The Science of Learning Can Improve Teaching

The Science of Learning Can Improve Teaching
In the 2017 Hans O. Mauksch Address presented at the American Sociology Association annual meeting, Melinda Messineo argues that we aren't using as much of the science of learning as we could to help students learn. “In many ways, our efforts in the classroom are trial and error, and while much of what we do works, we are not aware of why it works, so the results are difficult to replicate. If we understand more about why the strategies we use work, we can potentially increase learning.” (p. 8)

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In the 2017 Hans O. Mauksch Address presented at the American Sociology Association annual meeting, Melinda Messineo argues that we aren't using as much of the science of learning as we could to help students learn. “In many ways, our efforts in the classroom are trial and error, and while much of what we do works, we are not aware of why it works, so the results are difficult to replicate. If we understand more about why the strategies we use work, we can potentially increase learning.” (p. 8) She supports her argument with evidence—the responses of 145 sociologists to an online survey she created. Asked about their familiarity with how the brain learns, roughly one-third of the group reported greater familiarity, one-third said little to no familiarity, and the final third said moderate familiarity. She followed this ranking question with an open-ended request to briefly describe how the brain records and retrieves information. She'd already asked a number of other questions, so maybe survey fatigue was an issue, but a number of respondents skipped the question, a third who did answer owned up to gaps in their knowledge and the rest provided “varying degrees of detail” including a number who offered descriptions that didn't actually answer the question. The next question asked these faculty to identify two strategies they used to help students learn. About their answers to this question about strategies, she writes, “What is most poignant for the purposes of this piece is how little was mentioned in terms of strategies employed to help students master the metacognitive aspects of learning. Even with some awareness of brain science and the science of learning, it was infrequently tapped as the solution to a learning challenge.” (p. 7) After making the case that perhaps sociologists (and we could add, the rest of us) might profitably use more of what is known about learning, she provides five examples: Metacognition: Expert learners approach learning differently than novices do. They know when they've read something and they don't really understand it. They read it again, perhaps breaking it down until they get to parts that they do understand. They may seek out resources that can clarify what they aren't understanding. Experts are able to examine their own understandings with a degree of honesty. They aren't afraid to identify gaps. Those are skills students need to develop. Messineo suggests early in the course giving students a difficult paragraph from a reading they will be assigned later in the course and having them attempt to identify main points, their thoughts about the passage, and the feelings they are experiencing as they try to read it. They could talk with a peer about the material and together identify what needs clarification. It's an exercise that attempts to model what expert learners do when they read something challenging. Attention: Expert learners know when they're focused and know to intervene when their minds are wandering. Learning doesn't occur without focus and learning it isn't usually as fast-paced as we'd like it to be. Here Messineo recommends having students mark in their notes where they lose focus (where they start thinking about how they ought to check their phones). She also suggests taking breaks during class sessions, providing attention-resetting experiences during which students stand up, or talk to those nearby. Multitasking: It reduces accuracy and efficiency and “drastically” decreases learning and retention (p. 9), and this is a fact most students don't know, according to Messineo. When learners quickly switch from one task (re-reading notes) to another (responding to a text), they end up paying partial attention to both tasks. Students need to experience these effects. Messineo offers a simple but highly effective activity. Have students write down the alphabet as they count out loud from 1 to 26. Guided practice: This is not a busy work practice, as in rote memorization, but a kind of focused practice that occurs within some context. It's a practice that's guided by an expert who provides feedback. Messineo points out how frequently faculty are disappointed in student performance. An exam question asks them to integrate and analyze; they respond with descriptions. But have students been given opportunities to practice integration and analysis? It is a practice that develops the skill that can then be demonstrated in performance. Empathy: Empathy helps people learn. “Brain scans show that seeing individuals experience joy as well as suffering activates those centers in the brain of participants as well, often as if they were experiencing the emotion themselves. . . Emotions and thoughts are powerful teaching tools.” (p. 10) Activities that incorporate role-playing often promote empathy as do personal narratives such as those heard on StoryCorps. Understanding more about the science of learning can make us better teachers. Applying that knowledge in our courses can make students better learners. Reference: Messineo, M. (2017). Using the science of learning to improve student learning in sociology courses. Teaching Sociology, 46 (1), 1-11.