Episode 58: Six Learning Strategies You MUST Share with Your Students

The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 58 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, host


 

Teachers, I have two questions for you:

  1. Have you ever told your students to study for a test?
  2. Have you ever actually taught your students how to study?

My guess is that most of you will answer yes to the first question and no to the second. Every teacher I ever had would answer the same. And based on what I’m seeing with my own kids, not much has changed.

It turns out studying can be taught. There are specific, research-based methods for learning and studying information, and if we can get a handle on those methods, then teach them to our students, they stand a much better chance of actually learning and remembering our material.

In this episode, I interview Yana Weinstein and Megan Smith, cognitive psychological scientists who have done a lot of research on how people learn. With their new website, The Learning Scientists, Weinstein and Smith are on a mission to teach students how to learn better. In our interview, they explain six strategies students can immediately start applying to their studies. I want teachers to know about these strategies for two reasons: First, I think these would be great techniques for you to teach your students to use. Even if you have taken a stab at showing your students how to study, I’m betting there’s something in this episode you didn’t know, so you can teach them even better ways of learning on their own.

The second reason is this: All of these are methods you can actually apply to your teaching as well. They are things you can do when you’re delivering and reinforcing your content that will actually help your students learn it better.

Now we’re going to be covering a lot of information in this episode, and I’m positive it’s stuff you’re going to want to write down. But you don’t have to. If you go to cultofpedagogy.com/pod and click on episode 58, you’ll be taken to a blog post with all the main points we cover here, plus a link to the Learning Scientists site, where you can download a whole bunch of free materials that explain these techniques in simple language.

Before I play the interview, I’d like to thank the sponsor of this episode, mysimpleshow. Mysimpleshow is this really cool online tool that allows you to create your own animated videos for free. It’s so easy, and so fast: You can either upload your own PowerPoint and let the tool extract the most relevant information to form your script, or you can write your script from scratch using their templates. Whichever option you choose, mysimpleshow then finds images to match your text, which you can fine-tune until you’re content with the video. It would be perfect for flipping your classroom or having students create their own videos. To learn more and try your first video, visit mysimpleshow.com.

I also want to thank everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. The more positive reviews a podcast gets, the more likely iTunes is to show it to new listeners, so you’re really helping me out when you do that. If you enjoy this podcast and haven’t written a review, I’d be grateful if you took a few minutes to do that.

Now let’s talk with Yana Weinstein and Megan Smith to learn about these fantastic, research-based learning strategies.

GONZALEZ: So you two have a website called learningscientists.org.

WEINSTEIN: We do, yes.

GONZALEZ: And am I correct? I read your story just a few minutes ago. Did you actually meet on Twitter or did you know each other before that?

WEINSTEIN: We did know each other before. So Megan and I were both at Washington University in St. Louis at different stages of our career. I was doing a post-doc and Megan was doing her master’s at the time. So we knew each other from then, but we hadn’t really been in touch that much until this January when I started randomly tweeting at students on Twitter to help them with their studying, because that’s kind of my field of research, but I had never really gone out there and talked to random people about it. But I decided it would be funny to do that on Twitter. And then Megan, do you want to take over from here?

SMITH: Yeah, so I was creating a new Twitter persona as a professor and trying to create an assignment for my students in cognitive psychology where they would find articles and tweet them. I was really trying to get them used to explaining psychological research for people who weren’t in the field. And the assignment was a slight disaster. But in the process, Yana and I connected again, and I saw what she was doing and kind of started joining in and said, “Well we should have a hashtag.” And then I realized if my account is flooded with all of this stuff, my students are going to get confused, so I said maybe we should have our own Twitter handle just for this, and that’s where “ace that test” came from.

GONZALEZ: So the handle and now your own Twitter account is @acethattest or #acethattest.

WEINSTEIN: Yeah. So it became quickly just specifically the Twitter account @acethattest rather than the hashtag.

GONZALEZ: OK.

