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How Students Learn

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DSC_5865Four faculty members offered varying perspectives on how students learn – from the ways that assessment tools can affect retention to the need for more “space” or improvisation in the classroom – as part of the yearlong conversation at Middlebury College on the future of the liberal arts.

In a panel discussion on Feb. 19 in McCardell Bicentennial Hall, Professor Barbara Hofer of the psychology department said that the method of assessing students, such as quizzes or short-answer tests vs. term papers or presentations, often drive how students go about their learning and what they’ll gain from it in the future.

“When students think what they are going to be tested on is discrete facts, then they make flash cards, right? They use rote memorization strategies. [But] if we are asking them to do higher-order tasks in our assessments, they are far more likely to use the strategies that lead to deeper understanding and knowledge,” she said.

It comes down to whether we want our students to remember disconnected bits of information or whether we want them to develop an entire web of knowledge, Hofer explained. Students don’t always see that the goal of learning is acquiring “rich, flexible, generative knowledge”; all too often they are concerned simply with the intake of information without any depth of analysis.

Cognitive psychologist Jason Arndt, an associate professor who specializes in human memory, supported Hofer’s views on knowledge acquisition.

In terms of a human being’s “working memory,” i.e., a person’s ability to think about things in the moment, people have an “exceedingly limited” capacity to hold onto data in the short term, said Arndt.  Teachers should be aware that working memory serves as a gateway to longer term retention, and if information “doesn’t get past working memory, it’s just not going to be there over the long term.” One of the techniques that Arndt uses when teaching highly complex material is limiting the number of words and ideas on each of the slides he shows his students.

He also pointed out that doing things in the classroom that demand deep, active thinking is much better for long-term retention as opposed to cursory activities that don’t demand active engagement.

“When left to our own devices,” Arndt said, “we don’t do a ton of things on our own that require a lot of effort to process it or to think about it, and that has consequences for later retention. If we do things in a relatively shallow way, that information is not likely to be there for us five minutes down the line, 10 minutes down the line, or three days down the line.”

Room for space and improvisation

The other two faculty members on the panel looked at the question of how students learn from vastly different points of view than that of their faculty colleagues from the psychology department.

Jonathan Miller-Lane, an associate professor of education studies, said that students’ curiosity should be at the center of teaching-learning process. “Before we talk about learning, we need to talk about which questions matter to students and what students are curious about,” he said.

Professors should be willing to give up their own preconceptions in honor of emphasizing the student’s place in the exchange of knowledge because, he explained, the student’s experience is more important than the teacher’s. To illustrate his point, Miller-Lane pointed to a quote from author and educator Parker Palmer: “To teach is to create a space, not to fill it.”

Said Miller-Lane, “We often assume as professors that the syllabus must pre-exist the arrival of the student and that the essential content pre-exists the arrival of the student. That’s a really interesting assumption to unpack, and this statement – to teach is to create a space – suggests that maybe there is something in the interaction between us that is at the heart of what learning means.

“Space for what then? If teaching is to create a space, where do we go but to John Dewey with this beautiful sentence: ‘Intelligently directed development of the possibilities inherent in ordinary experience.’ That’s what we are creating a space for. Where learning [is] acquiring abilities to engage that.”

Penny Campbell, senior lecturer in dance, said, “I am an improviser. That’s the bottom line in my life, [and] what I have been doing the whole time I have been here is bringing the body into the classroom, bringing the body to the center of our inquiry and our study.”

To foster improvisation, Campbell puts her dance students into situations without actually telling them what the expectations are. (She demonstrated her point by asking the audience of faculty, students, staff, and Middlebury parents to put their arms in the air and move them around. Some people moved their arms about wildly while others were more passive. Still others declined her request. But the point of the exercise soon dawned on everyone: our bodies were front and center, and none of us knew beforehand what the outcome of the exercise would be.)

“Living on the edge of chaos is something we can learn to do. We can learn the skills of operating that way. And also, we can have faith that if we are developing this amazing system of perception that the body-mind is – a continuous, active, self-organizing system in a way – if we can learn how to use that and open it and learn how to be comfortable with it, because I think we live in a culture that’s very, very suspicious of bodies.”

Every one of us has an “enormous amount of potential as a living being to perceive and pay attention to ourselves, to our environments, to the people around us, to what is going on” in life, and Campbell probes that potential in her students through improvisation.

The panel was moderated by Professor James Calvin Davis, the associate vice president of academic affairs, and was organized by his office to further the campus-wide conversation on the future of the liberal arts.

The next program in the series called Core and Change in the Liberal Arts will be held on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 4:30 p.m. in room 220 of Bicentennial Hall. Speakers from three academic disciplines and from Library and Information Services will broach the question: How can we use emerging technologies to support Middlebury’s mission “to cultivate the intellectual, creative, physical, ethical, and social qualities essential for leadership in a rapidly changing global community?”