Making Predictions Makes You Learn Better

As 2013 draws to a close, many of us are looking to the year ahead, predicting how the events of 2014 will play out. Whether our predictions turn out to be spot-on or dead wrong, they have a consistent effect on our thinking: they increase our interest in the outcome. Once we wager that our favorite sports team will win, we want to know the final score. Once we guess the identity of the murderer in a mystery novel, we keep reading to find out if we were right.

We can leverage this prediction effect to increase interest in learning. A study conducted by two Michigan psychologists, for example, reports that middle-school math students asked to anticipate how linear and exponential factors work—before this information was taught—became more curious about the content of the lessons they then proceeded to learn. Even more importantly, the act of venturing predictions prompted them to understand the material more deeply as they engaged in reasoning and sense-making about math instead of mere memorization.

To test their theory that making predictions would facilitate learning, Lisa Anne Kasmer of Grand Valley State University and Ok-Kyeong Kim of Western Michigan University designed a lesson plan in which the teacher started off the class with a series of prediction questions. Students were asked to imagine, for example, that a boy named Alejandro was cutting a paper ballot in half, then in half again, and so on. “If Alejandro makes ten cuts, can you predict how many ballots Alejandro might have?” the teacher asked. She followed that question with another: “What is your reasoning?”

The pupils wrote down a prediction, along with explanations supporting their guess, and then discussed their responses with their classmates. After telling the students that it was their reasoning that was important, not the correctness of their predictions, the teacher went on to teach them about linear and exponential factors. Only then did the students revisit their initial predictions to find out if they’d guessed right.

Making predictions, Kasmer and Kim explain, helps prime the learning process in several ways. In the act of venturing a guess, we discover what we know and don’t yet know about the subject. We activate our prior knowledge on the topic, readying ourselves to make connections to new knowledge. We create a hypothesis that can then be tested, generating curiosity and motivation to find out the answer.

Most of all, making predictions leads us to think deeply, to “explore the ‘why’ that underlies challenging problems,” in Kasmer and Kim’s words. Students who view mathematics as only memorizing facts and procedures, they note, are often unsure of when or how to apply what they have learned. Making predictions requires students to actively grapple with new concepts instead of passively receiving them.

The authors suggest that teachers—and parents and learners themselves—make generating predictions “a habit of mind” that they engage in each time they approach a new learning situation. My prediction: doing so will make learning more effective, not to mention more fun.

Brilliant readers, do you enjoy making predictions? Do you find that once you’ve predicted an outcome, you’re more interested in finding out the result? Please share your thoughts in the space below.

3 Responses to “Making Predictions Makes You Learn Better”

  1. Joseph Bellina says:

    The use of predictions has a long and distinguished history in physics education research. Indeed all of the learning cycles developed there as well as others like %E from BSCS have prediction with explanation embedded in them.
    I don’t know, but I suspect the impetus for this work may have come from the strong science ed program at Western Michigan, leading to this extension into mathematics.
    If so it is a good thing, since mathematics education surely needs this sort of enrichment.

  2. Joe Slevin says:

    I have used the idea in history as well. Not as simple as in maths or physics but still leads to wonderful discussion and very good questions. I think too many teachers miss a key point in teaching – getting the students to want to learn. There is now increasing awareness about the non-cognitive skills in learning. I use the term ‘learning attitudes’ to work with children and their parents.

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