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Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 45: How Students Learn

Welcome to the forty-fifth issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education. This March, our topic is "How Students Learn."

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

Best Practices

Miami University Teachers' College free-hand drawing class 1915In their article for Change Magazine, Halpern and Hakel review how research on human learning can help improve our pedagogy [pdf]. They define the underlying goal for any kind of formal instruction as “the assumption that knowledge, skills, and attitudes learned in this setting will be recalled accurately, and will be used in some other context at some time in the future” (2003). They lay out some basic principles for enhancing long-term retention and transfer of learning:

  1. The single most important variable in promoting long-term retention and transfer is ‘practice at retrieval.’” The important point here is that “information that is frequently retrieved becomes more retrievable.” Retrieving information that was learned earlier to produce responses to new questions, or in different contexts, is key to promoting retention. Spacing these instances of retrieval so that the time between them becomes gradually longer, rather than grouping them all together, also improves retention. As an example of how practice at retrieval in different contexts and content domains can be worked into a course, Halpern and Hakel suggest having students teach “concepts and skills to other students,” or respond to “frequent questions asked in class or posed online.”
    • Jigsaw Group Projects: In jigsaw projects, each member of a group is asked to complete some discrete part of an assignment. When every member has completed their assigned task, the pieces can be joined together to form a finished project. For example, students in a course in African geography might be grouped and each assigned a country; individual students in the group could then be assigned to research the economy, political structure, ethnic makeup, terrain and climate, or folklore of the assigned country. When each student has completed their research, the group then reforms to complete a comprehensive report. The students then work together to tackle the difficult problem of how much emphasis should be placed on each piece of the puzzle (Cal State). Learn about more activities in our active learning document [pdf].
  2. Vary the conditions under which learning takes place. “When learning occurs under varied conditions, key ideas have ‘multiple retrieval cues’ and thus are more ‘available’ in memory.” While this method can make learning more difficult, it will also make learning more successful. In the classroom, this can mean mixing different types of problems and solutions into the same lesson.
    • Lecture methods: When presenting course material in a lecture format, vary your methods. One possible methods is the "interactive lecture which evolves around orderly brainstorming in which students generate ideas in response to a question or prompt ("Call out what you know about DNA"). The flow of examples and counterexamples, generalizations and specifics, or rules and exceptions encourages students to grapple actively with the topic." Another method is using "problem solving, demonstrations, proofs, and stories. This method begins with the instructor posing a question, paradox, or enigma – some provocative problem that whets students' interest: 'What would happen if…' The suspenseful answer unfolds during the class period, with students actively or passively anticipating or pointing toward solutions" (Davis, 1993). Learn more about these methods in our Teaching Large Classes document [pdf].
  3. Learning is enhanced when learners are required to take information that was presented in one format and “re-represent” it in an alternative format. Here Halpern and Hakel draw on “dual-coding” theory. Since humans process information through two distinct channels—visuospatial and auditory-verbal—information that “is represented in both formats is more likely to be recalled than information that is stored in either format alone.” Providing students with the opportunity to use both visuospatial and auditory-verbal channels to work through course content enhances their learning and recall. Hakel and Halpern suggest requiring students to construct concept maps representing the network of ideas presented in their readings or research topics. Similarly, students could be required to provide a verbal or written explanation of a mathematical or schematic learning task.
    1. Concept Mapping: A concept map is a way of illustrating the connections that exist between terms or concepts covered in course material. Students connect individual terms with lines indicating the relationship between each set of connected terms. Most of the terms in a concept map have multiple connections. Developing a concept map requires the students to identify and organize information and to establish meaningful relationships between the pieces of information (Cal State). Learn about more activities in our active learning document [pdf].
  4. “What and how much is learned in any situation depends heavily on prior knowledge and experience. The best predictor of what is learned at the completion of any lesson, course, or program of study is what the learner thinks and knows at the start of the experience.” Therefore, “we need to assess learner knowledge and understanding at the start of every instructional encounter, probing for unstated underlying assumptions and beliefs that may influence the knowledge, skills, and abilities that we want students to acquire.”
