Talking to Teachers and Students about Strategies for Effective Learning

Talking to Teachers and Students about Strategies for Effective Learning

By: Cindy Wooldridge, Megan Smith, & Yana Weinstein

Since we released our materials on six effective learning strategies from cognitive science*, we have each been trying to tell as many people as possible that these materials exist, in the hopes that teachers and students could benefit from using them. We have posted about them here on our blog, and many of you have seen our frequent tweets. In addition, we have given presentations using the materials to Higher Ed lectures, to K-12 teachers, and to college students (e.g., the 100+ students currently enrolled in Cindy’s Introduction to Psychology courses).

These conversations have involved a lot of positive responses, but also many questions and some criticisms. We thought it might be a good idea to take some time to reflect and share with you how we have approached these conversations in different contexts. 

Talking to K-12 Teachers

When we were initially entering conversations about teaching and learning, we were struck by the many layers of politics and ideology in education. We quickly realized that educators are constantly bombarded with ideas, information, opinions, and advice – some evidence-based, some rather less so – and we certainly did not want to impose yet another view of how teaching “should” be done. Instead, we see our work as another tool that teachers can use to improve their teaching.

However, all three of us have now had the opportunity to present our materials to educators at different levels of the education system. While we are going through the strategies, most educators indicate to us that the techniques make good sense. They often resonate with beliefs that educators already hold about the types of activities that should be beneficial for students. But what we hope to add to the conversation are concrete ideas for how to implement these strategies in a way that is flexible for educators. Given the diverse range of levels and subjects the strategies can be applied to, there’s no “one size fits all” model –  instead, we try to demonstrate a variety of ways that educators and students can use the material.

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   Photo taken by Kim Culbertson at Dulaney High, Baltimore

Photo taken by Kim Culbertson at Dulaney High, Baltimore

We have been asked some very thought-provoking questions, such as

  • “Do you think we should set homework on last week’s material instead of this week’s?” (Our answer: Sure, and why not sprinkle in some questions from the weeks before for good measures!);

  • “Is dual coding related to learning styles? Because correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought learning styles had been debunked?” (Our answer: Absolutely debunked!! And no – dual coding is a useful way for anyone to encode material, and has nothing to do with a preference for visual information); and

  • “How do we implement these good study strategies while also pleasing the administration, who want to see us doing “engaging”, project-based activities with the kids?” (We haven’t quite figured out an answer to that one yet!)

Teaching Our Students

Cindy is currently teaching students in her Introduction to Psychology class how to use the 6 strategies with the following approach:

  1. She starts the class by showing a video of one of the study strategies
  2. Then, Cindy hands out a copy of the relevant poster
  3. She reinforces the class by walking through the PowerPoint slides
  4. Students are then required to do an assignment that uses the strategy, and this assignment contributes to their course grade.

The process is then repeated in the following class for the next strategy until all 6 have been taught in the space of 3 weeks.

The response from the students has been somewhat mixed. Some have commented that the videos are “cheesy”. To this, Cindy tells them that yes, they kind of are, but that these are professors creating the videos and that if cheesiness helps them to understand these ideas, then bring on the cheese! The students laugh and seem to accept that learning strategies, which sounds like a dry topic, don’t have to be boring to talk about. There are also times when she introduces a new strategy and ask if there are any questions and you could hear a pin drop in the room (We're sure that every educator has experienced this). Do they not have questions because they’re lost, or bored, or because it was all so crystal clear and they’re anxiously awaiting the lesson (ha!)? In the end, they complete the assignments and so she knows that they understand the concepts, but we are anxious to see if that understanding translates into changes in study habits and better understanding of course material.

In contrast to Cindy, who is teaching introductory courses with these materials, Yana is teaching the capstone research course. She handed students the posters at the beginning of the semester and asked them to design experiments related to the strategies. This has resulted in a total of 7 very different projects: for example, one group is interested in whether retrieval practice works best with paper flashcards or an app; another is examining whether the effectiveness of dual coding is dependent on students drawing rather than passively viewing images. The students seem to have grasped the strategies, although of the 6 strategies, retrieval practice and dual coding seem to be the clear favorites.

Megan has also been showing the posters to some of her students, on an as-needed basis, and the students have generally told her that they find the posters and videos very helpful. For example, one student in an introductory class recently emailed Megan after an exam. This student was disappointed by an exam grade. She pointed this student to the presentations she gave on the first day in class and the posters and then asked the student how they studied for the exam. Their response was: I probably did too much rereading and not enough retrieval practice; I’ll practice retrieval more consistently for the next exam. The Master’s students in Megan's graduate cognition class really liked the videos. One student, who tutors undergraduates on campus, is giving the materials to students who seek help, and to other student tutors on campus.

Engaging on Social Media

In addition to in-person conversations with educators and students, we have also been talking to a variety of different people on social media. Most of the responses we have received have been incredibly positive. We regularly receive emails from educators who are implementing the learning strategies in their classrooms, and lots of positive mentions on Twitter.

One educator (Liesel Knaack, Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning at Vancouver Island University) even used our posters to create a booklet and a display in the library at her institution. Check out her blog about the display here or download her booklet here.

From post: Learning to Learn: Student Study Strategies for Success! -- Liesel Knaack

From post: Learning to Learn: Student Study Strategies for Success! -- Liesel Knaack

From post: Learning to Learn: Student Study Strategies for Success! -- Liesel Knaack

From post: Learning to Learn: Student Study Strategies for Success! -- Liesel Knaack

Of course, there are always criticisms. Some are constructive, and others are not so constructive. When it comes to constructive criticisms, we are always willing to have conversations. For example, we recently discussed whether with David Didau (@LearningSpy) whether the Pokémon example in our Concrete Examples video was helpful or distracting. This is an important question, and we have been thinking about the relationship between concrete examples and transfer for the last few days. Of course, we know that the materials we create in each format aren't going to be absolutely perfect, and we hope that portions of the materials or the whole set can provide a useful resource for teachers and students.

We hope that you have found these materials to be useful. We will continue to try to provide learning science in a way that is user-friendly, and we welcome your feedback, particularly in regards to additional materials that might help you or feedback that you have received when trying to share these materials with others. Our goal is to keep an open dialogue; we have learned so much from educators and students over the past 8 months and want to provide information that will help all of us with teaching and learning. So get in touch, and let us know what might help!

*we picked the strategies based on this report on the lack of science of learning instruction in teacher training textbooks and courses.