Teaching Tip: The past is always with us.

This week’s principle from the Lifelong learning at Work and at Home website focuses on prior knowledge:

New information learned depends heavily upon prior knowledge and experience.

This principle stresses the importance of getting to know our students so we can help them learn more effectively.  From infancy onward, learning is based on building new mental connections that physically change brain structure.  Our brains are not built to remember unconnected facts; if material doesn’t relate to something else that is important to us, we forget.  Not only do we need prior experiences as an anchor, but the quality of our prior assumptions, conceptual knowledge and biases can all influence what we learn, for better or worse. Despite these well known findings, most of us do little to discover what our students already know (or think they know) about our disciplines. And yet, that prior knowledge may make or break their chances for success in our classes.

Why is prior knowledge so important?  Studies comparing novices and experts in a variety of fields suggest that prior knowledge is vital to the ability to access and use what we know. For example, chess experts are able to remember meaningful patterns of chess pieces much better than novices.  However, when asked to remember the positions of randomly placed pieces, experts performed no better than novices.  When the information was meaningful, the chess experts were able to “chunk” information (i.e. organize and classify it) much more efficiently than novices and then remember those larger chunks.  Instead of seeing a certain number of pieces on the board in certain places, experts see a classic opening move and relate that information to their extensive prior experience with opening moves.

How can we help students develop more effective knowledge structures within our disciplines?  Our strategies depend on the students’ current developmental level, both generally and in the context of specific disciplines.  In introductory courses, students generally have very limited ways of understanding and organizing knowledge.  But they do have life experiences, and these are important in making those first connections.  That’s why many skilled lower level instructors spend a lot of time helping students relate what they are learning to the world around them and their existing interests.  A student may not know much about biology, but she knows that everyone wants her to use hand sanitizer all winter.  From this simple observation, a series of questions naturally presents itself that can be used to build understanding.

In introductory courses we typically don’t find (or expect) students to show a sophisticated grasp of disciplinary concepts.  Unfortunately, we often find something more difficult to change: a mental framework that’s a bit dented or missing critical pieces. Misconceptions and incorrect information can distort and limit student learning, especially at the introductory level.  Unfortunately, since this incorrect information is also anchored in prior knowledge, it can be resistant to change.  Discovering common student misconceptions and designing experiences that challenge them is a critical part of building new levels of expertise.  Experiments, demonstrations, videos and other active methods that directly challenge student misconceptions are often the most powerful since they use multiple channels and can have more emotional impact than lecture or readings.  It takes a powerful stimulus to dislodge embedded rust.  However, experience is best when it is paired with explanations and principles to help students organize their new experiences effectively.  Or, as another of the core learning principles put it: Experience alone is a poor teaching. 

As students advance in the discipline, they begin to develop their own knowledge structures. In these upper level classes it’s important to find out what students already know so that you don’t try to build on knowledge that isn’t there.  Having a good understanding of prior knowledge can also help you advise students – someone with gaps that are just too large may need to take a pre-requisite course, while others may need to be referred for tutoring in specific areas.  Other students may be able to skip some topics, or take a more in-depth approach.  There are many ways to assess prior learning.  Some faculty members assess prior knowledge using pre-tests or writing assignments that identify strengths and weaknesses. A drawback of testing or writing assignments of course is the time it takes to read and analyze them, even though they are typically ungraded.  Asking students to draw a concept map of important content is a quick way to show you what students think is important and also gives you a picture of how they organize that information.  Another approach is the Knowledge survey.  This type of survey is often quite lengthy, but students are not actually asked to answer the questions as they would be on an exam.  Instead, they rate their level of knowledge of each concept or process on a three point scale from absolute certainty to complete ignorance.  These surveys can be scored electronically and they provide a quick snapshot of the class that can guide you to focus your time in class more productively.  Administering the same survey at the end of the course provides a check up on how effectively you were able to reach your goals; ideally you will see upward movement for the class as a whole and for individual students as well.

The importance of prior knowledge is also evident when we discuss transfer of learning. Many students can repeat information or use it in similar situations but, unlike experts, they may not recognize appropriate but unfamiliar applications of a concept or procedure.  The ability to recognize when and how prior information can be used in new settings is the key behind transfer of learning and also depends on how knowledge is structured in the brain. Direct instruction in relating features of the new environment or situation to the prior one can build a path to transfer, along with a lot of guided practice. Thus, presenting students with varying situations you may have to first cue the students to apply what they know, and then help them learn to recognize cues for themselves.

