What are we learning?

After class a student told me, “I thought I had been taught how to learn in school but now you’ve ruined everything.” She asked me to look at her notes. “See?”, she said, “Don’t these notes look like the material on the powerpoint? And they are neatly written aren’t they?” I agreed, they indeed were.

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Then what was the problem, what had I ruined?

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That day my Cognitive Psychology class had just finished an activity and discussion on strategies for learning. Students selected THE most commonly used learning strategies by college students from the following list (adapted from: Dunlosky et al., 2013):

  1. Highlighting (text or information)
  2. Re-reading (to be learned material)
  3. Summarize
  4. Mnemonic (use key words to describe)
  5. Imagine (use mental images while learning)
  6. Elaborate (provide related details to to be learned information)
  7. Self-explain (write why in own words)
  8. Testing (practice by asking yourself questions about material)
  9. Distribute Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days)
  10. Interleave Testing (practice for an hour or so a day, for five days, but switch content each half hour)

The items on the list were described by Dunlosky and colleagues (2013) as either of low, moderate, or high in how useful they are for learning. In the list, the lowest appear in red, moderate in blue, and high in green.

Students said their peers would consider method #1 Highlighting and #2 Re-reading as the most used strategies. I asked them who thought the average college student tests themselves on materials, on their own, BEFORE taking a test. Methods 8, 9, and 10 are all ways you can test yourself on material. NO ONE RAISED THEIR HAND.

Student preferred methods like re-reading and highlighting do take time, but have very low pay off for learning. Consider this, as a new college student I recall carefully laying

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out a fresh pack of colorful highlighters. I sat down with my book or class notes and meticulously color-coded information in a pattern I thought would be both meaningful and lead to successful remembering. I WAS WRONG. Not only did this take a lot of time, the time spent convinced me the effort would pay off.

Learners typically pick the least effortful method, but one that also takes a lot of TIME. Their time spent “studying” gives them an ILLUSION of knowing material. In a student’s words… “I spend my time and attention trying to write down everything the teacher says. Sometimes this is copying down, word-for-word, what is on presentation slides. When I go back to study these notes. I find they are just words without meaning.”

The student is sharing the illusion of learning that occurs when studying takes a lot of time. She felt like she knew the material but after reading it again she realized it wasn’t in her own words and there were no detailed examples she could connect the materials to. Her next step was to turn back to the text and powerpoint and read and re-read material, hoping information would sink in. Come test time, her knowledge of material was only surface-level. She knew the very basics but had trouble on the test because she could not explain the content on essay questions and had difficulty with multiple-choice questions that apply knowledge.

WHY AREN’T STUDENTS LEARNING HOW TO LEARN IN COLLEGE? 

For most students there is no course dedicated to the science of learning in their college curriculum.

  • One that lets them know how to successfully study for more than a 48-hour memory.
  • One that teaches them the science of how human memory works.
  • One that teaches them the skills they can use for college preparation as well as in their careers.

I am inspired to follow in the steps of Dr. Edward DeLosh at Colorado State University. Dr. DeLosh teaches a general education course called “The Science of Learning.” Here students are taught, “The science of learning and remembering with an emphasis on strategies and methods that students can use to enhance their learning and studying.”

FOR MY ANGRY STUDENT. She deserves to know how to study and learn BEFORE she has one semester left in college. She should be upset that what has been missing in her studies is the SCIENCE OF LEARNING. I am committed to help change this.

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