Tuesday, March 15, 2016

More Neuroscience

This would be my normal end-of-the-week post.  I'm headed out of town for some fishing and won't be home 'til the weekend.

I am not a neuroscientist.  I am, nonetheless, fascinated by what neuroscientists have learned about our brains and how they learn.  Currently, I’m reading Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown.  The aim of the book is to apply what is known in neuroscience to the domain of education.  it’s already had a huge impact on me.

No doubt you know the old Chinese saying:  “Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he'll feed himself for the rest of his life.”  Make it Stick lays a huge emphasis on the importance of self-testing as a technique for learning new material.  Depending on the material, self-testing can take many forms.  If learning materials, let’s say a textbook, offer study aids like key concepts or chapter questions, students who want to learn the material need to define those concepts and answer those questions - from memory first, then study after.  Doing so will allow the student to consolidate what they know and accurately assess what they don’t.  While there is no fault in taking notes as one reads, it’s a fallacy to read through notes and assume that one is learning the material.  Because the notes are familiar, the student is more likely to think that the material is learned, however, research has shown that memory from this study approach diminishes to 10%-20% in as little as two weeks.  Notes, tied to prior knowledge will have a greater likelihood of consolidating new learning.

I would guess that students would need to be guided over and over to embrace this technique.  I would also guess that a teacher must make very explicit to students that they are learning a study technique which has been shown by research to be more effective than simple re-reading or reading one’s notes.  It is the repeated retrieval of information from memory that strengthens both the memory, it’s relationship to other known information, and the neural pathways to that information.  So, I’d ask students to answer questions.  What they can’t answer, I’d ask for them to go back to the material and find the answer.  Then, several days later, I’d ask them to answer the questions again.  It’s likely that, bit by bit, they’d really LEARN the material.  And, over time, with persistence of perhaps several teacher at succeeding grades, students would embrace a study skill that will feed them for the rest of their lives.

By the way, I’ve discovered that the above information about studying is not just for our students.  It’s making a profound and immediate impact on my ability to understand and assimilate all the new material I’m reading.  I suspect it might do the same for you.  Besides, we teach best what we know best.

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