Above all, it’s important to realize that students’ prior knowledge and their methods for organizing it are very dissimilar from your own.  Not only did they grow up in a different world (just check the Beloit College Mindset if you doubt that) but they have not had the wealth of training and experience in your discipline that you do.  Many of us struggle with getting our minds back to that beginner stage so that we can think like students and anticipate where they need help.  If you’d like to develop that very important sense of empathy, take a challenging class in something completely new to you.  You’ll be amazed to discover how much you attempt to use your prior knowledge to anchor new material and how many misconceptions you may have!  Plus, you will experience both the frustration and the exhilaration of making progress.

Next up:  we will finish this series with the final principles of active learning, less is more and choosing what to forget.


Teaching Tip: Variety is the spice of learning

This week’s post summarizes and comments on two closely related principles from the Life Long Learning at Work and at Home website.

Principle 2: Varying learning conditions makes learning more effortful but results in enhanced long-term retrieval.

Principle 3:  Learning is generally enhanced when learners are required to take information that is presented in one format and “re-represent” it in an alternative format.

Both of these principles emphasize how important it is to vary the conditions of learning if we want students to remember and use information once they leave the classroom.  In order to understand why variability is important, it is helpful to understand how our brains store and access the things we learn.

Essentially, humans can process information in two systems, visuospatial and auditory-verbal. Information can be stored in either one of these two systems or in both of them.  According to the most commonly accepted theory in cognitive psychology, information that has been stored in both systems is more easily recalled than information that is only stored in one system or the other, so when we ask students to process information in varied ways, they are able to use multiple cues from both systems to help them remember.

One way to vary learning conditions is to present information in both major modes. For example, a reading assignment might be paired with an exercise where students must extract information from a video, a picture or a chart.  If you are in a field that is primarily visual, asking students to read about what they are seeing provides similar variation.  One caveat here – the students have to actually use both modalities.  If the students find that they can succeed using only one method, they will naturally tend to skip the other one.  Our challenge is twofold – finding good ways to use both modes and organizing our classes so that students must use them both in order to succeed.

Varying modes of presentation has distinct advantages in a classroom with diverse learners.  We all have cognitive strengths and preferences – some of us prefer auditory learning while others are visual (and still others prefer a kinesthetic approach, but that’s another story). Research on these learning style preferences suggests that trying to personalize instruction based on individual learning style does not enhance learning, and when you consider the dual storage theory, it makes sense that using multiple presentation modes with all students will provide the kind of variability that leads to increased effort and storage in both systems.  Plus, when multiple styles are used, everyone has the chance to use both their preferred and non-preferred styles.  This can help students who are non-traditional learners since it gives them a shot at the material using their preferred style as well as practice that can improve their non-preferred skills.

Not only can you vary the presentation mode (the input channels, if you will) but you can also vary the output channels to enhance retention and learning transfer.  Asking students to draw pictures or create graphical representations such as concept or knowledge maps that summarize the main points of a reading assignment or lecture works well for this purpose.  Research suggests that graphical representations are particularly useful because they force students to think about the types of relationships between concepts and information.

Assigning a concept or knowledge map exercise is most helpful if students have some prior instruction on how to complete the task. O’Donnell, Dansereau & Hall (2002) provide a good overview of knowledge maps and how to use them.  You can ask students to construct their own knowledge maps or you can give them knowledge maps instead of or along with texts and lectures.  Research indicates that giving students knowledge maps that you have constructed can help students (especially weaker students or non-native speakers) grasp material more effectively.  Giving your students pre-constructed maps might be more appropriate for less advanced classes, while students in advanced classes can be challenged to produce their own.

In addition to concept and knowledge maps, arguments and problem solving procedures also are good candidates for visual diagramming methods.  The University of Texas Center for Teaching and Learning presents a simplified version of diagramming arguments while this pdf presents a more detailed and formal  version drawn from philosophy.

Principle 2 above also indicates the downside (at least from the student perspective) of using variable learning conditions – the need for more effort.  When students are asked to learn material under varied conditions or “re-present” material in a different format, as in Principle 3, they have to work harder. The bottom line is obvious to the point of being somewhat trite.  When learning requires more investment of effort, it is more likely to be retained

Because of the increased effort required, students may seem to learn more slowly when you vary the conditions of learning.  Don’t despair and don’t give up.  When a single modality is used (e.g. readings and lectures accompanied by exams – all verbal mechanisms) both you and the students may falsely assume that they understand the material on a deep level.  Requiring students to use different methods and media for their learning may result in poorer performance initially, but the research suggests that long term learning is enhanced.

You are likely to hear from students that multimodal work is harder than traditional single-channel methods.  Validate their correct observations!  Students need to understand why you are “doing this to them.”  Sometimes students who are very able in one modality (like most college professors) are particularly resistant to trying new and challenging modes.  And many of us are reluctant to leave our comfort zone as well.  But the research is quite clear that doing so enhances learning and transfer.

