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Over the last hundred or so years, we have learned a huge amount about the best ways to teach students when they are in front of us.

More recently, with the rise of what we used to call ‘distance learning’, we now know quite a lot about the best ways of teaching students at distance, with printed learning materials, supplemented with audio and video materials.

However, the closure of schools all over the world, and the widespread, though not of course universal, availability of technology, presents us with wholly new challenges—challenges for which the existing research provides us with few clear-cut answers. At this point, of course, researchers will say “more research is needed”, which of course is true, but that is of little use to teachers who have to make decisions about what to do this week.

We could of course, try to use research findings from other teaching approaches and hope that they generalize to the kinds of online being used currently, but the track record of applying findings from one kind of teaching to a different kind of teaching is not great. That is why I think the best bet is for teachers to combine their professional judgment about the best things to do with their students with some fundamental findings about how learning takes place. Research can never tell teachers what to do, but can provide some indication of the kinds of constraints that are important to take into account when designing teaching of any kind.

Before we do this, however, it is important to be clear about what we mean by learning. Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) define learning as “a change in long-term memory” (p. 75). When people hear this definition they often assume that this reduces learning to memorization, but the point of this definition is that if students can do things at the end of a lesson, and maybe even the next day, but cannot do it in two weeks’ time, then no learning has taken place. Of course we could use the word “learning” to describe anything that learners can remember for a day or so, but this is not really how we use the term learning. More importantly, if students only remember what we have taught for a day or so, then both teachers and students are probably wasting their time; teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.

Although there are many research ideas that are relevant to teaching, and online teaching in particular, I think the following three findings are the most important.

  1. The process by which our experiences are translated into long-term memories are not well understood. Some of what we experience gets remembered, and some does not. Experiences with a strong emotional resonance are more likely to be remembered, but in general it is hard to predict what students will learn from any piece of teaching. Or to put it more bluntly, students do not (necessarily) learn what we teach.
  2. As David Ausubel pointed out over 50 years ago, good teaching starts from where the learner is, rather than we would like her or him to be. In other words, we need to find out what our students have learned before we teach them anything else.
  3. Human memory doesn’t work the way that most people think it does. We know from the pioneering work of Herman Ebbinghaus over 100 years ago that when we restudy things we have previously learned, that memory gets stronger. However, as Elizabeth and Robert Bjork have shown, if we successfully retrieve things from memory, rather than being told things, then that has a bigger impact on long-term learning. More importantly, when things are harder to retrieve, then successful retrieval has a greater impact on long-term learning, hence the importance of ‘desirable difficulties’ in learning (Bjork, 1994, p. 193).

So what does all this mean for online teaching?

First

As Barak Rosenshine argues in his ‘Principles of instruction’ (Rosenshine, 2012), it is almost always useful to “activate prior knowledge”—to give students practice in retrieving things from memory, or, if they can’t, reminding them of what was covered previously.

Second

Spacing practice out over several sessions (say 10 minutes once a day for five days) is more effective than doing 50 minutes of practice in one session, because each time students returns to the material, they have begun to forget it, and therefore, restudy or, better, retrieval, has a greater impact.

Third

Check for understanding frequently, ideally getting a response from every learner, rather than those who are happy to share their thinking. The responses of confident articulate students are not a good guide what is happening in the heads of the others.

Fourth

Get students to test themselves. Re-studying material does increase long-term retention but the same time spent testing yourself produces greater improvements because, as noted above, retrieval has a greater impact than restudy. Of course many students don’t like to be tested, so make the tests ‘zero-stakes’; students complete a test under test conditions, but are then given the scoring key, and they mark their own work, and do not have to tell you how they did unless they want to.

Fifth

Get students to write questions, with correct solutions, on what they have been studying. Writing your own questions forces you to engage with the material at a deeper level than answering someone else’s questions (thus creating ‘desirable difficulties’), and, as a bonus, you will find out what the students think they have been learning (which is not always what you think they have been learning!).

Online teaching is a new challenge for many teachers across Australia, and many will find this more difficult than being in the classroom with students. By taking into account key findings about how learning takes place, you will help your students remember more of your teaching.

References

Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. P. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 188-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12-19, 39. Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf