Learning about Learning: A Few Key Insights

Our first learning insight comes from Judy Willis, MD of UC Santa Barbara. Willis practised neurology for 15 years before becoming a schoolteacher and educational researcher. Dr. Willis provides an important insight into the motivation of young people when they play video games, and how that motivation could be harnessed in learning practical skills:

fMRI and cognitive studies reveal that the brain “evaluates” the probability of effort resulting in success before expending the cognitive effort in solving mental problems. If the challenge seems too high, or students have a fixed mindset related past failures that they will not succeed in a subject or topic, the brain is not likely to expend the effort needed to achieve the challenge.

Brain effort is costly because this three-pound organ needs 20% of the body’s supply of oxygen and glucose to keep its cells alive. The brain operates to conserve its resources unless the energy cost is low or the expectation of reward is high. In the classroom, that is the ideal level of instructional challenge for student motivation.

When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their individualized achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort to the task and are more responsive to feedback. Students working toward clear, desirable goals within their range of perceived achievable challenge, reach levels of engagement much like the focus and perseverance we see when they play their video games. _Dr. Judy Willis

Educational theorists have long salivated over the possibility of using “video game motivation” to spur student learning of coursework. But the results of their efforts so far have been limited. Dr. Willis, with her background in clinical neurology and brain science, may help to bridge that gap.

Another researcher of learning who provides a bundle of insights, is UCLA’s Robert Bjork PhD. Dr. Bjork’s research may leave you thinking that “everything you think you know (about learning) just ain’t so.”

Testing effect
Taking a test often does more than assess knowledge; tests can also provide opportunities for learning. When information is successfully retrieved from memory, its representation in memory is changed such that it becomes more recallable in the future (e.g., R. A. Bjork, 1975); and this improvement is often greater than the benefit resulting from additional study (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006)… we are investigating situations in which tests are used prior to studying (i.e., pretests). Although pretest performance is poor (because students have not been exposed to the relevant information prior to testing), pretests appear to be beneficial for subsequent learning (e.g., Kornell, Hays, & R. A. Bjork, 2009). We have also investigated the effect of multiple-choice pretests on learning for both pretested and untested related information (Little & E. L. Bjork, 2011). We believe that multiple-choice pretesting is more beneficial than is cued-recall pretesting because the multiple-choice pretest directs attention more broadly during subsequent study–not just to information pertaining to the question, but also to information pertaining to the alternatives. ..

It is common sense that when we want to learn information, we study that information multiple times. The schedules by which we space repetitions can make a huge difference, however, in how well we learn and retain information we study. The spacing effect is the finding that information that is presented repeatedly over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals (i.e., massed presentation). This effect is one of the most robust results in all of cognitive psychology and has been shown to be effective over a large range of stimuli and retention intervals from nonsense syllables (Ebbinghaus, 1885) to foreign language learning across many months (Bahrick, Bahrick, Bahrick & Bahrick, 1993)…

One robust and longstanding finding is that generating words, rather than simply reading them, makes them more memorable (Slamecka & Graf, 1978). As an example, this effect is often achieved for single words through the use of a letter-stem cue (ex. “fl____” for “flower”) or by unscrambling an anagram (ex. “rolwfe” for “flower”)….

Spacing is one of the most robust, effective ways of improving learning. However, spacing calls for intervals of time in between repetitions, and this may not be the most efficient use of time. Imagine you have three final exams to study for. If you were to space out study of three whole courses, you might as well start your course review before the quarter even begins! Particularly when one has several different things to learn, an effective strategy is to interleave one’s study: Study a little bit of history, then a little bit of psychology followed by a chapter of statistics and go back again to history. Repeat (best if in a blocked-randomized order).

The benefit of interleaving is found over a diverse set of stimuli ranging from word pairs (Battig, 1979) to motor movements (Shea & Morgan, 1979) to mathematics problems (Rohrer & Taylor, 2007) and word translations (Richland, R. A. Bjork, & Finley, 2004). Interleaving benefits not only memory for what is studied, but also leads to benefits in the transfer of learned skills (e.g. Carson & Wiegand, 1979). The theory is that interleaving requires learners to constantly “reload” motor programs (in the case of motor skills) or retrieve strategies/information (in the case of cognitive skills) and allows learners to extract more general rules that aid transfer. …

Perceptual desirable difficulties
Fluency, or the subjective ease of processing information, can provide learners with a useful basis for judging how well information has been understood. Perceptual variations are among the most obvious–and, sometimes, the most misleading—cues to the fluency of information. For example, when you encounter fonts that are difficult to read or words in very small print, you may experience a sense of disfluency—that is, you may have a feeling that the unusual or small typefaces are more difficult to process than more common typefaces.

These types of perceptual cues often cause people to think that disfluent information will be harder to remember than fluent information. Some research, however, indicates that perceptual disfluency can be a desirable difficulty (Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2010). The subjective difficulty of processing disfluent information can actually lead people to engage in deeper processing strategies, which then results in higher recall for those items (Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley, & Eyre, 2007)….

__ Robert Bjork

More at the link.

Wired interview with Robert Bjork

Finally, the following video from Patricia Kuhl, UW researcher and Bezos Family Foundation Chair for Early Childhood Learning, in Seattle, provides an intriguing glimpse into the inner sanctum of early learning:

The insights above are provided by conventional education researchers, albeit of a high caliber. They are seeking to devise ways to motivate children to learn, and to help them retain what they have learned — all in the context of the conventional school setting. But the learning insights they provide can also be used in other learning settings.

The Al Fin Dangerous Child Method of Education and Child Raising is most often used by parents as an adjunct to more conventional forms of schooling, including the self-taught homeschooling method devised by Arthur Robinson, former associate of Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling.

Robinson raised his six children on a working ranch, as a single parent. The children were put to work doing practical chores on the ranch and around the house, and continued doing so as long as they stayed at home. It should be noted that Robinson’s children achieved the equivalent of two years of college while still at home — and were credited with such — by the time they left home for higher education, around age 18.

They also left home with a large number of practical skills and practical ways of thinking — which their future cohorts in college and graduate/professional schools were almost certain to lack.

The Dangerous Child Method similarly provides practical skills and competencies on top of a mastery of core cognitive skills. But in addition, the Dangerous Child is expected to possess three different ways of being self-supporting financially by the age of 18. The Dangerous Child is also expected to possess superb situational awareness, excellent escape and evasion skills, and other skills that would come in handy in a tight spot.

It is a question of how multi-dimensional a child is seen to be, by parents, educators, and society at large. Our current societies see children as very limited and helpless, suited only to be recipients of over-processed “information” that will be virtually useless and even counter-productive, over the course of the child’s lifetime.

The educational system is operated for the benefit of the system and its component parts, with the future well-being of the children and society at large, generally forgotten. This tends to be true regardless of the quality of research coming out of university departments of educational theory and the cognitive science of learning.

If parents trust their children to the system, without taking a strong hands-on approach to helping the child find his strengths, the child becomes part of the aimless herd, at the mercy of the establishment.

Advanced modern societies are beginning to collapse under their own weight, due to corruption of the underlying structure. The best chance to profit in such a setting of potentially widespread disruption, is to locate yourself in a relatively stable, low-crime area, and try to develop multiple skills and psychological versatility and resilience.

If you can instill “antifragility” in yourself and your community, you will be ahead of the game.

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