Back in 1990, William McEachern started editing a semiannual newsletter that he called \”The Teaching Economist.\” Each issue had a handful of pithy article, with a heavy emphasis on concrete suggestions linked to actual experience. After 26 years and 52 issues, McEachern has decided to that the Spring 2017 issue, #52, will be the last. However, all the past newsletters are freely available online, and they offer many nuggets for teachers willing to mine the archives.
Students learn by organizing new information into a coherent mental structure, integrating that with their prior knowledge and experience, then retrieving that information repeatedly from memory. Here are four key findings from cognitive science.
Finding # 1: Students are much more likely to recall information that relates somehow to what they already know or have experienced. Spell out how new material relates to existing knowledge or experience. Use examples from student life, current events, and popular culture. Ask students to generate their own examples from personal experience. All this makes new material more memorable.
Finding # 2: The key to long-term learning is practicing retrieval. Many experiments have found that learning improves when students actively retrieve information from memory rather than passively reread class notes or textbooks. Information that’s actively retrieved thereby becomes more accessible in the future and is therefore more transferable to other situations.
Finding # 3: Raise key ideas again and again over time. Retrieval and testing sessions that are spaced out over time are effective for long-term retention and transfer. The long-term benefits of spacing retrieval over time have been found for more than a century of controlled research into human memory. Teachers should align their presentations, assignments, and tests so that key ideas are recalled frequently throughout the term. And students should space their retrieval sessions over time.
Finding # 4: “Desirable difficulties” foster engagement, which helps students learn. Desirable difficulties are challenges introduced during instruction that seem to benefit long-term learning, challenges such as presenting material in different contexts and in different formats. Desirable difficulties may seem to slow the apparent rate of learning in the short run, but they boost long-term retention and transfer. Presentations that challenge students engage them more, and this helps them learn.
And Four Myths
Although cognitive scientists have been studying teaching and learning for decades, not many teachers and fewer students rely on this research even second or third hand. Some teaching and learning practices have no empirical support— they are simply myths. Here are four.
Myths# 1: The mind works like a memory machine. Students believe they sit in class and soak up the knowledge. They read a chapter and absorb the material; they read it again and encode it. The very familiarity of a second reading persuades them that they know the stuff. But test results tell them otherwise. Instead, new information enters long-term memory only if linked to what’s already known, then retrieved repeatedly over time.
Myth# 2: Testing is not learning but is a mere yardstick to measure how much has been learned. Most students don’t like taking tests and most instructors don’t like preparing, administering, and grading them. So testing is usually not a valued activity in itself. Tests, however, are forced retrieval, and this helps students learn and remember. Dozens of studies demonstrate the power of testing as a learning tool, particularly in pointing out weaknesses. Frequent, low-stakes, classroom quizzes may be one of the best ways you can help students learn new material.
Myth# 3: Learning depends on a student’s learning style. According to this myth, some students learn visually, others by hearing, others by reading, and so on. Each student’s brain is a lock that’s accessed only with the right key, the right learning style. Although some students seem to have preferences about how they learn, there is no evidence that customizing instruction to match a student\’s preferred learning style leads to better achievement. Because interest flows from variety, instructors should offer material using a mix of learning styles.
Myth # 4: Your classroom presentation determines how much students learn.What you do in class matters less than what you ask and expect students to do in your course. Student effort determines how much is learned, how well it\’s remembered, and under what conditions it\’s recalled and applied to new situations. Remember, it’s less what you teach and more what students do for themselves to learn.