Spring Break Reflections

I have been able to visit three discussion sections in the past week, and it has been generally reassuring to recognize not only that my Teaching Assistants are really good at facilitating conversations about the main themes of the course, but also that the students seem to be understanding them!

I have signed onto a new project sponsored by UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence, a “faculty learning community” devoted to teaching large classes.  Nine of us will be meeting monthly, and we are expected to provide each other the kind of mentoring that is often absent at research-focused universities.  Faculty tend to critique each others’ teaching for purposes of promotion, tenure, and post-tenure review, but we don’t really provide much  feedback to each other when the stakes are not as high.  So I looked forward to observing a colleague to get ideas, and to their thoughts on how I could improve my teaching.

The class I attended (a psychology methods class) was both fascinating and instructive.  The professor, Viji Sathy, has a challenging task–teaching late in the afternoon on Thursdays–and this week immediately before spring break must have been even more difficult.  I was struck by how much her personal warmth and enthusiasm for her subject carried the students with her.  I was reassured that even her students spent part of their time online doing other things–it isn’t just mine!  I know the research shows that multi-tasking doesn’t really work, but the student sitting in front of me managed to do some online shopping, study for an exam in another class, and perhaps even write a paper, and could still raise her hand and answer (correctly) a difficult question.  I’ve talked with colleagues about strategies for dealing with laptops in class, but I persist in believing that these are adult students who must decide how to spend their time–and take the consequences.

The most important lesson I took away was the importance of “deep-level thinking.”  The professor did a multiple-choice poll on Poll Everywhere at the start of class:  Which of the following is the MOST important ingredient for successful learning?

  1. The intention and desire to learn
  2. Paying close attention to the material as you study
  3. Learning in a way that matches your personal learning style
  4. The time you spend studying
  5. What you think about while studying

Toward the end of class, she carried out a remarkable experiment to illustrate the response.  Here is Viji’s description of the experiment, which she attributes to Willingham:

Students listen to a list of words. For each word, they carry out an orienting task that creates either deep or shallow processing. One group rates the pleasantness of each word (“Is the word pleasant?”), an orienting task that leads to deep semantic processing, Another group checks each word for the presence of an E or G (“Does the word contain an E or G?”), an orienting task that causes shallow processing. Additionally, half of each group is told in advance they will need to recall the words (intentional learning), and the other half are not warned ahead of time that they will need to recall the words (incidental learning). This results in students being divided into four groups: deep/intentional learning, deep/incidental, shallow/intentional, shallow/incidental. To make it simpler to “see” the results the room was divided into quadrants with each quadrant receiving a different set of instructions.

After completing the list, the students are asked to recall all the words. The instructor then asks the class to check their list and count the total number of words correctly recalled. Everyone is asked to stand and remain standing as the instructor calls out the number of words recalled in 3’s (remembered at least 3 words, remembered at least 6 words, etc.). The group that did pleasantness ratings, the deeper processing orienting task, virtually always remembers strikingly more words. What is remarkable, is that both the intentional and incidental groups recall the most words when the processing is deep rather than shallow. So when the word was rated pleasant/unpleasant we see the highest level of recall, regardless of if the group was told ahead of time that they would need to remember the words. This was not true of the “shallow” processing group as most of them sat down first and demonstrated recalling very few words.

Revisiting the initial question posed: most of us would say that the intention and desire to learn is key to successful learning, but the demo indicates that what you think about while you are learning (i.e., a deeper level of processing)  results in higher retention.

The professor had visually demonstrated the answer to her first Poll Everywhere slide: successful learning comes from engagement at a deeper level.  I found myself musing about that during the whole break as I prepared for the second half of the semester.

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