Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dylan Williams at PCMI

Dylan Williams spoke to the PCMI Teacher Leadership Program today via webinar. He answered questions, one of which was mine. Here are some major take aways and quotes:

- There are only two recommendations that educational psychologists can agree on. First, mass practice is less effective than distributed practice. That is to say, we should integrate our topics such that students have many opportunities to practice a particular skill. This notion is closely aligned with Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve. Distributed practice also helps with truant students because no topic is addressed in only one day, making it easier for the absent student to catch back up.

- Second, frequent testing without giving grades helps students because it helps them practice retrieval. Students often practice memory storage when they hear a lecture, experience an activity, or study for a test, but they do not regularly practice memory retrieval. It seems that testing, when used the right way, can significantly benefit learning.

- Having students predict an answer before learning how to complete a problem, even when they have no obvious entry point, has been shown to increase student learning. The thought is that by predicting an answer, they cognitively struggling. This, in turn, leads to greater learning (more on that later). This is connected to test corrections. Even if students don’t perform well on an assessment, the act of trying and correcting their work aids learning.

- Higher levels of cognitive struggle lead to higher levels of learning. This can manifest itself simply: a student trying to solve a novel problem unaided will learn more than a student completing a procedural problem whose solution is already known. However, other types of cognitive struggle also impact learning. In a psychological study, students who were given a smudged print out of a story were better able to recall the story than students who were given a clean copy because they struggled to read the smudged copy.

- There is no psychological evidence that catering to individual learning styles helps students. In fact, it may lead to lower learning since it would lower the cognitive demand and struggle. Yet, this is not permission to ignore learning styles altogether. Working in a learning style that is not your own is tiring, and so teachers should frequently vary the style they use to ensure equitable learning for all.

- In both Japan and the United States, lessons often start with the teacher demonstrating how to solve a certain problem. In the United States, this is often followed by procedural practice. However in Japan students are challenged to find other solution methods. This leads to natural differentiation because higher achieving students can be prompted to find more complex solutions while the teacher scaffolds more basic solutions for students who are confused.

- The advantages of formative over summative, or comments over grades, is not absolute. The only thing that matters about feedback is what students do with it. If a student in AP Calculus would learn the most from seeing a number grade out of five on their practice test, then they should receive a numerical grade. If a student would benefit the most from teacher comments, then that is what should be done. Moreover, any assessment can be used as a formative or a summative depending on how you use it. Groups of four students could individually take a standardized test, then all pool their ideas as a group to create a fifth “best version” of the test. After finishing, the teacher would find any common mistakes and have groups present their solutions to each other. In this way, a traditionally summative assessment has become formative.

- The goal of feedback is either to give students information about where they are at currently, or how they can improve. However, it is disadvantageous to give both at the same time because students tend to focus on one type and ignore the other.

This talk gave me a great deal to think about, but I’ve tried to come up with a few succinct action steps to improve my teaching. These probably sound familiar:

Integrate the topics in my curriculum more, and don’t hesitate to expect students to remember essential topics from previous units.

Let students predict answers to novel problems before they start them, and allow them to struggle within a well-thought scaffold. 

Use more quick formative assessments. Even if I don’t grade them myself, the act of taking the assessment is important, and it can give students the opportunity to reflect on their peers and on themselves.

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