WEINSTEIN: And then what happened was that very soon after that, Megan’s now-fiance, is a communication expert. He was doing his master’s in strategic communication. And he said to us, “Look, you guys can’t just have a Twitter account. That’s not enough. You have to do more than that.” And so he suggested that what we needed to do was to create a blog. And at first, our reaction was, whoa, a blog? That sounds like a lot of work. We haven’t really done that before. We don’t know what we’re doing. But once we started doing it, it kind of almost naturally became this routine for us where we published three blog posts a week. We had one that we write, and then a guest blog, so the guest blogs come from teachers, from students, from other researchers. And then on a Sunday we put together a digest of resources on a particular topic that we might not necessarily be experts in, but there are resources out there that are also open access that others can read.

GONZALEZ: Wonderful. I’m so excited to see your site, because there’s so much knowledge in academia, and I feel like most of the people in academia are still only circulating that information within academia. And so it’s not reaching practitioners, and it’s not reaching sort of your average person who’s just looking for information online. It’s locked in JSTOR, and it’s locked in, and it’s also not very digestible. And so this model that you all have, I think it’s something that so many people in higher education could be doing with whatever it is they’re learning, they could be translating that for, you know, mass consumption. So it’s an exciting site. And one of the things that you all share on the site are these six learning strategies. Let me pull it up so I can see the actual name. Yes, Six Strategies for Effective Learning. So before we go into the actual strategies, just tell us a little bit about what these are and why people, why teachers in particular, should know about these.

SMITH: The reason we picked these six strategies is in part because all six of these have a fair amount of evidence from cognitive psychology, but really the idea came from this recent report. And the report, the link is on our website, it goes through teacher training textbooks. So college students who are in school to become teachers, it goes through their textbooks and looks for strategies, among other things, that the future teachers could be learning to help teach their students in order for them to learn. And the report found that many, many textbooks didn’t have any of these strategies.

GONZALEZ: Shocking.

SMITH: Yeah. Very few had … Yana would probably remember this statistic better. Very few had even one, I think.

WEINSTEIN: Yeah. And none of them had all six. So the six were selected based on a review of the literature 10 years ago now. There was a few things that have changed, so we updated the way we represented some of the strategies based on more recent literature, but 10 years ago, this big report came out saying, “These are the six strategies that should be taught,” and then this textbook report that Megan mentioned, which just came out this year, looked at whether any of these were taught, and the answer is basically no. Yeah, so I think even when the textbooks do cover them it’s, at most, a few lines. They were being really liberal with how they classified “covering.”

SMITH: Yeah. So we thought well we need to fill this gap. If there’s something we can do to fill the gap, that would be great, and so we tried to create materials that we could aim at mainly high school and college students, but also teachers from younger children all the way up through high school and college, so that they could learn about the strategies in a very brief way, in a way that’s informative and more digestible, and we wanted to make them open access.

GONZALEZ: And I’m looking at them right now, and you’ve got, they’re fantastic, because you’ve got a really nice sort of infographic that makes it easy to understand, and then you’ve got supplementary videos and sort of downloads for each one of the individual strategies, so that it is very digestible. And so just so that the people listening understand what it is exactly we’re talking about, these are … it seems like these could serve two purposes. These are things that students themselves could learn to do to basically learn and study better. And I mean, I have my own kids will get sent home saying, “Study for the history test tomorrow,” and I know that they don’t even know what that means. And so these are things students can do to learn better, but they’re also practices that teachers could be incorporating in their own instruction to help their students actually absorb the material better. So it’s sort of twofold. Does that sound right?

WEINSTEIN: Yeah. So in a way what we’re hoping is that teachers will incorporate them into their teaching, and then they can say, “Hey look. I’ve been using this strategy with you to teach, and now you can do it at home as well, and it’s going to be effective.” So that’s one way for it to work. Another way is if a teacher’s not teaching, the students on their own can do that as well. It’s pretty flexible. And it should work both in the classroom and out of the classroom.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I’d love to see these six terms actually make it more into the vocabulary of teachers talking to each other and to their students, even, telling them to do more interleaving at home and to do more spaced practice and to, you know, we’re going to get into them now. Let’s go ahead and start so that everybody listening knows what we’re actually talking about. Either one of you want to start? And you can go ahead, and let’s start with the first strategy.