What methods do you already use to vary the conditions of learning in your classes?  What would you like to know more about? 

If you want to read further:   

The Lifelong Learning at Work and at Home website provided these summarizes and recommends these articles for additional reading

Mayer, R. E. (1993). Illustrations that instruct. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 254-284). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  This book chapter explores the uses of text and illustrations as teaching aids, primarily in textbooks.  The author examines how different types of illustrations (i.e., decorative, representational, organizational, and explanative) affect cognitive processes—selecting, organizing, or integrating information—that are involved in learning.  Explanative illustrations show how elements in a system are related and underlying principles governing the system.  Although underused in textbooks, these types of illustrations best promote all three types of cognitive processing that enhances learning.

Meyer, B. J. F., & Poon, L. W. (2001). Effects of structure strategy training and signaling on recall of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 141-59.  Training older and younger adults to use textual cues that highlight conceptual relationships improved their overall recall of the text as well as recall for main ideas.  Training produced positive transfer to remembering everyday materials such that these individuals also better recalled details from informative videos, relative to individuals who were given motivational training or no training.

Wallace, D. S., West, S. W. C., Ware, A., & Dansereau, D. F. (1998). The effect of knowledge maps that incorporate gestalt principles on learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 67, 5-16.  Learning aids were presented in one of three different formats: text, unenhanced map, and enhanced map.  The enhanced map differed from the unenhanced map in that it used the gestalt principles of similarity and proximity to group related concepts.  Those who studied using enhanced maps demonstrated superior recall over those using unenhanced maps or text.



O’Donnell, A.M., Dansereau, D.F. & Hall, R. H. (2002). Knowledge maps as scaffolds for cognitive processing. Educational Psychology Review, 14 (1), 71-86


Coming up next:  The importance of prior knowledge to present learning.

Teaching Tip: Why aren’t you teaching us?

If you are using active learning methods in your classes, you may have gotten negative comments from your students along the lines of  “s/he should do her job and teach instead of just making us (fill in whatever active learning methods you are using here).”   Helping students understand WHY you are asking them to engage in activities that they may not think of as “teaching” during class time can improve their attitudes and willingness to engage in class activities.  Thinking about the brain processes behind active learning can help you plan more effective activities too.  Here’s an explanation you can share with students and use to think about how you incorporate activity into your classes.

As it turns out, both listening/reading and doing are important for you to learn something new. Your brain, like all human brains, learns in four processes if it is to learn deeply so that you will remember and use what you have learned throughout your life.  Here is a very simple overview of how the brain works (Zull, 2002).

Process 1:  In classes you may get important information (for example, concepts about history, biology, or sociology) when you are listening and seeing.  Often listening comes to you through lecture and seeing comes through the written word on the board or screen.  Your outside reading assignments also are part of Process 1.  This kind of content input is important, but it is just the beginning of the learning process.

Process 2:  Next in your brain’s cycle of learning, you need to think (also called reflecting) about the information.  One way to do this is to think about your own experiences that are connected to the lecture or reading so that you can make sense of it personally.  In class you may be asked to free write or discuss the information you have received with your peers.   This process helps move information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory because it is repetitious, more active, and more personal (Zull, p. 21).

Process 3:  Next, your brain needs to make plans to use the information in some purposeful way.  This is not unlike what you do in your everyday life when you make plans for a party, road trip, or another event.  Now you may be asked to figure out how to apply information to a problem or question, analyze a case using the new information, or plan an inquiry project or an essay.

Process 4:  Last, your brain needs to actually take action, which is to do it, to implement the plan to see how it works.  This is the heart of inquiry learning.  If you are successful, GREAT!  But don’t be surprised if you fall short the first time.  Learning takes practice, and rarely do any of us achieve one-shot success on our initial actions. That’s why practicing problem solving techniques, writing drafts, trying different approaches and taking risks is so important to good learning.

Here are three key points about learning activities that you might think about the next few times you are in class:

Key point #1:  When you are doing a learning activity in class (thinking, discussing, writing, drawing, or performing), you are using more of your whole brain and, therefore, learning more deeply.

Key point #2Deep learning is remembered better than the shallow learning that is typically gained through only listening to a lecture and recording lecture notes.

Key point #3:  Lecture-only learning means that you may be using only one-fourth of your brain’s power.

