Live Chat – Making Learning Difficult #1 – Thursday 7th June

ModKathryn: Good evening! Welcome to tonight’s live chat on making learning difficult

Carolina: Hello @all! Looking forward to this.

Michelle: Hello 🙂

ModKathryn: Could you tell us a little bit about your research?

Michelle: Sure – I do research on thinking and reasoning skills and how that affect learning, especially science. Most of my work includes executive functions (broadly defined) or causal reasoning

Carolina: My research focuses on learning and memory effects – such as the distributed practice effect – that enhance memory performance and that can be applied to educational settings. I’m also interested in the effects of sleep on memory.

ModKathryn: @Michelle interesting! Could you define executive functions for us?

Michelle: Not everyone agrees on a definition of executive functions (EF), but I like to think of them as the higher-order thinking skills that help us complete tasks. They include things like inhibitory control (ignoring distractors), working memory (holding things in mind while you work with them) and cognitive flexibility (seeing things in multiple ways or being able to switch between tasks). Broader definitions include things like meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) or self-regulation (keeping oneself on task).

Michelle: I got interested in desirable difficulties through my work in cognitive flexibility, or more specifically task switching, which overlaps a lot with the idea of interleaving learning

ModKathryn: @Carolina great! Is the distributed practice effect similar to spaced learning?

Carolina: Yes, it’s the same, but I prefer to use distributed practice as term.

ModKathryn: @Carolina ahh I see! So what is the distributed practice effect?

Carolina: In research we use the term distributed practice when we don’t want to distinguish between spacing effect (comparing a massed learning schedule with a non-massed one) and lag effect (comparing between lags of different nonzero lengths). Spacing effect = Massed versus some kind of spacing; Lag effect = short lags versus long lags between sessions; distributed practice = general term for both

ModKathryn: @Efrat Welcome! What are you working on?

Efrat: I work with teachers and lecturers, on translating research finding and implementing learning and teaching strategies

ModKathryn: All sounds really interesting and has lots of application to learning and the topic this week

Abena: I’m really grateful to have learned about spacing from sites such as this bringing research to teachers. Love cerego app for that reason. Has really helped me learn psychology concepts. Are there any others that can calculate practice in that way?

Carolina: @Abena What is cerego?

Abena: – it calculates the spaces between presenting you with questions in sets of 25.

Carolina: @Abena Interesting. Will check this out. Thanks.

Abena: Increases the spacing over time until you hit mastery, when you revisit annually. Know of any other such apps or tools? Or even advice about scheduling to do it manually?

Michelle: @Abena – wow, I hadn’t realised that something like that existed.

Carolina: Does it cost anything?

Efrat: there’s anki….do you know it? is it similar?

Abena: Not for the students; students can create their own sets.

Michelle: @Abena – what subjects have you used it for? (does it work for all subjects/topics or just some?)

Abena: But I think Anki is without timings, right?

Abena: It works for discrete items that you can question and have simple answers. It (mostly) presents multiple choice tho sometimes gap fill. I use it for psychology as the instructors on my course (via Saylor Academy) created the sets.

Efrat: it has timing, depending on correctness, or you can decide

Abena: Maybe the reason I rejected Anki was the self-authoring necessary at the time. May use in the future.

Efrat: duolingo also works similarly for languages, and the details of the algorithm is indeed interesting. there is also @Smartick to teach kids math

Abena: Has anyone any practical steps / guides when it comes to implementing spaced practice or other memory-related approaches? Would love to hear more about task-switching e.g. time frames

Carolina: I think the most important step for implementing spaced practice is to do planning beforehand. To plan when you are going to revisit previously learned material. I think using an expanding learning schedule is a good idea for long-term maintenance of knowledge.

Abena: @Carolina Is there a recommended time structure for this?

Michelle: @Carolina – what role do you think the planning plays?

Carolina: Expanding schedule meaning that you start with shorter lags between study sessions and increase them over time. I have my students take out their calendars and determine when they are going to revisit material taught in lectures. To make sure they revisit material continuously and not wait until the last week before the exam. Plus, I try to use spaced retrieval by adding questions during a lecture that covers older material and have them make connections between the current lecture and one taught 3 weeks ago.

ModKathryn: Teachers – what do you find works best in your classroom?

Abena: I’ve seen a rise in popularity of ‘knowledge organisers’. MCS Brent school which is achieving amazing things academically uses them as the core of homework for self-quizzing.

