long, online lecture because they’re trying to combat all the distractions around them,’ he continued. ‘If we give students an incentive to pay attention to what they’re doing, it’s going to save them time. This is one way to do that.’

Ironically, Schacter said, while online classes have exploded in popularity in the past few years, there remains ‘shockingly little’ hard scientific data about how students learn in the virtual classroom. ‘A lot of people have ideas about what techniques are effective,’ he said. ‘There’s a general folk wisdom that says lessons should be short and engaging, but there’s an absence of rigorous testing to back that up.’

Surprisingly, Schacter said, in the experiments he conducted, students who were tested between each segment—but not the others, even those who were allowed to study the material again—showed a marked drop in mind-wandering and improved overall retention of material.

‘It’s not sufficient for a lecture to be short or to break up a lecture as we did in these experiments,’ Schacter said. ‘You need to have the testing. Just breaking it up and allowing them to do something else, even allowing them to re-study the material, does nothing to cut down on mind-wandering, and does nothing to improve final test performance. The testing is the critical component.’

Those tests, Schacter and Szpunar believe, act as an incentive for students to pay closer attention to the lecture because they know they’ll have to answer questions at the end of each segment. ‘Whether it’s in the classroom or online, students typically don’t expect to have to summarize a lecture in a way that makes sense until much later on,” Szpunar explained. But if we give them an incentive to do that every now and then, students are actually much more likely to set everything else aside, and decide they can get to that text after class, or they can worry about their other class later, and they’re able to absorb the material much better.'”

Schacter adds: ‘What we really need to do is instill in students the expectation that they will need to express what they’ve learned.'” (Read more here.)

This is really important, for all kinds of learning, online and off. It reminds me of something I read in the work of cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. (I’m paraphrasing here, so Dan, if you read this, help me out with an exact quote!)

He said that we need to change the standard for what it means to understand new information. Right now the standard is often this: When I explain something to you, does it makes sense? We can all nod and say yes, it makes sense, without really understanding it in a deep and flexible way.

Instead, the standard should be this: Can you explain the information to me? Challenged to do so (as these students were by the quizzes in the experiment described above), we have to work a lot harder, and we end up learning the material much, much better (and also being more aware of what we don’t know, which we can then do something about).

Change the standard of understanding: this one action could make such a difference in the learning that goes on in schools, homes and workplaces.

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3 Responses to “Change Your Standard Of What It Means To Understand”

  1. Kevin says:

    Excellent article!! Teaching others and active retrieval practice are probably the most effective methods for deep learning.

  2. janine says:

    The problem is most teachers put tests at the end of the reading/lectures etc. That’s fine if the aim is to test, but if the aim is to teach anmd help students understand then the questions should be interspersed throughout.

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