The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 3: Solving the Paradox)

Brief summary of Parts 1 and 2:

In Part 1, I revisited a puzzling 1968 study (supported by follow-up articles) that concluded teaching method has no impact on final exam performance. In Part 2, I explored a possible conclusion of these results: we should focus on learning, not teaching, and we should accept student effort and study time as the main difference makers in exam performance. This doesn’t mean that teachers do not matter. Instead, it means that pedagogy is less important than whether or not learning is actually happening. And, as I suggest in Part 2, cognitive research may help us learn how to learn.

Solving the Teaching-Learning Paradox

In some respects, the results of The Teaching-Learning Paradox are a miracle. Regardless of teaching method, despite the circumstances before them, no matter the quality of teacher or program, the students learned, and they demonstrated their learning consistently across time. On one level, the results of “No Difference” seem nihilistic. Nothing we do will matter! On another level, it reveals the power of student effort and learning. No matter what constraint, strategy, or limitation thrown at them, the students learned! And they performed the same each time. The students who wanted to put forth the effort and earn their “A’s” did so, in each study, regardless of method. No matter what you do to stop them, learning will happen! As Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park proclaims, “Life finds a way.”

So how can teachers teach in support of learning? In Jurassic Park, scientists alter DNA in order to breed females exclusively and restrict natural reproduction. Life finds a way (via mutations or some rare gender-jumping frog DNA) around these limitations, and natural reproduction goes on. Once we start to look at the results of The Teaching-Learning Paradox this way, we should see the results as positive. Student learning will not be stopped.

However, instead of designing classrooms as obstacles to learning, we should find a way to support the learning that wants to occur naturally.

Attention, Memory, Intensity

I do not have too many answers here, but I will introduce three interrelated terms as a start: Attention, Memory, and Intensity.

Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? provides a useful model for how the mind retains factual information. He’s careful to point out that factual information is not sufficient for learning, but is often the basis for real learning, since in order to apply concepts and make creative evaluations, we must have a database of knowledge from which to pull and make connections. His simple model of how memory works presents educators with an opportunity to figure out where the bad connections might be in teacher-student communication:

Willingham argues that in order for data from the environment to make the transition from temporary working memory into (somewhat) permanent long-term memory two things need to happen: 1) said data must be subject to an intense level of attention while it is readily available in working memory, and 2) content previously stored in long-term memory must be pulled up and matched with the new data in order for it to permanently “stick.”

I would then couple this model with John Medina’s argument in Brain Rules that we most effectively store information in our memory when it is organized in a “top-down” manner. That is, instead of imagining a long list of vocabulary terms to be crammed into the brain like a scroll of paper inserted into a shredder, we should group and “chunk” information into concept-category that are big enough to hold a lot of related knowledge. Think of the mind as a series of drawers (I like the phrase “junk drawer”). One drawer might be “Romanticism.” (I have a drawer like that.) Once that drawer has been established and the key concepts and terms defined, you can open it up whenever you want and dump more stuff in. Then, when you want to remember something related to it, you don’t have to go rifling through all of your junk. Just pull out the Romanticism drawer. Items in that drawer tend to stick together and have interrelated functions.

Both Willingham and Medina stress the importance of getting students to pay attention, not simply to be nodding and following along, but to pay attention in a particular kind of way. Willingham thinks the most effective kind of attention is when students are thinking about particular and important meaning. This echoes the “Why” study I discussed in Part 2, but also Medina’s concept-containers. I think all of this connects back to intensity. Ideas and meaning matter. They also require more thought (again, as in the “why” study in Part 2), force the brain to construct its own connections, and to “turn on.”

So much of teaching comes back to the construction of analogies. When you’re trying to make a new concept “stick” you should look for some piece of knowledge already stored in the students’ long-term memories and compare the new concept to it. They need some sort of connection. This is also an opportunity for them to construct their own analogies, thereby activating their brains. Similar to asking “Why do you suppose that is?” You can ask, “Does this idea sound like anything you’ve heard before?”

One final note on “intensity.” Students do not pay attention when they’re bored. Sometimes this can’t be helped. As your mother used to say, “Only boring people get bored.” Some students would be bored watching live footage of an alien invasion on CNN. Don’t worry about it. Also, we should avoid thinking of education as entertainment, and we should avoid trying to be too “current” and “hip” in an effort to relate to what we think the students are into. Usually we’re wrong anyway, and then we come across as condescending ninnies.