Reference (available at the CTE):

Zull, J. E. (2002).  The art of changing the brain:  Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Thanks to Dr. Cynthia Desrochers of the Institute for Teaching and Learning at California State University for most of this tip.     http://www.calstate.edu/itl/index.shtml

Teaching Tip #8: Helping students use their brains

In honor of Brain Awareness week, this week’s teaching tip asks the question:  how is what you do in the classroom affecting your students’ brains?

Learning is a physical act.  Some neural connections become stronger and others weaken or disappear as new experiences literally shape the brain.  In The Art of Changing the Brain, biologist James Zull does a fascinating job of describing what we know about brain processes and how this knowledge relates to teaching and learning.

Zull describes four cortical processing areas:  sensory, temporal integrative, frontal integrative and motor, and he links the functions of each of these areas to the four phases of the Kolb experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984).

Kolb’s Learning Cycle and Brain Processes

  • The first of Kolb’s phases, concrete experience, is the acquisition of new material.  For example, I read a book, watch a video or listen to a lecture.  Zull connects this phase to the sensory cortex functions of retrieving and processing sensory data.
  • Reflective observation is Kolb’s second phase, which Zull relates to the temporal integrative cortex.  During this phase, learners relate the new experience they just had to existing experiences stored as neuronal networks in memory.  Now, I compare what I just experienced to what I already know and remember.  Learners need time to reflect on what they have been exposed to in order to activate these deeper learning processes. Otherwise new information remains unconnected to existing structures in memory and quickly disappears.
  • At the abstract hypothesis stage, the frontal integrative cortex becomes involved as students try to integrate and transform what they have experienced and what they already know into a plan, a conclusion, an idea or a product.  Learners need encouragement and support to make this transition. They also need motivation.  Zull points out the importance of engaging the pleasure centers in the brain to enhance intrinsic motivation.  Engaging problems and interesting applications of knowledge help to awaken pleasure and interest in the topic being studied.
  • During active testing learners use their motor cortex to do something concrete with the results of their phase 3 thinking.  Taking a test, writing a paper or creating a new work all involve active testing.   Finally, this product can become the basis for a phase 1 experience and the cycle begins again. 

Traditional classrooms tend to go from Phase 1 (presenting material through lecture or reading) right to Phase 4 (testing).  Zull advocates making  Phases 2 and 3 more explicit and intentional in order to  deepen learning.  How can we do this?

From Phase 1 to Phase 2:  Giving students time to reflect on their learning is important – a good reason to develop a syllabus that does not overwhelm students with so much new information that they cannot reasonably process it all.  Developing assignments that prompt reflection such as reader’s logs or writing prompts that specifically ask students to relate new information to what they already knew about the topic is also helpful.  Assessing student’s concepts (and misconceptions) about a topic prior to presenting new knowledge also gives you the basis for an assignment where students can compare what they thought before with what the new information tells them.

From Phase 2 to Phase 3:  Now that students have had time to reflect on their experience, what new questions can they ask?  What working hypotheses can they generate?  How can they apply this information to a situation?  How can they make decisions using this information?  As students transform information into something useful to them, their new neuronal connections are reinforced and the learning is “stickier”.   Assignments that specifically ask students to make take this step, and problems that are engaging enough to make them want to do so help in this phase.  Because students’ brains are different, what activates their pleasure centers is different as well, which argues for a range of interesting options for phase 3 assignments.

From Phase 3 to Phase 4:  Once students have reflected, analyzed and created in phases 2 and 3, they need active ways to test their new knowledge. This can be a traditional written test or paper, a debate, a research or thought project, or any other activity that requires students to actually write, speak or act. Clearly, from Zull & Kolb’s standpoint, this testing should be more than just repeating disconnected knowledge from Phase 1.  Application, analysis, independent projects and creative works all demonstrate the students’ new neural connections while strengthening them still further.

Now that you have encountered a small amount of new knowledge (I hope), how would Zull and Kolb tell you to proceed?

  • Reflect on it:  How does this information fit with your experiences in the classroom, or as a learner yourself?  Where do you agree or disagree?
  • Use it:  How could you try out some of these ideas in your classroom?  Change an assignment?  Focus a class discussion differently? Ask for a reader’s response to a text?
  • Test it:  If you made a change, what happened?  Was it what you expected? How does it change what you thought at the beginning of this process?  Now you’re back to Phase 1 again, but with a deeper understanding.

This is a fairly simplistic description of Zull’s arguments, and leaves out many of the interesting points he makes, the good stories he tells, and some of the gaps in his arguments.  For a more detailed review of the book, check out Pierce Howard’s review at  http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=2320.  Or, even better, read the book!  We have a copy at the CTE in Rowley you may borrow, or you can get copies through the library.

Kolb,D.A. (1984). Experiential learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Zull, J.E. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA:Stylus.