1. Spaced Practice

WEINSTEIN: Sure. I’ll take that one. This is spaced practice. So the idea behind spaced practice is probably fairly familiar to some students and teachers. It’s the idea that “cramming” doesn’t work. So the thing is when you say to students, “Cramming doesn’t work,” they’ll say, “Well yeah it does. I crammed for an exam and I did fine.” Here’s what happens with cramming. You learn the information quickly, and then you forget it just as quickly as you learned it. So if you stay up all night before an exam cramming, you might do fine on that exam, but then, you know, that information is not going to be available to you next time when you’re trying to learn more complicated information in the next class, or if you have a cumulative final you have to relearn it all over again.

So what we recommend instead is what’s called spaced practice, where you break up that studying that you might do at the end right before an exam, and you space it out across a number of days or even weeks or months, and so then you’re doing a little bit at a time, and it all adds up, and what happens is that every time you leave a little space, you forget a bit of the information, and then you kind of relearn it, because that forgetting actually helps you to strengthen the memory, OK? So it’s kind of counterintuitive, but you need to forget a little bit in order to then help yourself learn it by remembering again.

So if the people listening are looking at the posters, I don’t know if they can access learningscientists.org/spaced-practice, there’s a little picture that shows if you’re studying, you could look at information that you learned from class that day but also you could look at something from yesterday, from a week ago, and maybe even a month ago, so that you’re not just studying the information that you learned most recently. So that’s how you could incorporate spacing. What we also recommend is that teachers help students by helping them create a sort of calendar of studying of sorts. The thing about spacing is that it’s not something you can just suddenly decide to do the day of the exam, or the day before the exam, because it’s too late to space. So it’s something that does require advance planning. So what teachers can definitely help students do is develop a plan. So, for example, if they have a particular class on a Monday and Wednesday, maybe on Tuesday and Thursday they review the information from that class, and then not only review information from that class, but also some of the important points from previous classes. So that’s how spacing would be incorporated into studying.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. The suggestions for practice are excellent, because the teacher can even … There’s such a metacognitive level to all of this. I think if the teacher explains to the students what they’re actually doing and said, “I’m going to now go back and review a little bit from what we talked about last week. This is spaced practice.” And I love the idea of teachers helping students actually plan out a study schedule so that they start to understand, because even if one teacher, let’s say in a kid’s ninth-grade classroom, does that, none of their other teachers ever have to do it. If that kid really gets the concept, they can continue to do that for themselves then.

WEINSTEIN: Right, exactly. So there’s two levels, again, as you mentioned before, this is something that a teacher could do by bringing in previous information. It’s also something the students could do alone. Another great way to introduce spacing is for teachers to simply give homework not on today’s topic but on a mixture of topics from the past, so that then students are having to review their information. If they do homework. I know that homework is a particularly contentious issue at the moment, but maybe in high school …

GONZALEZ: Well and if it’s presented this way, you know, you’re practicing some of the things that we’ve done. And if it serves that purpose it would make a whole lot of sense to students and their parents. OK, so that is spaced practice. That’s the first one. What’s next?

2. Retrieval Practice

SMITH: So retrieval practice is next. This is my absolute favorite study strategy.

GONZALEZ: Me too.

SMITH: The idea behind retrieval practice is that you need to put your class materials away, and then write out or maybe sketch or speak everything you know and try to be as thorough as possible, and then check your materials for accuracy. So the idea is that you’re bringing information to mind almost like you’re testing yourself, though it can be a practice test. It doesn’t have to be. You can just sort of go through and explain what you know or, you know, or teach a friend or a pet or even an inanimate object everything that you learned in school. And by bringing that information to mind, you’re changing the way that information is stored so that it’s easier for you to get to later on. And so one way teachers can help with this is is by asking students to put their materials away and explain to each other or maybe giving low stakes quizzes or little brief tests spaced out throughout the semester or school year. And parents can actually help their children with this as well by just asking, “Hey, what did you learn in school today?” And the parent doesn’t really even need to totally understand or engage with that conversation as long as the child is explaining what they learned, that’s actually helping them after school remember the information.

