New research may help school leaders with two important challenges that they face on a daily basis. First, in these tight budget times with fewer teachers, larger classes, and fewer resources, how do we improve student performance? How do we do more with less? What are some no-cost ways that we can improve our schools?
Second, given the complexity of course content, particularly in high schools, how do we enhance our skills as instructional leaders? How do we give meaningful feedback to teachers that will enhance their instruction even though we may have little or no background knowledge regarding the content of the course? For example, how do we give feedback to a world language teacher when we have never studied the language and cannot understand a single word they said in the lesson?
A recent study summarized in Science magazine and reported in a New York Times article titled To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test may be a key to unlocking some keys to the teaching and learning process. However, to find those gems, school leaders need to read between the lines.
When I read the abstract, my first thought was that this study would serve to support and defend the current obsession with standardized testing. The study concludes “practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying.” In other words, the simple act of taking a test may improve learning better than any other studying technique including note taking and “concept mapping.”
Furthermore, the researchers concluded that testing might enhance learning far beyond the recall of simple facts. They report “retrieval practice is an effective tool to promote conceptual learning about science.”
The Times article went on to say, “The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods. One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.”
Students who used intense review, also known as “cramming” for a test, as well as other popular methods to aid recall such as “concept mapping” or “mind-mapping” believed that they would have better recall of the content. On the other hand, those who took a test after reading a passage believed that they would remember less. In reality, the reverse was true. Ironically, those who took the test and believed that they had learned less actually learned significantly more than their hard studying counterparts.
The real proof of learning
The only evidence of learning is remembering. Notice that I didn’t say “memorizing.” Remembering is the key. In this case it is the practice of remembering (retrieval) that improves learning. Think about it, if a student cannot remember the essential concepts of the lesson, did the student really learn it?
“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” The Times reported that “several cognitive scientists and education experts said the results were striking.
The researchers divided the students into four groups. One group simply read the content. The second group read and studied the text in four five-minute bursts. The third group used a widely popular strategy known as “concept mapping.” The fourth group read the passage, wrote a free-form essay, reread the passage and then took another practice test.
A week later the students were re-assessed and “the students in the testing group did much better than the “concept mappers.” They even did better when they were evaluated, not with a short-answer test, but with a test requiring them to draw a concept map from memory.”
The experts were surprised by the results of the study. They cannot explain why retrieval testing helps. “The Purdue study supports findings of a recent spate of research showing learning benefits from testing, including benefits when students get questions wrong. But by comparing testing with other methods, the study goes further.”
This is a Big Deal
Cognitive psychologist, Dan Willingham indicates “It really bumps it up a level of importance by contrasting it with concept mapping, which many educators think of as sort of the gold standard. Although “it’s not totally obvious that this is shovel-ready — put it in the classroom and it’s good to go — for educators this ought to be a big deal.”
It Throws Down the Gauntlet
Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard who advocates constructivism — the idea that children should discover their own approach to learning, emphasizing reasoning over memorization — said in an e-mail to the Times that the results “throw down the gauntlet to those progressive educators, myself included.” Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches, like concept mapping,” he continued, “are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.”
After reading between the lines, my initial reactions to this article turned out to be unfounded. This study does not promote or denounce standardized testing. Nor does the study promote memorization or rote learning. This study simply supports quality classroom instruction, but how?
Look 4s for School Leaders
Closure and Learning – The focus of instruction is not what teacher teaches but what the students learn. The close of every lesson should focus on what the learner has learned not what the teacher has taught. The question is how does the teacher know that the students have learned and mastered the lesson unless there is some type of formative assessment–quiz, test, or activity.
Remembering – The only evidence of learning is remembering. When observing a lesson ask yourself how does the teac
her know that students will remember what they just learned?
Checks for Understanding – Teachers should pause frequently during a lesson to check for understanding. How frequently? As a rule of thumb, teachers should check students understanding approximately every fifteen minutes, which approximates the attention span of the average adolescent. According to the Science study, one of the most effective checks for understanding is the quiz used as a formative assessment. Teachers can pause and ask students to write a summary or take a brief quiz on what they just learned. Immediately re-teaching a concept to a classmate may also be used to test practice retrieval.
Timing is critical. When it comes to recall, tomorrow is too late. Teachers need to check for student understanding before students leave the classroom each day.
Feedback – “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Unless students practice recall (retrieval) and get immediate feedback they will not remember.
Defined Instructional Practices – Some students absolutely need a highly structured classroom room environment characterized by identifiable instructional practices, smaller units of instruction, more frequent assessments, coupled with frequent and immediate feedback. However, students who can function equally as well in low or highly structured classrooms are not penalized in any way by the use of structure. In other words, when in doubt, use a more structured approach.
Formative Assessments – How often should students be assessed? How frequently students are assessed or asked to practice retrieval depends on their familiarity with the content and the student’s level of mastery. When students are introduced to new content or when they are struggling with a particular concept, they should be assessed more frequently. For example, the skills of proficient and advanced readers need only be assessed annually, while students reading at the basic level or below basic need to be assessed regularly. Frequent assessments mean more feedback. A quiz or summary essay at the close of a lesson will do more for student recall than extensive homework assignments.
Mapping – Instructional strategies like “concept mapping” are effective, but they work better if they are used as part of “practice retrieval.” The act of creating a “concept map” in and of itself does not improve learning unless the student makes use of the map as a part of the “practice retrieval” process. Teachers should show students how to use the concept maps to review for a test and not assume that the students know how to do so.
What this study really says to school leaders
This study emphasizes the critical importance that school wide defined instructional practices, which include frequent checks for understanding, play in the learning process. When the teacher asks students to reflect on the lesson by practicing retrieval and the students receive immediate feedback, learning improves by as much as 50%.
Next: Checks for Understanding