However, we should not underestimate how tired and distracted and typically underwhelmed students can be. Sometimes this is their fault, and sometimes it’s not. I think students are desperate for reasons to pay attention. Be intense. Be interesting. Be funny, if possible, but be all of those things in service of learning. Many students just need to see that what you’re teaching is worth getting excited about.

The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 2)

If the conclusions in Part 1 are correct, it does not really matter which teaching method instructors use. Lecture? Small-group? Discussion? Tutorials? Online? Some combination of these? It makes no difference. Student outcomes on final examinations will be the same.

Perhaps this conclusion is way too obvious. Why should something as superficial as the physical arrangement of the room and the shuffling around of its human components have any meaningful impact on learning?

If I’m being honest, small-group work has always struck me as a gimmick hashed-out during some administrative retreat, and whenever I employ it, I always feel like I’m appealing to some newfangled rule book in order to check an activity off of a list.

It’s pedagogical hokey-pokey.

But this is too harsh. And I’m ignoring my own conclusions from Part 1. It is not the teaching method, per say, that affects learning. If small-group work is a gimmick, then so is lecturing.

The reason that The Teaching-Learning Paradox concluded that teaching method has no impact on learning is simple:  only learning has an impact on learning.

Cue the sound of a million minds being blown.

Here it is again, in case you missed it:  Only learning has an impact on learning.

(I know it sounds like a poorly edited bumper sticker, but stay with me.)

We like to think of learning as social, as shared, as something that happens together in collective spaces and that can be facilitated by arrangements supporting a diversity of human interactions, and we tend to preference intimate, close-knit combos in which we assume the exchange of ideas and reflections will be more fluid and will lead to comprehensive understandings that far exceed what one individual could think up alone sitting in a cold lecture hall listening to someone drone on about stagflation.

But there isn’t anything magical about these arrangements in-and-of themselves. And I suspect that they are just as likely to reinforce bad learning as they are to support it. I hate to use this cliché, but it seems appropriate: if the classroom is not centered on authentic learning, shifting into small group discussion is merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

So what is authentic learning? I don’t know, but I would like to suggest some conclusions reached by cognitive science, in particular the research that centers on how we learn. Ultimately, learning must take place in the brain, whether that brain is sitting in a lecture hall, in a small group, or in front of a computer screen. We have more knowledge now of how the brain learns, and instructors and students should take advantage of this knowledge to increase learning.

It seems that, because it was published in 1968, the conclusions of The Teaching-Learning Paradox could not take cognitive strategies into account. Furthermore, since their focus was on various teaching arrangements (and not on styles, strategies, and tactics*), they were unable to analyze the actual infrastructure of learning. This supports the criticism put forth by Ten Cate and others (see Part 1) that Dubin and Taveggia are not really measuring a dependent variable by comparing final exam scores. Also, what is the true effect on the student? Certainly, one key component of learning is the demonstration of content acquisition, but are the studies in The Teaching-Learning Paradox merely testing for how efficiently the knowledge provided by the instructor slid from his mouth and onto the final exam page? Seen in that light, every study that Dubin and Taveggia analyzed was a success. The knowledge did transfer, and all at the same rate.

But what about the students? Did they learn? Really, how would you expect to measure learning if you’re merely testing how the classroom is structured. You are not testing learning or learning strategies. You are, instead, testing physical arrangements. And if the instructor and the students are not employing strategies that facilitate learning, then what is the value of the study?

Fortunately, a lot of work has been done with authentic learning strategies based on cognitive research. And in order to test these strategies, you can look at studies that are not too dissimilar from the ones Dubin and Taveggia analyzed in The Teaching-Learning Paradox. Do classrooms that employ cognitive strategies result in greater learning on final examinations? (Later we’ll address the shortcomings of solely focusing on content knowledge and memorization, but, as many cognitive scientists note, memorization is a critical component to learning, though not sufficient in-and-of itself).

