The NYT on learning: studying notes can be deceiving
The article, To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test Already, reports on new research findings reported in Science that students who take a test asking them to actively recall information retain more than those who simply “study” or make concept maps. But what is awesome about this study is they didn’t just measure how the students performed using the various study strategies, it also measured how the students thought they performed.
Here is the money quote from the NYT:
These other methods [rereading notes and concept mapping] not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.
In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite.
This really gets me thinking, especially as I am going through my students’ mid-year evaluations and reading their requests for me to lecture more. My students love lectures (it’s the predominant teaching method used in many of their other classes); many of them describe good learning days as having pages of notes and feeling like they’ve absorbed everything from class. A lot of these comments show that I haven’t done a good job of showing my students how to take notes in this class, which relies on discussion and collaboration. But perhaps even more importantly, this article in the NYT gives me a great insight why my students like lectures and and notes so much. Re-reading notes feels like learning. When you do this, you can actually feel yourself back in the class, hearing the things the teacher said. But the problem is, you aren’t learning what you don’t know. You aren’t pushing yourself to master the things that aren’t in your notes, the questions, the new situations and problems. You’re wallowing in comfort.
This is the exact opposite of how physics class can feel for a lot of my students. We seek out our misconceptions and misunderstandings constantly. In fact, in can feel exactly like the feelings of the frequent testing group, quoted from the NYT article below:
“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”
This reminds me of a good workout, and a wonderful quote tweeted by the by the incredible Kate Nowak, “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” borrowed from the Marines, which I tweaked a bit to say
Confusion is ignorance leaving the brain.
In reflection, I might prefer to put this in a less hard core, more positive light, but I think the connections to the Marines can be a good one. No one would ever think that you can get a good workout by re-reading your notes about workouts, listening to a lecture about how to do a bench press, or making flashcards about technique. The only way to get a workout is to do the work—life the weights, run the distance, swim the laps. And the way you know you’ve gotten a workout is when you feel the burn in your muscles after the workout. In this light, the job of the teacher is coach or trainer. It reminds me of this great post by Dan Meyer, my blogging inspiration, on the role of teacher as spotter.
The good teacher puts weight on the student’s intellectual bar and lets her struggle under that weight as long as possible, asking questions to help her cut through the confusion, just like the spotter shouts encouragement at the lifter.
Plans for change
I’m still thinking about all the ways in which I’m going to try to put these ideas to use. First, I’ve already written my students a blog post with this article which I hope will spark some conversation. I’m very curious to see how they will react, and if they can absorb the greater point of the article that real learning doesn’t come through comfort and absorption, it comes through struggle and failure. When I get back from leave, I think I will add it to my metacognition curriculum and have the students read it for homework.
I can’t deny my students’ desire to have notes, and I think they really can be valuable if they are used correctly, but I need to teach my students to do this. Even though I’m on leave, I’m trying to emphasize, via my sub, the need to stop and summarize big learning points. The incredible 20 minute pulse check project, started by a colleague of mine @jlgough , is a great initative. So is Question-Evidence-Conclusion Cluster note taking, which I learned from Cal Newport, who hit upon the advice of telling a story after you read or go to a class to enhance your learning two years ago, which sounds a lot like the findings in the NYT.
Students start by writing down a question, followed by a few pieces of evidence, and then finally a conclusion. This is exacly how much of our class discussion is organized, but I think since we sometimes don’t explicitly write this out, they don’t think it’s worth recording. Someday, I would love to find out how great English teachers teach students to carry on 50 minute discussions and have students come away with notes that carefully capture the most important questions and ideas of the discussion. Q/E/C note taking is simple, and it’s something I can do by just highlighting the process a bit more for my student (it also links nicely with my thoughts of emphasizing long chains of reasoning). Here’s an example
Q: What can we conclude about the momentum in a collision between two dynamics carts
E: We saw that the carts collided, and thus were exerting forces on each other for the exact same amount of time.
E: By newton’s third law, we know that the force of cart A on cart B must be equal and opposite to the force of cart B on cart A.
E: If we rearrange Newton’s second law, we get , or .
E: Since the times are equal, and the net forces on each object is opposite, this must mean the changes in momentum of each object are opposite each other two.
C: When we add up the changes of the objects to get the total change for the system, the two opposite changes will cancel out, and the total momentum will not change
Finally, I want to continue to help my students see the connection between how they learn physics and how they learn a sport. If they can begin to see themselves more and more in the role they once had when they first held a baseball bat, or a lacrosse stick, barely knowing how to swing it, but still willing to devote hours to practicing (and failing), all of the joy of the game, I think they will be able to find the resolve necessary to reach some very deep understandings in my class.