Common Hour: Professor McDaniel talks effective learning, better study habits

By Samantha Greenfield || Senior Staff Writer

This past week, the Common Hour speaker was Mark McDaniel, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. McDaniel conducts research in the general area of human learning and memory. His research in memory and cognition has received grants summing over two million dollars from the National Institute of Health and NASA. He is also the Director of Circle – the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education.

Photo by Anne Piccolo '15

Photo by Anne Piccolo ’15

McDaniel aims to employ science of learning to identify techniques to use in the classroom in order to improve student learning and effectiveness. He wants to see more classroom experiments because students say that, before they change their study habits, they want to see the change will work. In response, experiments have been integrated into classrooms to prove that these tactics work.

Another theme he emphasized stems from the question, “Why are active learning methods so seldom used in colleges and universities?” He asked the teachers in the audience how they will actually revise their classes into these reverse classroom situations that invoke powerful conversation. He said extensive revision is not necessary; instead, there only need be very minor adaptations to the classroom and to students’ study habits.

McDaniel posed the question, “what are students doing now?” He sited the Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions Survey, which asked students what they do to study. One response was, “I eat Alaskan Salmon for breakfast.” Another said, “I watch back-to-back episodes of ER.” His favorite response was, “I wear my Superman underwear.”

Next he asked, “What are students being told?” A snippet from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that tells parents study tips their children should use was displayed. The newspaper said, “repeat, repeat, repeat;” however, studies have proven this does not work. hen students were asked how they were studying, over 50 percent of students said that they repeat facts and key terms over and over. Students, McDaniel points out, are studying ineffectively.Eighty-four percent of Students at Washington University reread textbook notes, and 55 percent rate rereading as their primary study activity.

Some studies have shown that rereading can help to build a better understanding, which suggests two opposing theories. Researchers performed an experiment to figure out if rereading is effective or not. The experiment had oneroup of students read a textbook chapter once and the other group twice. Students were then given a test consisting of 22 multiple-choice questions requiring explanation.here was no significant difference in results for either an immediate or a delayed test. They then tested a scenario in which students read the text once and then re-read for a second time right before the test. Still, there was no improvement. McDaniel saw a lesson to be learned from the study.

“Number one, it would be useful for us to simply discourage students from rereading the textbook,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel went further, saying that rereading is actually counterproductive. He explained that, during rereading, the brain is receiving cues about the fluencies of the rereading and the familiarity of the content, which hijacks the inflow and consolidation of the information being read. In turn, students are only recognizing that they have, indeed, read the material before and misinterpreting those cues.

Instead, McDaniel says we should try to get students to generate understanding. Some techniques include, stimulating “self-explanation” and “answer why?” or other deep level questions, like “how” or “what if”? This technique can help generate understanding. Once students comprehend explanations, they then generate relationships and understand the significance of the information.

Students can and should do this on their own while studying:Now, teachers are starting to assign small writings for readings, which are called Write-to-Learn assignments. McDaniel pointed out that using this method does not take much time and is much more effective than simply copying notes or readings.

He then talked about another method that creates better learning in terms of memory: spaced instruction. Spacing out the teaching of a single topic over time,multiple days or weeks, compared to teaching something in one day is immensely more successful. In an experiment on medical students learning how to repair an artery, the typical mass instruction in one day lead 16 percent of those students to forget what they learned and kill a rat on which they experimented . Of those who learned with spaced instruction, only one percent failed. “We ought to intermix presentation and practice of related concepts,” McDaniel said.

This additional advice means teachers should mix insetad of block; they should not just progress swiftly from subject to subject. He cited an experiment on learning art concepts. One group of students looked at six pieces of art from one artist at a time. Another group was showed 6 pieces, two pieces of art from each artist at once. The students were then showed a new piece of art and asked which artist produced the artwork. The latter of the two groups was significantly more successful in this task than the former. Students reported they thought they were learning more when the artists were blocked; however, the experiment showed they were wrong.

The final point McDaniel made is that giving a test is not a neutral event, meaning that giving a test modifies, reinforces, and consolidates information learned. The act of retrieving should be used as a learning tool. Tests should be thought of as a way of teaching not just assessing. He argued that quizzes should be used a lot more in college.  Quizzes should include more than questions that assess memorization of the facts; they should incorporate analysis and synthesis of the information. The latter enforces learning.

He closed by reviewing his “take home points”. First, rereading is not necessarily effective. Second, teachers should promote elaborative study activities and prompt self-explanation. Third, they should introduce spacing and interweaving into courses as well as students’ studying habits. Finally, testing promotes learning and transferring information and should be considered and used as more than an assessment device.

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