Strategies for Effective Teaching and Learning

Paul Wieman, Upper School Principal

The entire RCDS faculty has been spending some time recently with Dr. Kevin Mattingly, an experienced educator and professor at the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College who is asking interesting questions about learning and memory. A few weeks back, Dr. Mattingly joined us for a faculty meeting in which he presented research-backed strategies for effective teaching and learning that we can apply in PreK through 12 classrooms. Just last night, Dr. Mattingly returned to campus for a dinner and discussion led by the RCDS Community of Innovative Teachers. While Dr. Mattingly has presented many suggestions helpful to our classroom teachers, I thought I would compile here some thoughts that our students might employ at home to improve their learning over time. Although this is a principal’s column designed for a readership of parents, I will share these thoughts with our student body as well.
1) Retrieval Practice:
Trying to remember what you know is a far more effective study strategy than re-reading notes or a textbook. But, “retrieval practice” is much harder, and consequently students often feel unmotivated to do it. Retrieval practice requires students to monitor their own learning and understanding by asking questions such as, “what are the three most important points my teacher emphasized today?” or, “could I explain this concept without looking at any reference?” The research makes it clear that students who quiz themselves without looking at their notes have far greater retention of material than those who simply re-read their notes.
2) Build on Prior Knowledge and Practice Metacognition:
The research shows us that students who monitor their own thinking - a practice known by the buzzword “metacognition” – have significantly higher recall in the long term. Learning is a simple process of adding new information to existing information. Just this week, there was an opinion piece in the NYTimes debunking reading comprehension as a skill that can be learned in a vacuum, rather revealing it as something that happens when prior knowledge of the subject exists. This can be done by taking a few minutes before reading an assignment to preview the assignment… for example, in a history text, look at the pictures, glance at the headings, focus on the title of the chapter… the students who do this have now developed some hooks upon which to hang the actual reading, and their recall is significantly higher, both the next day and a week later.
3) Space Practice:
Develop study guides for upcoming assessments as you go along through the unit. Maybe every other day or every third day write a few thoughts or questions down and compile them in one place. Or do this collectively with a couple of classmates on a google doc. The point is to revisit the material over a period of time; the science is that this moves the information from the short term memory to the long term memory, and once stored there, it is in a more stable position.

Spread out your studying over time. Four half hour study sessions over a few days is much better than a two hour-long cramming session. For the most part, our students know well in advance the date of a test, and while time management does not solve all issues, here is where time management will be tremendously useful.

Teachers also are building spacing into their teaching, interweaving concepts over the course of several weeks as opposed to covering one topic each day and moving onto the next. Think of how you learned anything that you now know deeply and enduringly – I guarantee that you learned it over the course of many “study” sessions as opposed to in one sitting. Long term learning requires a little bit of forgetting, then relearning, for it to stick over time.

4) Focus on Enduring Understanding and Long Term Retention:
Cramming works…sort of.  It actually is efficient to cram things into your head as you prep for a test, but the strategy backfires when you need to retrieve that same information two weeks later. It’s gone. So, as a strategy for a given test... it works, but it is ultimately inefficient as courses build on recall over time. For example, our calculus teachers note that the errors their students make are not in the calculus, but in the algebra. The calculus sits in the short term memory, and the students display full knowledge of the calculus on the test; for some students, the algebra never got into the long term memory sufficiently to support the calculus. So, in correcting a calculus test, more times than not the points are lost in the algebra needed for the solution, and not the recently learned calculus. And here's the rub...when these same students were learning algebra, to a great degree they learned the material, performed superbly on their tests, and even did a wonderful job on the exam. It's not about learning and knowing, it is about retention and retrieval. Think of language courses where the words and grammar are repeated over and over again, revisited daily in classes as students listen and talk in the target language. What is happening here is information is shifting from short term to long term, being recalled again and again (the opposite of cramming), and the information becomes retrievable over time. That does not mean everyone is acing their foreign language tests; what it means is by the end of the year, much has been learned and much can be retrieved.
5) Consolidate learning by sleeping.
Sleep. We all know this; sleep is not only restorative, but during sleep information gets consolidated and moved from one part of the brain to another. Staying up late may in fact not be the best strategy for learning everything; sleep adds to cognition and understanding.
Do I think all students will use all these strategies every day? I am more realistic than that, but here are some scientifically proven methods that improve learning over time and will work if employed regularly.
If this is interesting to you, here are a few resources you might consider looking into:

  1. Make it Stick
  2. The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact