“Desirable Difficulties”, Part 2 (or a retroactive Part 1?)

Not much to add from yesterday’s post, except to point you toward another great discussion of the pedagogical opportunities provided by “desirable difficulties.” This time, David Gooblar, blogger for Pedagogy Unbound (and an instructor at Augustana College, yesssss!) provides some additional details for the kinds of moves you can make to provide opportunities for students to develop their storage memory for deeper learning. So, if you haven’t read Maryellen Weimer’s piece on desirable difficulties that I reblogged yesterday, great!  Read this one first, and then check out how Weimer recommends approaches to approaching student buy-in for a teaching approach that causes students to struggle (productively) on purpose.



September 10, 2014

Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives or share more teaching tips in our new group.

Last spring, a new study showed that students who took notes in longhand did substantially better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on a laptop. The results were, perhaps, not that surprising—until you consider that the laptops in the study had Internet access disabled.

It wasn’t that the laptop note-takers were more distracted. That may indeed be a valid concern with personal technology in the classroom, but it was not what Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California at Los Angeles set out to measure. Rather, their study suggests there are real differences between the utility of taking notes by hand and on a computer.

When students take notes on a laptop, the study concluded, the ease of data entry makes them more likely to transcribe everything the professor is saying. Students who take notes in longhand, in contrast, cannot write fast enough to get everything down and so must be selective. It is precisely that process—of summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road—that helps those who take notes on paper. Students who use laptops end up with neater, more easily searchable notes, but they may be denying themselves the opportunity to do the upfront processing that is a crucial factor, it seems, in long-term retention of class material.

The study’s results illustrate an example of what UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork has termed “desirable difficulties”–learning tasks that make students’ brains work a little bit harder in the name of better long-term memory. Our brains don’t function like audio recorders, saving everything we perceive. Instead, memories are cemented through frequent neural activity, and repeated encoding and retrieval processes. That’s what underlies the so-called “testing effect,” which I wrote about back in February. When we give our students frequent tests on important material, we force them to work to recall information. It is that mental work that makes for better long-term retention of whatever it is we want students to retain.

All of which means we should be giving our students frequent tests and quizzes on facts and concepts we want them to remember, and providing opportunities for students to do the mental work that will serve them down the line.

I suppose we could ban laptops from our classrooms to encourage longhand note-taking, though there are good reasons why such a policy may be unwise. But how else can we introduce desirable difficulties into our classrooms? I’ve summarized a few ways below, taken from the work of Bjork and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, also a UCLA professor of psychology:

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Don’t check out yet; check in… with yourself.

I know, it’s close to the end, you’re ready for the beach. I get it.  This late in the academic year, with finals looming (or, for some of you, finals completed! you people can shut up now), it’s easy to check out and get some well-deserved rest.

But my colleague David Gooblar at Augustana College, blogger for Pedagogy Unbound (featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae career website) suggests that the investment of just a little time at the conclusion of a course can reap serious benefits for your formative assessment and self-improvement as a teacher (as well as for more effective learning outcomes for your future students). This kind of self-reflection is also handy to form a basis for an eventual self-reflection report that may be part of a faculty review in your future.

Following his short piece below are reflection prompts from the self-evaluation form he references.

Best of luck to all of us at the end!


The Semester’s Just About Over! Now Grade Your Own Teaching. 

It’s been a long semester. We’ve all worked hard, tried out new things, adapted on the fly, managed to keep our heads above an ocean of work while still being present for our students. We’ve made it through the mid-semester doldrums. Depending on how much grading we’ve got left, we’re now within sight of the end. If you’re anything like me, to say that you’re looking forward to the end is an understatement. Does anyone else visualize entering that last grade, closing your folder of class notes, and then throwing that folder into the sea?

Today I’d like to suggest that you not be so quick to move on from this term, no matter how desperately you long for a summer away from teaching.

I learn a lot every semester: Trying out ideas in the crucible of the classroom is really the only way to improve as a teacher. I always feel better about my pedagogy at the end of the term than I do at the beginning. Curiously, though, these gains don’t always carry over from semester to semester. By the time that next semester rolls around—particularly if it’s the fall term—the lessons I’ve learned have been mostly forgotten. Did that new approach to a familiar text produce the results I’d hoped for? How did that new topic go over with the students? Was the multi-part assignment too much of a headache, or was it worth it? A few months later, it can all get kind of hazy.

Of course, some of you may have better recall than I do. But I think it’s valuable to take note of the semester’s gains and losses while they are still fresh in our minds. I’m suggesting giving yourself a course evaluation at the end of every term.

[details after the jump!]

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Better class quizzes and discussion? Roll for initiative, adventurers!

Some things we get aggravated about:

  • Students don’t read for class; or,
  • Students read for class, but in a crappy way that doesn’t focus on what we want them to focus on; so,
  • Students aren’t prepared for what we want to accomplish in class.

The good news is that we know that students, particularly in the millennial generation, crave formative feedback on their progress and want reinforcement that they’re learning what they should. And so, despite their whining, by and large they actually like quizzes! We also know that frequent quizzing actually provides better learning outcomes than fewer summative exams (see, for instance, Roediger and Karpicke, 2006).

So when my friend Margaret posted this short article in Vitae / Pedagogy Unbound by David Gooblar, reminding me of an approach to quizzes I actually use all the time (after I stole the idea from my colleague Ellen), it felt a bit nifty to be indirectly affirmed! When I do this approach to randomized selection of quiz questions announced in advance, I use this virtual Dungeons and Dragons dice-roller — it lets me use more options than the typical 6-side cube (4-siders, 8-siders), channels my inner Dungeon Master and scores me a few desperate pop culture geek points.

Anyway, check this out, continue to check out Pedagogy Unbound, and steal this idea!


Want Students to Come to Class Prepared? Try Rolling the Dice.

For many instructors, myself included, chance is the enemy. I know that I can’t control everything that will happen during class time. But I aim to prepare well enough that, for the most part, things go according to plan.

Yes, there can be happy surprises when a class discussion unexpectedly takes on a life of its own and goes to new and exciting places. But most of the time I worry that if I don’t keep a firm hand on the steering wheel, the class will slip off track, become unfocused, or get bogged down in irrelevant minutiae. Whenever I have a bad class, the lesson I usually take home is that I didn’t prepare enough. I left too much up to chance.

But a couple of tips I recently stumbled upon actually embrace chance as a tool to help instructors encourage active learning and participation among students. These tips suggest that allowing a little randomness into our classrooms can have a positive effect on learning outcomes.

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