How Students Learn

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?”

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  1. The following excerpt from the article was an especially valuable bit of information for my work as a high school English teacher:

    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.

    The idea that “we need to talk about which questions matter to students and what students are curious about” should be central to the teaching life. Yet, unfortunately, too many powerful organizations are working to curtail teaching that encourages students to ask questions. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits many N.E. area schools,

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    now has a new “standard” that requires secondary school teachers to start all lessons with a teacher created essential question. After sending the organization recent research that supported the efficacy of having teachers create contexts in classes that encourage students to come up with their own essential questions so that they might own directions of inquiry–and asking for research to support their “standard,”–I was told in so many words that they still wanted teachers to ask the essential questions because they thought it was a good idea. Please, Professor Miller-Lane, continue helping your students understand the value of student generated questions.

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  2. It is fascinating to read this article.As a retired language teacher, I have been alarmed with the enormous amount of textbooks,workbooks,etc.that DIFFERENT companies have been producing and advertising! Each company proclaims to provide teachers with an almost infallible SYLLABUS that seems to preclude the success of their students! And each year many teachers put in their orders to this or that company (whichever was most impressive )so that “the essential content will pre-exist the arrival of the students” I have seen many a teacher become slaves to the texts and promote the learning of “disconnected bits of information” instead of engaging the students in “creating a space”. I have been a disciple of Mme Colette Stourdzé, author of Le français

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    dans le monde, in Sevre since 1970 while studying at Middlebury. Her message: “the art of teaching is to render simple what is complex”. I applaud Middlebury’s initiative to entertain this discussion. I am presently teaching French at Iona College and in my classes we do stories, literary excerpts, and songs! It is fun and our activities reinforce language acquistion.

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  3. As a K-12 educator this article is very exciting to read. We have always known that students do not retain facts and figures taught in school yet we have continued to teach this way for nearly 200 years.
    In order to be competitive in a global economy students will need to have skills not facts. Bravo to Middlebury for confronting and changing an outdated educational system.

    One question? If this is what Middlebury believes then do they still advocate for the AP program which traditionally covers material vs. covering skills. I imagine that many of their applicants and accepted students have spent their high school years memorizing facts.

  4. As an English teacher, I highlight themes of central interest to young adults. This generates questions and keeps discussion lively, and develops an experience they find personally meaningful. At the same time, I have another legitimate goal: to pass on to a new generation the best traditions in the humanities. An effective teacher meets the young freshly while conveying the timeless vitality of universal human questions, enticing students to join a living chain linking past to present and future. Adult guidance should always have a place; it is up to us to exercise wisdom in avoiding the extremes of being overly student-centered or fixated on material.

  5. Facts are handy to have and essential for assessing models. In fact starting with some memorized facts can facilitate building a productive creative space.

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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