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How Students Learn

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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?”

When Mom Stops Calling

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Professor Barbara Hofer talked about "iconnected parents" during Homecoming Weekend

Just a few years ago, psychology professor Barbara Hofer noticed something different among her first-year students. On any given day, as soon as class was over, they would flip open their cell phones and make a call. She noticed that even the seniors on campus were startled by how readily first-years used their phones.

Curious about this new behavior, she conducted some research and soon discovered that a “sweeping cultural change” was taking place. Not only were students heavily connected to each other by cell, they were also heavily connected to their parents. The amount of contact between young people and their parents had increased exponentially. “It happened over night,” she said, and it seemed to be pervasive. She was alarmed about some of the ramifications.

Hofer’s findings launched more research, in collaboration with undergraduates; a coauthored book on the subject; and many appearances around the country. During Homecoming Weekend, she described her work to an enthralled group of alumni, many who remembered how they used to call home—from dorm pay phones.

Hofer’s findings show that there is an “electronic tether” connecting young people with their parents in a profoundly new way. Whereas a generation ago, students thought of themselves as adult and independent and they called home perhaps once a week, today’s students and parents communicate approximately 13 times weekly, each initiating about half the calls.

“Parents report that they are a lot closer to their kids than they were to their parents,” Hofer said. She pointed out that the amount and the content of the communication is very important in helping students gain autonomy. “The challenge is to remain connected in a healthy way.”

What concerns Hofer is that the electronic tether tends to create a dependency that prevents students from learning to regulate their own behavior or to handle their own disappointments and challenges. Instead of figuring out how to deal with a problem, they can be in touch with a caring parent almost instantly. This level of contact also prevents some parents from developing the skills and responses that would bolster independence.

Hofer described cases in which parents regulate their children’s activities from afar, keeping their course syllabi and reminding them of papers and tests, for example, or editing their papers. She described one student’s answer to this question: “When will you know you are an adult?” The answer: “When my mom stops calling me three times a day.”

But Hofer was quick to point out that this does not mean that parents should simply “let go,” as is sometimes suggested. What parents need, she believes, is to find healthy ways to back off a bit while staying connected, a thoughtful balance that encourages students to use their own internal resources and the resources of the institution.

Or, perhaps, it will suffice to simply turn the phone off.