Book Review: The New Science of Learning

New Science of LearningWe’ve talked previously about Classroom Assessment Techniques by Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross (here, here, and here), so I thought I’d post a review of another book:

Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek, The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, Stylus Publishing, 2013.

The New Science of Learning is a very concise and easy-to-read advice guide for undergraduates that is based on the findings of cognitive science research. I’ll be using it this fall in my first-year seminar. My hope is that it will help students, many of whom are not that well prepared for college, improve their academic performance. Here is one of the book’s authors speaking at Quinnipiac University, from the perspective of how to teach more effectively.

I’ve created these writing assignments that correspond to the chapters of the book:

  • Of the different practices that help people learn more effectively, which is the one that you currently use the least frequently? What would you need to change in your life so that you used it more frequently?
  • Think about the last three nights. How well did you sleep on each of these nights? What changes would enable you to sleep better? How can you implement these changes?
  • Thinks about the last three days. At what times were you physically active and for how long? How did your levels of mental alertness change during the day? Do you notice any pattern between physical activity and alertness?
  • Do you write notes by hand in your college courses? Do you annotate text that is assigned in these courses? Why? Given the benefits on learning of note-taking and annotating reading assignments, how well will you perform academically this semester? 
  • Describe an assignment in one of your courses this semester that reflects the pattern recognition principle of similarity/difference, proximity, figure-ground, or cause/effect. What is the assignment and how does it reflect the principle? What will be the effect on your understanding or memory of the material?
  • Name an activity in which you use either distributed practice or elaboration. What is a specific change that you can make in your daily behavior to better incorporate either one into your college experience?
  • What is your approach to failure? Do you embrace the possibility of it or try to avoid it at all costs? When you fail, what is your reaction? Based on your answers to these questions, do you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset toward learning? Why?
  • Do you engage in task shifting? When? What is a specific change that you can make in your daily behavior to reduce task shifting?

Puncturing the Balloon of Self-Ignorance with CATS

Balloon CatMichelle’s recent post on classroom assessment techniques got me curious enough to look for the book she referenced, Classroom Assessment Techniques, by Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. Conveniently our Center for Teaching and Learning had a copy that I was able to borrow.

My first reaction was “Why isn’t this book mandatory reading for every doctoral student in the country?” It’s a very practical guide for learning how to measure one’s own teaching effectiveness. As a first step in doing this, I took the book’s Teaching Goals Inventory, a simple survey that allows a college instructor to identify his or her personal teaching goals. The inventory enabled me to examine, in the context of one course that I am currently teaching, why I choose to do some things in the classroom but not others — in other words, what are the benefits that I think students should get from taking this course?

The questions are organized into six clusters:

  • Higher-order thinking skills
  • Basic academic success skills
  • Discipline-specific knowledge and skills
  • Liberal arts and academic values
  • Career preparation
  • Personal development

My inventory results were a surprise. The cluster in which I ranked the highest number of goals as “essential” was personal development, not something I had consciously considered to be extremely important given the topic of the course. These goals were “develop respect for others,” “develop capacity to think for one’s self,” and “develop capacity to make wise decisions.” However, higher-order thinking skills was the goal cluster with the highest average score. Broadly speaking, the inventory shows that for this particular course, I want students to develop their higher-order thinking skills so that they can become better decision makers.

The next step is for me to investigate whether the way I teach this course is actually effective at helping students achieve these goals. The book contains numerous techniques for doing just that, and I’m going to experiment with some of them. I’ll report on what I discover in a future post.

#postscript: one example is at

Teaching as a risky business

One of the very best things about working in Political Science is that almost everything can have a political angle, which in turn gives me an excuse to indulge my very catholic and eclectic tastes. An example of this turned up in the Guardian yesterday, with an interview with Gerd Gigerenzer on the occasion of his new book on risk.

The thrust of the piece wasn’t about politics or politicians, but about the way people make decisions in an illogical way. I’m always happy to stick the boot into rational choice, but it’s even better when there’s an alternative way to construct such behaviour.Gerd Gigerenzerger: 'We can teach kids to understand risk.'

