Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learning from mistakes

Mistakes Help Us Learn

An interesting discussion in Scientific American:
For years, many educators have championed “errorless learning," advising teachers (and students) to create study conditions that do not permit errors. For example, a classroom teacher might drill students repeatedly on the same multiplication problem, with very little delay between the first and second presentations of the problem, ensuring that the student gets the answer correct each time.

The idea embedded in this approach is that if students make errors, they will learn the errors and be prevented (or slowed) in learning the correct information. But research by Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays and Robert Bjork at U.C.L.A. that recently appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition reveals that this worry is misplaced. In fact, they found, learning becomes better if conditions are arranged so that students make errors.

People remember things better, longer, if they are given very challenging tests on the material, tests at which they are bound to fail. In a series of experiments, they showed that if students make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve information before receiving an answer, they remember the information better than in a control condition in which they simply study the information. Trying and failing to retrieve the answer is actually helpful to learning. It’s an idea that has obvious applications for education, but could be useful for anyone who is trying to learn new material of any kin.
In one experiment:
Students were asked to read the essay [on vision] and prepare for a test on it. However, in the pretest condition they were asked questions about the passage before reading it such as "What is total color blindness caused by brain damage called?" Asking these kinds of question before reading the passage obviously focuses students' attention on the critical concepts. To control this "direction of attention" issue, in the control condition students were either given additional time to study, or the researchers focused their attention on the critical passages in one of several ways: by italicizing the critical section, by bolding the key term that would be tested, or by a combination of strategies. However, in all the experiments they found an advantage in having students first guess the answers. The effect was about the same magnitude, around 10 percent, as in the previous set of experiments.
Which is why we start out sections with a question or a problem situation to be solved. I'm not sure I'd give them the impossible question as if it were a test, but I do think that kids should hear/see the questions that are the goal of the material.

Having no delay between presentations of the same problem doesn't work terribly well, and I'm glad to see the research bears this out. This is NOT to say that "spiralling" is appropriate. I just feel that rethinking at the end of a section or using that same material in the NEXT section is the best way to make the learning stick.

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