GUEST POST: Supporting Science of Learning in the Language Classroom
By Josh Kurzweil
Josh began his teaching career in 1990. He has taught and trained in Japan, Spain, the Republic of Georgia, and the United States. He received his Master's degree in teaching from the SIT Graduate Institute and also holds the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA. Josh has been involved in developing the curriculum for the SIT TESOL Certificate and is a trainer of trainers. In addition to working on the SIT course, Josh has been a trainer with the Peace Corps. He is the author of Understanding Teaching Through Learning, which was published by McGraw-Hill in 2006, and is on the faculty of the MATESOL program at Marlboro College Graduate School in Brattleboro, VT. Through his company Berkeley LTC, Josh has developed vocational instructor training courses for the labor union, LIUNA, and has done work with higher education such as the California College of Art. His particular areas of interest include Experiential Learning, reflective practice, and instructional design. Josh lives with his wife and son in Berkeley, California.
For a number of years now, I have been working to integrate concepts from the Science of Learning into my adult ESL classes. In this article, I would like to discuss practical steps that I have taken in my classes to help my students put Science of Learning into action in a meaningful way. My main conclusion has been that teaching students about concepts is usually not adequate. For many students to become more effective learners, they need to see, do, and reflect on the techniques in class. In this way, students can build habits of learning that make sense to them.
Just to give a little background, I work with international students who are planning to go to college. Each week in my class, students study a topically related vocabulary set with about 60-70 words. For example, they might learn about a topic like the environment or history. The following Monday, I give them a quiz on those words. I use a website/app called Quizlet, which allows people to quickly create and share online flashcards with both pictures and audio. Students can study on their computers or mobile devices.
In the first week of the session, I do a lesson on study techniques and have the students talk about their own study habits. Then, students do a jigsaw activity in which they are divided up and watch one of three short videos that I made about the Science of Learning. The videos are similar to the ones on Learning Scientists but are simplified and slower, so they are easier to understand for English language learners. Students then get into new groups so they can explain the ideas in the video they watched, and hear about the other ideas from students who watched the other videos (click here to watch a great video by Jennifer Gonzalez about how to set up jigsaw activities). As students explain the techniques to each other, they develop a sense of ownership over them and I can listen in to be sure that they understand them.
Once students understand and can name the techniques, I can use terms like ‘retrieval’ and ‘distributed practice’ with them to label activities that we do in class. By actually having students do the study techniques in class, I can monitor to see if they were doing them correctly. In addition, students are able to experience the strategies actually working and start to believe that if they put in the effort, they could actually learn.
Here are some activities that I often spread out over a week, along with my rationale for using each activity.
Click here for an example quiz on environmental issues.
Click here to see a video demonstration of the game.
The main lesson that I have learned through these experiments is that the study habits associated with the Science of Learning are often challenging to implement for students. Simply telling students about them is often not enough. They need to experience them and build up habits of learning, and continue reflecting on how they study in order to become more effective learners. As for me, I’ll continue tinkering with in-class activities that can make the Science of Learning real and practical for my students, and would love to hear about activities that other teachers develop. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. S.l.: Random House.
(2) Schwartz, D. L. (2016). ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them. NOAH Publications,.
(3) Willingham, D. (2010) Why Don't Students Like School? John Wiley & Sons.