Gigerenzer argues a lot for the importance of heuristics, short-cuts in understanding that provide ‘good enough’ answers, if not ‘perfect’ ones. Such satisficing is different from the Kahnemann System approach in that it doesn’t assume the rational approach is necessarily more efficient or effective. Thus, experts in a given field often can ‘see’ an answer in an intuitive way, in an extension of fuzzy-trace theory. Basically, Gladwell’s Blink, but with proper scientific underpinning.

This is interesting in all sorts of ways, but let’s confine ourselves to teaching for now. Gigerenzer’s emphasis on intuition is potentially very problematic, for it asks that we defer to expertise (as being likely ‘right’) and that this does not need to be unpacked (instead one becomes an expert), which rather goes against the grain of much education.

Even in an active learning scenario, the capacity to internalise knowledge and practice does not necessarily have to be matched by an ability to explain (which might be an issue come assessment time), while satisficing suggests that we have to be prepared to accept a wider variety of acceptable responses to challenges. Certainly, in many universities the idea that one should not push for maximising behaviour causes difficulties when looking for the best student assessment outcomes.

However, Gigerenzer does offer an important dimension that we need to consider in our teaching.

Firstly, it reminds us that people are not rational. That’s important for our subject area: why do politicians make ‘bad’ decisions? But it’s also important for our students and ourselves: everyone is likely to go for ‘good enough’ behaviour, so how do we make the situation require that such behaviour is of a sufficient standard?

Secondly, it emphasises the vital importance of critical thinking. Without a strong grounding in such basic techniques, students will not be able to depend that ability to intuitively grasp and conceptualise what they are presented with and make an appropriate judgement. Such skills become then not transferable, but universal.

Thirdly, it reminds us that understanding is as important as knowledge. Facts and figure – the old learning-by-rote method – are meaningless without an ability to use them. This goes beyond critical thinking, into the development of a world-view and models of conceptualisation. These can then receive new knowledge and join it to what it already there.

In short, people are sense-making creatures, even if that sense is not quite ‘right’, so it is incumbent upon us to help students develop their sense as far as we can.

Global to Local with Podcasts

Homer CakeI recently stumbled across Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning, by Drs. Joshua Farley and Jon D. Erickson of the University of Vermont and Dr. Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland (Island Press, 2005). The book begins with the premise that current social and environmental problems “require armies of independent-minded, collaborative, and passionate problem-solvers, not more Jeopardy champions” (p. xii). Unfortunately, educational systems are typically organized to deliver knowledge as isolated packets that, once encountered, can safely be forgotten. Students infrequently learn how to collaborate, much less apply different types of knowledge in an integrative fashion.

Problem solving often requires that one be aware of and be interested in how problems manifest themselves differently across different temporal or physical dimensions. I find this to be exceedingly difficult to teach to U.S. undergraduates, but I’ve found public TV and radio to be helpful. For example, when looking at environmental change in the context of economic development, I might assign stories about:

These podcasts, videos, and interactive online features are timely and serve as localized examples of global processes that would otherwise remain vague and of no real concern for many students. Also the content is in a novel format, at least in terms of what usually is assigned to students, which gets their attention.

True and Useful

I recently reviewed Teaching Politics and International Relations, edited by Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Simon Lightfoot. The book is an interesting discussion of the need for studies of the study of politics to determine what should be taught; specific teaching, assessment, and mentoring techniques; and the pedagogical rationales for employing those techniques. Overall I got the impression that political scientists in the UK are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in examining these subjects. My full review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Political Science Education.

The book, in conjunction with a curricular review process that is now occurring at my university, reminded me that our teaching is usually predicated on an assumption that we are providing something that is true, useful, and therefore important to students. This assumption is often false. Some of what we teach may be true but not particularly useful, such as the effect of zero gravity on a cat. At other times we might get so excited about teaching what we think is useful that we overlook the fact that there’s not much evidence that it’s true — the equivalent of habitually saying “those pants do not make your butt look fat.”

Why does this matter? Can’t we continue to teach the non-useful or the non-true, as long as we get the other half right? The problem is that usually what is untrue turns out not to be very useful, and vice versa. Academics, who are supposedly trained to think well and should therefore know better, often fall into this trap, as this column on teaching philosophy points out. When our debates about what should be taught and how are based on false premises, we do a disservice to our students and in the end make ourselves less and less relevant.