Lessons for learning: How cognitive psychology informs classroom practice

What does this mean for educators?

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What does this mean for educators?

Many teachers already implement these strategies in one form or another. But they may be able to get much more powerful results with a few small tweaks. For example, we often observe teachers usingthink-pair-share activities in their classrooms — typically, they will give students a few minutes on their own to think about a topic or prompt, then a few more minutes to discuss it with a partner, and then a chance to share their ideas as part of a larger class discussion. But what, exactly, are students doing during the think stage? They could easily be daydreaming, or wondering what to eat for lunch, rather than actively considering the prompt. But if the teacher simply asks them to write down a quick response, rather than just think, it becomes an opportunity for retrieval practice, ensuring that students are drawing an idea out of their heads and onto the paper.

Similarly, rather than assigning students to consider a new topic, the teacher might ask them to do a think-pair-share about content they learned the day or week before — and now it becomes an opportunity for spaced practice; students get to return to material and solidify their understanding of it.

Here’s another example: We often observe teachers begin their classes by saying something to the effect of, “Here’s what we did yesterday. . . .” and then reviewing the content. Instead, they can pose it as a question, “What did we do yesterday?” and give students a minute to write down what they remember. It’s a subtle shift (from a lecture by the teacher to an opportunity for retrieval practice), but it can significantly improve student learning, without requiring additional preparation or classroom time. Even a single question, writing prompt, or quick no-stakes quiz can make a difference, encouraging students to pull information out of their heads rather than cramming it into them via lecturing or telling.

Why do these strategies improve learning? Consider this quick question: Who was the fourth president of the United States? A plausible answer may have jumped instantly to mind, but you probably had to struggle mentally to come up with a response. It’s precisely this productive struggle or “desirable difficulty” during retrieval practice and the three additional strategies that improves learning. (By the way, the fourth president was James Madison, but you’ll likely remember that much better if you managed to retrieve it from your memory rather than waiting for us to remind you of the name!)

Teachers can use these four strategies (retrieval practice, feedback-driven metacognition, spaced practice, and interleaving) with confidence because they are strongly backed by research both in laboratories and classrooms. The rigor of science gives us confidence that these strategies aren’t fads, and successful classroom implementation gives us confidence that they work in the real world, not just in the laboratory.

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