This new focus on learning strategies will be a true student-centered approach, since the goal will be to figure out how students actually learn** (how the brain actually works) and to design curricula, lectures, assignments, and study sessions with this knowledge in mind. And since, as Dubin and Taveggia point out, studying is a measureable difference-maker, teachers should find ways to facilitate student learning by teaching effective strategies, delivering content with the cognitive “tricks” in mind, and motivating students to take their learning into their own hands, hearts, and minds. (Is that a Girl Scout motto?)

What are these cognitive “tricks?”

Well, let’s take one. It doesn’t matter if you’re tutoring someone one-on-one, standing in front of a lecture hall filled with 500 students, or sitting in a circle with 15 students, if you’re not asking “Why?” your students aren’t learning.

Dunlosky, et al. present ten learning techniques based on cognitive research in a 2013 article titled “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Each technique is summarized and bolstered with supporting studies. The first, “elaborative interrogation” is essentially a fancy way of asking students “Why?” and encouraging them to construct their own answers. You might present some content on (drawing from my own experience) the correlation between the increase in sophisticated literature during the so-called American Renaissance period  and the rise of American printing companies. “Why do you suppose literature became more sophisticated as more printing companies arose?” Or, in a Mythology course, you could have students read creation myths from several different cultures and ask them “Why do so many of these cultures portray female goddesses as earthbound and male gods as living in the sky?” The idea is that learners must now actively construct new knowledge in response to the question, and in doing so, retrieve existing knowledge in order to fill in the gaps: “The prevailing theoretical account of elaborative-interrogation effects is that elaborative interrogation enhances learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge” leading to insights that are “self-generated rather than provided” (8). More learning is actually occurring in the learner’s brain as they struggle to develop an answer, and not just as part of a transfer from the instructor to the pages of the final exam. The authors cite one study where “Why” questions were integrated into a biology text, resulting in higher exam scores compared to a control group.

This is true learner-centered, active learning, not the kind that is staged by simply rearranging the classroom. The interesting thing about the above study is that the vast majority of their strategies are student studying strategies, some involving annotation of texts, pacing of study sessions, and mnemonic devices. The idea is to empower students to turn their own brains on to better learning strategies. We want lifelong learners who learn to do things for themselves. We want more of the learning to be happening in their own brains.

I will discuss more examples of cognitive strategies in futures posts, but I’d like to close with a few words from education theorist Bill McKeachie who discussed the “learning” approach to teaching in a 2008 interview in Teaching of Psychology:

We also found that when students thought more about the material, they were likely to become more intrinsically motivated and interested in the material for its own sake rather than just to pass the test. That shift in focus makes a big difference. If teachers are interested in helping students learn for the rest of their lives, then they should want their students to develop intrinsic motivation for learning and not just learn when they are told to learn because they are going to be tested on it.

A couple of things here: First, next time I’ll discuss the work of Daniel Willingham (who is also one of the authors of the study I cite above) who echoes McKeachie’s deceptively simple call for getting students to think about the material. It sounds obvious. However, if you want to make something stick in the brain, you first need to figure out how to make it sticky.

Second, McKeachie’s emphasis on intrinsic motivation could not be more important. And this is exactly what Dubin and Taveggia’s The Teaching-Learning Paradox cannot measure. In fact, I don’t think intrinsic motivation can be measured quantitatively. This is what prompted B.F. Skinner to disagree with cognitive research, since it could not be observed as behavior could. (McKeachie recounts their disagreement in the interview.)

Dubin and Taveggia could, however, (in limited samples) measure the effect of studying, and found it to be positive for test results. If we can help students become intrinsically motivated, get them to pay closer and deeper attention (to think about the material, in Willingham’s and McKeachie’s formulation, which means to take advantages of cognitive tricks that line up with how the brain actually learns), arm them with proven study skills, and structure class sessions with the cognitive research in mind, measurable improvements might be recorded. If students need to learn how to learn, then teachers need to teach them how to learn.

In short: if you want learning, you have to teach learning.

*In Part 1, I suggested a difference between method and style. I’m going to alter this. I like the word “arrangements” better to describe Dubin and Taveggia’s focus on comparing lectures, discussion, one-on-one sessions and other such organizational methods. For now, at least, “styles, strategies, and tactics” will be a stand-in for a discussion of approaches to authentic learning that can occur irrespective of classroom arrangements.

**Next time I’ll cover Daniel Willingham’s claim that learning styles, as they have been propagated, do not exist.