May 01, 2007

Desirable Difficulties

I'm not teaching this semester, so what am I doing? Thinking about teaching.

Saw a great lecture last week by cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork (article from UConn Advance) of UCLA. His talk was called "How We Learn vs. How We Think We Learn" (pdf copy of a similar presentation), and it focused on some differences in learning vs. performance. Performance (on tests, in the classroom), Bjork suggests, is an unreliable measure of actual learning. He talked about learning as demonstrated over the long-term (i.e., the next day or the next week) rather than in the classroom itself.

I extrapolated his comments to how I teach at Simmons, and particularly how I teach reference. Here are some of my interpretations of what he said, and how I might / do apply them to my class.

He started by talking about "Desirable Difficulties" -- situations where the teacher makes things tough for students in which the tough things are actually designed to enhance teaching. These include:
- varying the conditions of learning
- contextual interference during instruction
- distributed study sessions (taking breaks is poor in the short term, but good for long-term memory)
- tests as learning events are more effective than presentations

"Contextual interference" means to teach mixed sets of information, rather than a segment on one topic, then a segment on a second topic, a segment on the third topic, etc. Bjork's research suggests that long-term learning happens when these topics are "interleaved" or integrated rather than taught in blocks or chunks.

My interpretation of this is teaching reference services (reference interview, instruction, etc.) with reference sources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographic sources, etc.). I currently do mix them, but more because I thought it would be BORING to learn only about sources, then only about services. Good to know that mixing them is better pedagogically too.

"Tests as learning events" -- what a fascinating idea. Bjork compared effectiveness of learning on tests to learning while preparing for presentations -- and test preparation is definitely better for long-term learning. He cited Roediger III, H.L. and Karpicke, J.D.'s article "Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention"(pdf) (2006) Psychological Science, 17 (3), pp. 249-255. as proof. Roediger and Karpicke tested students on a short reading comprehension exercise. There were three groups of students: those who read the material in four different sessions and were tested on it, those who read the material three times and were tested once, and those who read the material once and were tested on it three times -- and they were evaluated shortly after the test / reading session and one week after the test or reading session. As you'd expect results were best for the folks who'd done more reading -- for those evaluated RIGHT AFTER the test / reading session. But longer term retention was best for those who'd read the material ONCE and been tested on it three times.

So ... testing is good for long-term retention. Sorry to everyone who's taken or who will take my reference final, but I look at this as proof that the test is good for your long-term retention of reference sources. And that's what I'm after ultimately: long-term retention of sources.

What I will do is provide more practice tests, either take-home or in class, to get students used to the test format and because more tests clearly improves long-term retention. Most of the additional tests will probably be ungraded, but there will be more. Oh yes, there will be more. :-)

Two more bits of information, one for me and one for the students:
1. Students learn better (but are arguably more frustrated) when the lecture does NOT follow the order of the same material in the text book. This is because (in my words, not Bjork's) students are forced to THINK about the material in new ways rather than just absorbing it by rote. Rote learning doesn't work long-term, it seems, while forcing people to think differently does make them assimilate the information in a way that results in longer staying-power. So ... I will continue to teach my way and have students read from a not-brilliant text book and they will make their own connections between what I say and what the text says.

2. Students learn better when they study in different locations. The common wisdom is to study in the same place, and even prepare for the exam in the room where the exam will be given. But an article (Smith, SM, Glenberg, AM, & Bjork, RA (1978). "Environmental context and human memory." Memory and Cognition 6 (4) pp342-353) suggests that varying where you study and where you take the exam results in better test results. So, students, vary where you study. And possibly ... take the exam in the OTHER classroom, not the room where we have class.

Fascinating stuff.

1 comment:

Maxine said...

I agree about tests being learning tools. It's one reason I like them (good tests, anyway). Usually tests present material covered in class in some new way, or they combine material from different sessions in a way that makes me THINK rather than repeat. I like the idea of practice tests, Stephanie, or at least more low-score tests.