    • Give students an ungraded pretest that assesses knowledge and skills necessary for the course. “The questions might cover the major themes you will address during the semester.” These questions can also be used on the mid-term and final “enabling you and the students to compare their knowledge at the beginning and end of the course… In addition, it provides students with examples of the types of questions you will ask on graded quizzes and exams." Learn more about this technique in our document on The First Day of Class [pdf].
  5. “Learning is influenced by both our students’ and our own epistemologies.” Hakel and Halpern believe that “the best way for students to learn and recall something will depend on what you want learners to learn and be able to recall, what they already know, and their own beliefs about the nature of learning.” By helping students to articulate their beliefs about learning, instructors can help them examine these beliefs, and provide students with learning tasks that help them build new models of how they learn.
    • Have students write a few sentences about why they are taking the course, what they expect to get out of it, and what challenges they anticipate (CMU). Have students compose an “ungraded short essay on the first day of class. Short essays can reveal several important student characteristics, including perception, knowledge, and attitudes about the subject, analytical and conceptual skills, as well as general writing ability” (UNC). To save time, conduct surveys or questionnaires or ahead of time using Blackboard. Learn more about this technique in our document on The First Day of Class [pdf].
  6. “Experience alone is a poor teacher.” The idea that learning should be “authentic,” “that is, nearly identical in content and context to the situation in which the information is to be learned will be used,” is often held up as an ideal in higher education. However, “what is missing from most authentic situations—and from most real-life situations as well—is systematic and corrective feedback about the consequences of various actions.” Without this built-in feedback, students may learn exactly the wrong thing from any authentic learning task. As an example, Hakel and Halpern describe the use of actors as fake patients in medical school. These actors can provide a variety of examples and opportunities for systematic feedback that working with real patients cannot. Activities like simulations or role-playing can be integrated into courses in any number of ways.
    • Use case method. Having students work through complex, ambiguous, real world problems engages students with the course material, encouraging them to “see it from an action perspective, rather than analyze it from a distance” (Angelo & Boehrer). Case studies are, by their nature, multidisciplinary, and “allow the application of theoretical concepts…bridging the gap between theory and practice” (Davis & Wilcock). Learn more in our Case Method document [pdf].
  7. “Lectures work well for learning assessed with recognition tests, but work badly for understanding... learners need cues that trigger interpretation and force them to engage the material actively”—lectures fail to provide opportunities for either of these things.
    • Flip the classroom. Instead of lecturing for an entire class period, consider breaking lectures into chunks and including other activities in between. Lectures can also be pre-recorded and provided to students as streaming audio or video, allowing class time to be dedicated to discussion. Learn more in our Flipped Classroom document [pdf].
  8. “The act of remembering itself influences what learners will and will not remember in the future.” Here Hakel and Halpern are drawing on “memory trace” theories that determine what we will retain and what we will forget. They caution professors to think carefully about what they want students to remember. For example, focusing assessments on “relatively unimportant points in the belief that ‘testing for the footnotes’ will enhance learning…will probably lead to better student retention of the footnotes at the cost of the main points.”
  9. “Less is more, especially when we think about long-term retention and transfer.” Hakel and Halpern suggest that professors think about exactly how much information their students will need to recall when they attempt to transfer what they’ve learned to a new situation. By imagining the future use of the course content, professors can more effectively guide their decisions about how deeply to probe a particular area or what level of detail is necessary. “If cursory knowledge of a broad area is indeed desirable, then learners and instructors should be collectively conscious of this goal… But if deep understanding of basic principles is what is wanted, then the teaching and learning process needs to be structured accordingly.”
    • Selecting assigned readings: Perform a “triage” on your reading list. Review all the materials you have considered assigning and rate each one “according to its relevance to success in the course (e.g. ‘absolutely essential,’ ‘good supporting material,’ ‘exotic,’ ‘appealing to experts,’ ‘idiosyncratic choice’).” Only the readings that fall into the category “absolutely essential” should be assigned as “required reading.” Each of these texts should be mentioned in class, be included in projects and assignments, or appear on examinations (Hobson, 2004). Learn more in our Getting Students to do their Assigned Readings document [pdf].
  10. “What learners do determines what and how much is learned, how well it will be remembered, and the conditions under which it will be recalled.” This final point points out the importance of selecting the best learning activities to enhance retention and transfer. Halpern and Hakel believe that “what professors do in their classes matters far less than what they ask students to do” (2003).



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"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate at The Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.

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Photo credit: Miami University Teachers' College free-hand drawing class 1915, Miami University Libraries.