Friday, October 21, 2016

HOW STUDENTS LEARN

GTC Blog: Week One, Fall Quarter 2016
Contributed by: Gabe LaHue

Our fall quarter Graduate Teaching Community (GTC) series is based off of “The TA’s Guide to Effective Teaching at UC Davis” and is focused on the fundamentals of college teaching, from understanding your students to assessments of student learning to classroom management. During the first week’s meeting, I focused on a central question under the larger umbrella of understanding our students: How do students learn? While answering this complicated question could easily dominate someone’s entire career (and indeed there are a multitude of researchers, teachers, and philosophers whose careers have been devoted to this), we only had an hour.
We started by brainstorming what associations this question brought to mind. Personally, I thought of learning types (visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners), passive v. active learning, and learning theories immediately, and many of the other participants had similar concepts spring to mind. From there, we touched briefly on each of these concepts, exploring where myths may overshadow the reality and where grains of truth might be found. It turns out that according to a recent article published in Nature Neuroscience Reviews, the idea that there are concrete learning types and that students respond better to instruction in their learning style is a myth, but one that is believed by over 95% of teachers in the five different countries surveyed. This sentiment was echoed by a majority of the nine experts that opined in an article on the Edutopiaรข site of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. So why do so many of us agree believe in the idea of learning styles or associate a particular style with ourselves? Our conclusion was that some elements of the idea of preferential learning styles may be true – I for example, can immediately remember someone’s name when I see it written, but will forget it multiple times when I just hear it – but that problems arise when we try to lump people into categories and teach to a specific category, assuming that they can only get information in that way. Our solution? Incorporate visual, auditory, and kinesthetic activities into your lesson plans so that all students are getting the material in a variety of ways, which is likely to be helpful for both retention and engagement.
The second idea we explored was the difference between active and passive learning and the notion the “most active” activities are always best. We started by looking at the so-called learning pyramid, which according to a blog posted by the Association of College and Research Libraries was originally based on Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Experience”, and was never meant to promote certain teaching methods over others. Furthermore, it was not originally associated with specific retention rates based on the teaching method, and it is unclear where these estimates came from and if there is any evidence to back them up. However, these retention rate numbers in particular, and the pyramid itself have drawn the ire of countless researchers and teachers. So why is it then that many of us feel that the things that we must teach or do are the things that we remember best? Like the learning types, there may be some grains of truth to the importance of active learning, even as the debate about its merits and what exactly constitutes “active learning” rages on (see this opinion piece, this piece, and this piece). Our conclusion was that whether or not “active learning” is the highest pinnacle of education, engaging students to be active participants in the learning process is nevertheless important.
For the last part of our discussion, we explored a few prominent theories of learning – behaviorism, cognitive constructivism, and social constructivism – based off of this webpage, and matched their views on knowledge, learning, and motivation with each individual theory. While these theories may be useful ways to start thinking about learning (I personally find that the cognitive constructivist theory makes a lot of sense to me), like most of what we discussed during the meeting they need to be taken with a grain of salt, as learning can incorporate elements from all of these theories and many more. For more resources on learning and how people learn, please check out the “How People Learn” and “How Students Learn” series available from the National Academies Press (https://www.nap.edu).

Links
Link 1: http://cee.ucdavis.edu/docs/TA_Guide_2015-Accessible.pdf

Link 2: http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v15/n12/full/nrn3817.html

Link 3: https://www.edutopia.org/article/learning-styles-real-and-useful-todd-finley

Link 4: http://acrlog.org/tag/learning-theories/

Link 5: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/opinion/sunday/lecture-me-really.html?_r=1

Link 6: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1235-a-lecture-from-the-lectured

Link 7: http://mcgrawect.princeton.edu/what-is-passive-learning-and-how-to-avoid/


Link 8: http://gsi.berkeley.edu/gsi-guide-contents/learning-theory-research/learning-overview/

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