Efrat: Another way is to give a short quiz at the begining of the lesson – with question going back e.g. last lesson, last week, last month etc… then decide when to re-test according to responses

Abena: Some helpful teachers have started compiling them for different subjects here:

Carolina: That’s a great idea too. What is this exactly, @abena?

Efrat: I think that they teach students to quiz themselves using the knowledge organizers..?

Abena: KOs are (usually) 1-page summaries of the key concepts for a topic. The idea is teachers create them to distill the absolute core of a unit of study. That is what ss should remember long-term. MCS revisits the content between different years from Y7 right up to GCSE and beyond.

Carolina: Oh, just to say something about today’s topic \”making learning difficult\”: this can be misleading. You want to avoid making learning too difficult actually because this would undermine that students learn at all. What you want is to hit the sweet spot when it comes to difficulty..making the learning challenging, but not impossible.

Abena: @Carolina Isn’t it just another way of talking about the ZPD – challenge but not impossible?

Carolina: Yes, that’s a good connection actually, abena

Efrat: Yes, I think it is a similar idea in different terms

Abena: In terms of the spaced practice, I’ve come round to the idea of multiple-choice quizzes now. As results can be quantified, it makes tracking what students are remembering/forgetting much easier. The challenge is creating good MCQs. I think that’s where collaboration is really helpful.

Michelle: @Abena – are short answer questions any good in this regard?

Abena: @Michelle Absolutely. But looking at the AP exam (that uses MCQs) it is possible to have longer ones too.

Carolina: Good MCQs are those that require the student to retrieve additional information in order to select the correct answer.

Abena: @Carolina What do you mean by ‘additional info’ please?

Carolina: Meaning that the student is required to retrieve why the alternatives are wrong and why the correct answer is the right one

Abena: @Carolina So the need for good (plausible) distractors you mean?

Carolina: @Abena Exactly!

Abena: @Carolina Good tip! 🙂

Helena: Hello all, joined a bit late.

Helena: About the MCQ’s. Yes, writing good ones is very hard. However, I often use this as an exercise for students. During study, get them to generate the questions and answers. Also feedback. This needs a number of metacognitive skills. So revisiting them

Abena: @Helena I think getting ss to produce their own mats as often as possible is desirable. I can see how knowing WHY an answer is correct would be powerful.

Abena: @Helena Do you find their MCQs are good quality? It’s such a difficult task even for teachers…

Helena: The point is not the quality, but the process of having to research the different answers. However, students can vote for good questions, you could get them to work together to make the questions better. The best ones then make it to the next year’s class.

Abena: @Helena Love that idea. Can’t wait to try this all out when back in the classroom. And good point about ‘the point’.  A fantastic ever-growing resource. With focus on students working for themselves, rather than teacher. A real gift for lifelong learning.

Helena: Exactly, and also co-created so students feel part of the process and take control of their own learning

Abena: @Helena You sound like my dream co-teacher. Any jobs going at your place!? What is your background by the way?

Helena: Well the not learning does not happen, the activity of creating learning materials for other students is a great leveller. As teachers we are often the experts, but expertise is not easy to impart. It takes practice. With peers is better than without

Abena: Like anything, introducing concepts like spaced practice or interleaving are probably most effective when done schoolwide. Teachers are so overwhelmed. Having colleagues to work with on might improve likelihood of the practice becoming part of the school culture. I think that’s why MCS Brent have had such surprising success given their location and intake. A whole school approach.

Mededtutor83: Hi all, I come from a higher education background, and teach students who are early in their transition into university learning

Abena: @mededtutor83 – hi! Is your role to help them with the transition?

Mededtutor83: One of the challenges I’m finding is getting students to buy into changing their study habits

Abena: @mededtutor83 Yep. Cramming feels more ‘satisfying’ somehow than the slow plod of spaced learning.

Efrat: There are very good reasons why cramming feels better (it is easy, rewarding and it is working – short term). I think that in order to support students we must start application in the classroom

Mededtutor83: Yes and they’ve got into uni in part, for many, by having crammed for their a levels and it’s paid off and got them the results to get into the degree

Abena: @mededtutor83 My biggest regret was I ‘learned’ nothing til after uni cos of cramming tho passed everything.

Mededtutor83: But that doesn’t now work as well for their uni exams…and they re failing

Carolina: Cramming can be very effective indeed – in the short term

Abena: @mededtutor83 I admit this to my ss and they take it on board when they see my genuine regret & hear how hard I had to work to compensate.

