A frustrated elementary school teacher recently told me of her exasperation with teaching math. Just a week before the school’s mandated standardized tests, she had repeatedly drilled her students on adding and subtracting fractions, and nearly every student scored well on her chapter test. Yet when the students took the standardized test, the same students performed dismally on adding and subtracting fractions. “It was as though they had never seen the concepts,” sighed the frustrated teacher.
This experience is common at all levels of education; every parent and teacher has seen seemingly solid mastery disappear like cotton candy in a hurricane. To address this frustration, cognitive psychologists Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel joined novelist Peter C. Brown to write the book Make it Stick, the Science of Successful Learning. Brown and McDaniel were invited to deliver keynote addresses at the recent ECEDHA Conference in Monterey, because even professors at top universities see the need to improve their students’ learning.
The book begins with the observations that learning requires memory, that it is important for people to keep learning throughout life, and that learning itself is an acquired skill. Unfortunately, people have a very limited understanding of how to learn, as much of the received wisdom on learning is based on theory, lore, and intuition rather than scientifically tested facts.
Where received wisdom is wrong
Here are just a few of the problems that the authors identify:
- Teachers rely on massed practice, such as worksheets with dozens of problems.
- Students believe that re-reading will help them learn the concepts presented in the text.
- Students believe that they can intuitively tell when they are learning effectively.
- Teachers strive to teach students in the students’ preferred learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and so on).
- Students believe that if they study diligently in a way that works for them, they will find success.
Unfortunately, these beliefs and practices are either unsupported by data, or even counterproductive. The book’s solutions that make learning stick will be the subject of the next blog post.