+ Take a Test Instead of Cramming

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Pam Belluck, in the NY Times, reports on a research study that shows students who read a text and then took a recall test retained 50 percent  more than students  who re-read or diagrammed the information.

Re-reading and diagramming have been thought to be the “gold standard” of study methods.

Re-reading is used by students who cram before an exam.   Diagramming is used as a way to make connections between ideas.   These have traditionally been teachers’ most prized  learning strategies.

But in addition, it seems that re-reading and diagramming can give students the illusion that they know more than they actually do.

This study appeared in the journal Science.  Lead author Jeffrey Karpicke, assistant professor of psychology at Purdue, says

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about restructuring our knowledge.  I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”

In the experiments, students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using whichever method they were assigned to learn the material. 

In fact, those who read the text and then took the test  predicted they would remember less than the re-reading or diagramming students predicted they would remember. 

The results were just the opposite.  Why might that be true?

Marcia Linn, education professor at UC Berkeley, says that perhaps students who took the recall tests may recognize some gaps in their knowledge.  “They might revisit the ideas in the back of their mind or the front of their mind.”

So when these students are later asked what they have learned, says Linn, they can more easily retrieve and organize the knowledge in a way that makes sense to them.

It is possible that when remembering information, a person organizes it and creates cues and connections for his or her brain to recognize later.

They discovered that 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. 

A psychologist at UCLA who was not involved in the study, Dr. Robert Bjork, says 

When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything — it’s simple playback.  [But] when we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access” to that information.

“What we recall becomes more recallable in the future.  In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need later.

In addition, it is possible that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce memory. 

Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College, thinks that “you feel like:  ‘I don’t know it that well,  This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”

 But students who re-read texts, or draw diagrams, are thinking  “Oh, this is easier.  I read this already,” he says.

A recent spate of research shows learning benefits from testing — including benefits when students get questions wrong.  They support the findings of this study.

Daniel Willingham, of the University of Virginia, finds these results interesting,  but he offers  a caveat. 

It really bumps it up a level of importance by contrasting it with concept mapping, which many educators think of a sort of the gold standard.  

[But] 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.

Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor who advocates “constructivism” — the idea that children should discover their own approach to learning — says that these results throw down the gauntlet to progressive educators, “myself included.”

Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches, like concept mapping, are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.”

  Testing is a highly charged issue in education.  Testing has drawn criticism.  For example, too much of testing promotes rote learning;  it swallows valuable time; it causes excessive anxiety.

Dr. Linn thinks that more testing isn’t necessarily better. 

Her work with California school districts has found that asking students to explain what they did in a science experiment offers more benefits than simply having them conduct the hands-on experiment.

Some tests are just not learning opportunities.  We need a different kind of testing than we currently have.”

But Dr. Kornell feels that even though in the short term it may seem like a waste of time, retrieval practice appears to

make things stick in a way that may not be used in the classroom.  It’s going to last for the rest of their schooling, and potentially for the rest of their lives.”

sole source: NY Times article by Pam Belluck on 1/21/2011.  http://www.nytimes.com

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