If teaching were like following a recipe, it would be a much easier job. Unlike the reliable and straightforward process of baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies, practices that work in a morning class may not work the same way in the afternoon. Instead, teachers have the extremely complicated task of figuring out how to help students learn in classrooms that are uniquely composed of children with different relationships to learning.
“It’s something that people outside of teaching don’t really appreciate,” said Dr. Stephen Chew at the 2021 Learning & the Brain conference. “They think teaching is delivering information. It’s much more than that. It’s creating an environment in which students can learn.” As a professor of psychology at Samford University, his research on the cognitive aspects of effective teaching and learning answers the question that many teachers ask: How is it that I’m doing everything right and still coming up against pitfalls and different outcomes?
“The challenge of teaching effectively is to understand the universal principles of learning that apply to anyone, but adapting those principles for individual differences so we can teach everyone,” he said. He provides “promising practices” that address the variety of cognitive challenges that teachers juggle when they are navigating the broad aspects of learning in tandem with students’ individual needs.
When a student enters the classroom, whether it’s on Zoom or in person, they’re bringing their academic biases with them. And it’s no surprise that negative feelings towards a subject can lead to ineffective mindsets for overcoming learning obstacles.
“Students say, ‘I just dread this. I had terrible experiences with this. I failed at this before.’ They’ve convinced themselves of their ability in the subject, and they already sort of hate it.”
Chew said that learners’ attitudes and beliefs about a particular class are usually because of misconceptions they have about learning. One of the most common misunderstandings is the idea that learning happens quickly. Students tend to cram or spend insufficient time with learning material only to be disappointed when they have not fully grasped concepts.
However, teachers can support students in debunking this misconception. A few days before tests or assessments, Chew recommends saying something like, “If you plan to do well in the exam, you should have done all the reading by today because you learn much more in review than you learn reading it the first time.” For bigger projects or writing assignments, he advises teachers to require students to share updates about their progress five to six days before the due date.
“They can see where everyone else is and they can see that other students have already started on it. It really reminds them that this is due and it lets them see what other people are doing.”
Metacognition and ineffective learning strategies
Understandably, students are often drawn to study habits that require minimal effort, like skimming required readings and writing down lectures word-for-word. The key terms highlighted in the margins of required readings and glossary sections promote the idea that learning is the result of quick intakes of information. As a result, students’ metacognition, or awareness of their own understanding and mastery of the material, is often a bit off. A sure sign of faulty metacognition is when a student leaves a test feeling confident that they did well only to find out that they actually performed very poorly.
“Students don’t automatically know how to make use of that feedback ,” Chew explains, urging teachers to “fine tune” students metacognitive awareness by introducing them to self-assessment tools and other effective learning strategies. “There’s a big difference between studying for familiarity versus studying for self-assessment where you prove to yourself that you can perform at the level you expected to perform.”
Part of the challenge is convincing students that lengthier and more difficult study habits are worth the effort. In some cases, it could mean encouraging students to be more strategic about the study tools available to them. For example, while flashcards are a quick learning technique, they may lead to students memorizing isolated facts instead of recognizing the connections between information. To address this, teachers should urge students to include examples on their flashcards as a more rewarding study practice.
“Students do have to engage in this difficulty. This is the correct kind of difficult effort,” said Chew. “So you have to justify why students are doing these activities. What are they supposed to get out of it? What are they supposed to learn from it? A lot of times we don’t do that because it’s obvious to us, but it’s not obvious to our students.”
Additionally, effective learning strategies encourage learners to develop a growth mindset and believe that they are able to succeed. When students believe they can put forth the right amount of effort to cause positive changes in their learning it’s called “ academic efficacy.” In order to bolster growth mindset and academic efficacy, students must believe that the work that they are doing has value for them.
Constraints of selective attention
“Multi-tasking is the bane of our existence,” said Chew. “The metaphor typically used for attention is a small spotlight in a room. So it’s a very narrow focus.”
Most people – students included – think that they can multitask, when they are in fact missing a lot of information. Psychology research calls this phenomenon attentional blindness and it doesn’t bode well for young learners who are convinced they can scroll through their social feeds or send off a quick email while remaining fully engaged in class.
Even when students are able to return their attention to the task at hand, be it studying or working on homework, shifting attention comes with a cost known as attentional blink. In a study where students had to memorize a list of words while sending and receiving texts, findings showed that their learning went down 25 to 30 percent as they attended to these distracting tasks. “Every distraction is five minutes of suboptimal attention,” said Chew. “ And it builds up very quickly with all the distractions that students have – that any of us have – during the course of a day.”
For students schooling from home or in the classroom, Chew recommends removing distractions and shutting off devices so that students are able to put their full effort behind learning. “I tell students, ‘Don’t study with your phone sitting on the desk.’ There’s actually research that shows that hurts because you keep on looking longingly at your phone. You keep wondering if it’s going to beep. So just put it in a drawer in the next room. Get it out of the way,” he said. Alternatively, students can use the Pomodoro technique, which relies on timers to avoid procrastination and incentivize interruption-free studying.
Distractions can happen in a teacher’s digital lessons, too. “So much of teaching is attention management, so try and avoid distracting things like GIFs, memes or clipart in your presentations when students should be concentrating on other things.”
Educators should also consider the role they play in leading learners off track by making sure that they’re not competing with their slide decks for students’ focus.
Mental Efforts and Working Memory
Teachers often presume that the more students struggle, the more they learn, but that isn’t always the case. “Learning is effortful, but not all effort leads to learning,” explains Chew.
Concentration and mental capacity are limited and fluctuate throughout the day. Students can pay attention and carry out different learning tasks as long as the cognitive load is not more than their available mental effort. If the cognitive demand is too much, students will be overwhelmed and unable to learn.
Intrinsic, germane and extraneous loads are the “compartments” of students’ attention that form a cognitive load. “We have intrinsic load, which is the mental effort required to understand concepts. And then we have the germane load, which is the mental effort to understand the pedagogy that we’re using, “ said Chew. “Then there’s extraneous load which refers to anything that happens in the classroom that is not related to learning. So this is the jokes you tell and other distractions in the classroom.”
Being mindful of a lesson plan’s cognitive load ensures that students will not only understand academic material, but also schematize, comprehend and integrate it into what they already know.
Keep in mind that students’ brains are working when they take notes, too. “Note taking takes a little bit more mental effort than two experts playing a game of chess. So that just shows how easy it is to overload our students and why we have to pay attention to this.”
Educators should ask trusted students about whether the pace of the class is allowing them to learn effectively. Additionally, veteran teachers can ask students who have been through the course for feedback about the difficulty to gauge whether they should adjust the cognitive load.
Teachers have continued to navigate the same cognitive challenges even as the pandemic has abruptly changed students’ learning contexts. “The teacher’s job is to create the learning environment – wherever the student is – that will allow the student to learn.” And while educators’ efforts may not result in a yummy batch of fresh baked cookies, helping students cultivate effective strategies in the classroom will ensure that they become better learners overall.
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