Medtutor83: And not surprisingly it’s not sticking….so it has repercussions for each subsequent exam that always revisits earlier stuff

Abena: @mededtutor83 Issue with modular exams though…

Medtutor83: They don’t have modular exams, they have main exams, one at the end of a semester that’s integrated covering all topics/units they have learnt and these are revisited again a year later

Abena: @mededtutor83 good structure – unfortunately not like that in all depts / unis. And maybe not their experience from the old GCSEs / A Levels

Abena: @mededtutor83 Tough wake-up call when they find it doesn’t work. Isn’t that when they accept the ideas you’re trying to impart?

Medtutor83: @Abena you’d hope so, but for too many it still doesn’t dawn on them! I restructured my entire unit, so it was delivered to encourage Retrieval practice, interleaving, spacing by the way I introduced, reintroduced and spaced cover the course..and I talked to them explicitly about why I was doing that and how I wanted

Abena: @mededtutor83 I guess they learn the hard way (or don’t as the case may be!)

Medtutor83: Absolutely!

Abena: @Carolina What about sleep? Anything that’s not intuitive that teachers could make use of?

Carolina: Yes. there is evidence that sleep slows down forgetting after you have learned new information. This is particularly true for fragile knowledge that was just acquired

Abena: @Carolina Does it matter when the sleep happens? e.g. learn just before sleep or just make sure you get enough?

Carolina: During sleep newly acquired memories are consolidated leading to a strengthening in the memory. It works best if sleep comes right after learning

Abena: @Carolina Good to know. Thanks!

Abena: @Michelle What is ‘causal reasoning’?

Michelle: @Abena – great question. Not quite related to today’s topic. Basically there is a big area in psychology that looks at how we make sense of causes and effects. And, at some level what questions we ask to figure out causes. There is a lot of data to suggest that we have some really good skills in this area (even from a young age) but that some things are hard for us to do. One example of the hard one is that it is difficult for us to link a cause and effect if they take place far apart in time.

Abena: @Michelle Interesting. Sounds like it could get quite philosophical!

Michelle: @Abena – yes there is a big overlap between causal reasoning research in psychology and scholarship in philosophy

Helena: We also have a bias toward seeing causal connections when there are none, this can be problematic in learning new skills when the task is underspecified. For instance it if feedback on what a person did well is not clear, they try to reason this out to try again. For this reason it is as equally important to give feedback on what went well and what can be improved

Janet: I’m interested in how you can do spaced learning, causal learning, higher performance learning etc in a class of very different abilities – has anyone got any good software/ideas to use

Abena: @Janet Helena’s idea of getting them to produce their own revision materials would be good for mixed ability. Or doing collaboratively in m.a. groupings?

Janet: The problem is if someone needs to check the accuracy of the work or if more scaffolding/less scaffolding is needed. Making links is difficult for some students without a lot more help.

Abena: @Janet If they are in m.a. groups, the checking should be built in. But you can always keep an eye if using tech e.g. Google Docs – check in anytime and even as they work.

Helena: Group work and problem or case based learning can work well. For mixed ability classes. Having tasks that need multiple people to contribute gives the opportunity to share out tasks according to ability

Abena: @Janet And if you can encourage a culture of question-asking, it makes struggling students difficulties a resource for the team to identify what gaps others might have too. I mean that when ‘weaker’ students ask questions, those are obviously key ones to include in any revision material. You could also ask ss to write all the questions they don’t know answers to and then portion them out to pairs / teams to create quizzes (for example).

Janet: Great ideas, thanks. Any ideas of how can you build long term recall and consolidation into this?

Abena: @Janet Google Docs would be a great way to (anonymously) capture these questions. Or lo-tech, slips of paper in a box. Use the quizzes regularly as starters or fillers. Mix it up through the year. Or be more systematic about what gets reviewed when, depending on needs of students. Plus you never have to set homework again – revision is their homework.

ModKathryn: Thank you all for an interesting conversation! I’ve learned a lot!

Janet: Thanks for the chat

Abena: Thank you everyone. Great ideas shared and I look forward to putting them into practice.

Michelle: Thanks everyone. I’ve really enjoyed this session tonight. One more next week 🙂

Carolina: thanks to all.. this was great!

Helena: Thanks all. Good questions!

Posted on June 8, 2018 by modkathryn in Live Chat Transcript.

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