Sunday, September 26, 2010

Response to "Introducing Difficulty in Learning"

I've only finished reading the first portion so this may be premature but I wanted to share my initial thoughts.

As is noted, the greater the difficulty to overcome the greater the long term retention. The part that is most integral to me is the need to find, in the words of theorist Lev Vygotsky, the "Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)."

If its too challenging retention will not exist because they will give up before success. There is quite a bit of research that has shown that success begets success and failure begets failure. It becomes a snowball effect that is likely further reinforced by the cognitive factors (see Aaron Beck's theories) surrounding failure.

With that said, I would agree wholeheartedly with the concept of novel and varied learning activities and assessments for the very reasons noted. Furthermore, it allows for not only greater long-term retention but greater generalizability of the concepts learned.

These ideas are further reinforced by brain research which suggests (in a simplistic explanation) that the more the brain is involved the greater the retention. By varying the methods used new neural connections are being created and strengthened.

As I first read the "Feedback" portion my gut reaction was, WHAT?! My initial thought was that the majority of students will become overwhelmed by the novelty we're creating without feedback and be likely to fail.

But as I've re-read it I believe the initial concept is relevant with a bit of a caveat.

Feedback is required for a couple of reasons:

1. It allows learners to understand if they are correct or incorrect and why.

2. It allows learners to make leaps in understanding that they otherwise would not make.

With that said, constant and consistent feedback becomes a reinforcer and an expectation. Learners rely on the feedback rather than challenging themselves to think critically and creatively and to search for answers that may not be intuitive. So, tapered and intermittent feedback will likely be more successful assuming it is provided at relevant times.

This is a larger problem with the current K-12 system and the idea of "teaching to the test" (this may be a whole other discussion for another time). It has become a problem at the college level as learners have had 12+ years of conditioning that we have to try to break down in a semester or two.

I recently sent out some early semester surveys to get feedback on my own teaching style. The area students felt I needed to improve on was in providing them with more "feedback" on what exactly to know. While this feedback was provided by a minority of the students overall it was a common theme that further emphasizes the conditioned expectation of "tell me what I need to know for the test so I can show you I know it and forget it."

While the corporate world is significantly more varied than education this is still commonplace in the traditional training methods. For example: Joe is a new employee who needs to learn his task on the assembly line. We model these steps for Joe, have him perform them and then provide him with a detailed set of instructions that is always visible for him to refer back to. Joe will retain the information because of the repetition and because he always has "feedback" (his cheat sheet) available but he will not understand the information or be able apply it or to generalize it when novel situations arise.

This lends a greater question - what do we want from our learners or trainees? Or in other words, what do we want them to get out of this educational experience? I asked a group of educators to reflect on this question in a Teaching Methods course I was instructing this weekend.

For some, these traditional methods make sense. These educators would answer in somewhat the following ways: I need them to memorize the parts of the body, to memorize these rules, to be able to do this task just as we have laid it out for them.

This allows for structure and control but removes any opportunity for innovation, creativity and the room for improvement. It's become a cultural expectation in the K-12 system and in many workplaces.

John Dewey spent most of his life exploring and experimenting on these concepts in education. How can we create relevant and active learning that is consistently novel and immediately relevant to the students interests and needs? He may not have found the exact answers but he did present many of these ideas.

So, my question is how do we use this understanding to change the culture of education to be focused on long term retention rather than the current system of immediate gratification?

What do you think?



  1. Trey,

    You have so many wonderful insights in this post. Where to start.

    I like the question that you posed to the participants in your Teaching Methods class, “What do you want your learners to get out of the class?” This is a hugely important question to get our head around as a teacher. I think the initial answers that you stated Trey “I need them to memorize the parts of the body, to memorize these rules, to be able to do this task just as we have laid it out for them,” beg follow-up questions. For example, we might ask the faculty member why the parts of the body need to be memorized. Further probing may get to a more long-term goal, to uses of that knowledge beyond the classroom and in real world situations. The learner really does need to know more than how to do the task exactly the way it is laid out if the learner is going to be able to apply this information in a real-world setting that differs from the conditions of training and after periods of disuse.

    I too am wrestling with introducing difficulty in the learning process and then gauging what might be too difficult resulting in the learner giving up. It seems like creating an environment where mistakes are welcomed and an important part of the learning process rather than avoiding mistakes at all costs is very important. I like the point the Bjork makes about how our learners should be more concerned by the lack of mistakes and difficulties when they are involved in a substantial learning experience (pg 201). I don’t think this is the typical mindset and will require some work to change.

    I agree Trey, I have also been thinking hard about what Bjork is saying about how providing consistent feedback can actually interfere with long term memory acquisition. His argument does make sense. Continuous feedback can serve as a crutch, as you say, and provide a false sense of ability. Bjork also says that “errors and confusion caused during training due to spaced practice, infrequent feedback, and variations in the task or task environment can lead trainees to underestimate their own state of learning and comprehension” (pg 196). This lead me to see the importance of developing self-assessment skills.

    Lots to think about.


  2. The portion on challenge and failure reminded me a lot of Caine and Caine's work on Relaxed Alertness. Challenge the students but have a warm and welcoming environment where it's okay to make mistakes as long as we learn from them.

    The research has been focusing on reducing stress in students but the reality is rather than reduce it we should be creating the correct type. Stress increases memory as is noted with the need to introduce difficulty but if it becomes overwhelming and consistent learned helplessness develops.

    It's important to note that there is really no perfect amount as each student is different.

    I'm seeing a student whose had nothing but success struggle now because I am challenging her to think deeper. It's not that she's being told she's wrong but rather I see so much potential that I want to take her learning to the next level but because she's never had to do this before and never had to cope with the challenge and stress that surrounds this level of learning I can see frustration setting in.

    Emotional intelligence, dedication and flexibility - integral tools to make sure you challenge individually but do not overwhelm.


  3. Trey,

    Interesting comment about your student. You described her as "having only seen success." It reminds me of what Bjork says about creating the kind of environment where mistakes are welcomed. In fact if we are learning something significant and not making mistakes we should be suspicious. I think it is more natural or common to want to avoid mistakes than to welcome them. Changing that mindset in this student and many others will take some work. What do you think?

  4. Beth,

    I totally agree that it is easier to avoid mistakes than to learn from them. This is further reinforced by parents, teachers and employers who want results. They care about the ends and not the means that get us there. As educators we have the opportunity to work with both the means and the ends.