GONZALEZ: One of the things we did last summer, we did a study of the book “Make It Stick,” and so anybody who did that with us would be familiar with a lot of these concepts, but one of the things we talked about is how so many students think they’re studying by staring at the textbook, by rereading and rereading. And so this kind of ties into what Yana was just saying with the first one about having some desirable difficulty in getting that material back up to your short-term memory, that difficulty is actually what’s helping you to learn better. So the idea of putting the materials away is a better study practice than having them sit in front of you all the time and just staring at the material that’s right there.

SMITH: Yeah, and this is a common theme throughout these strategies that it may seem more difficult than some other things that maybe seem easier, make you feel good, but at the end of the day, that’s what’s helping you learn. Metacognitively, a lot of the things that make us feel good, make us feel like we’re learning really well aren’t actually helping you as much as you think. So one of the benefits of retrieval is that when you then make a judgment of how well you’ve learned something, you’re more accurate than if you just repeatedly read, because that repeated reading drives up your confidence, but doesn’t drive up how well you’ve learned something.

GONZALEZ: That’s an excellent point. I’ve interpreted using flashcards to be a kind of retrieval practice. Is that correct?

SMITH: It is. One thing that students need to be careful of when they use flashcards is that they’re actually retrieving the answer. I tell my students that they should not even flip the card until they’ve gone through all of the cards, and then go through and look at the other side, because a lot of times what happens is they’ll look at the question, and the question seems familiar, and they have a fuzzy idea of the answer, and so they think, “Oh, yeah, I got it,” and then they flip, and they go, “Yep. That’s it,” and move on. But that’s not really retrieving. That’s just sort of … I’m not even sure what that is. It’s kind of rereading but with some flipping of sorts. And so we recommend that you really go through and retrieve the information. For more complex materials, we also have a blog post about using flashcards in a creative way where you grab a topic card from one pile and maybe an action card from another pile. The action cards might say, “Come up with an example,” or “Pick two and explain how they’re similar,” “Pick two and explain how they’re different.” And so in that way you’re really switching up what you’re doing and forcing yourself to retrieve the information, and in a more meaningful way, not just rote memorization.

GONZALEZ: How soon … I’m imagining that two-card thing where we’re kind of bringing them together in a new way. At what point does the person then set those two cards down and go to the textbook and check to see how accurate? Is it important to go and do that fairly quickly?

WEINSTEIN: I would say the research on that is really, really mixed.

GONZALEZ: OK.

WEINSTEIN: There’s honestly research on both sides. So some says immediate feedback is better. Some says delayed feedback is better. So I would say that the most important thing is just that at some point they do get feedback, but the exact timing of when they get it is not really … well we don’t know the answer to that yet. So just at some point they should look back and correct any errors that they have. But it doesn’t have to be necessarily immediate.

SMITH: And they need to make sure that by looking at the answers and giving themselves feedback they’re not sort of short circuiting the retrieval practice they’re doing. They’re giving themselves a chance to really try to retrieve as much as they can and make those connections, bring the information to mind, and then take a look to see what might be missing.

GONZALEZ: OK. So it’s important to have a little bit of space between the retrieval and the confirmation of whether or not you were right?

WEINSTEIN: Otherwise it risks just being reading, that feels like retrieval kind of what Megan was describing with the flipping of the card, “Oh yeah, I just retrieved it.”

GONZALEZ: Got it.

WEINSTEIN: To avoid that, it’s better to leave a space just to make sure that you are really retrieving.

GONZALEZ: OK. Anything else on retrieval practice?

WEINSTEIN: I would say that, you know, retrieval practice kind of comes up in a lot of the other strategies as well. It’s a good kind of overall way to study, regardless of what specifically you’re doing, if that makes sense.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. It does. OK. Strategy No. 3.

3. Elaboration

SMITH: Yes. This one is elaboration, and more specifically, elaborative interrogation, because elaboration as a term can just mean a lot of different things, but the specific elaborative interrogation has a fair amount of evidence from cognitive psychology. So the idea behind this is that you need to ask yourself questions while you’re studying about how and why things work. So in our video, we used the example of World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. If you’re studying that particular topic in a history class or whatever, you might ask yourself, “Well why did this attack happen? And how exactly did it happen?” Listing off the various time points leading up to it, anything that you can really think of, and then, you know, “What were the results of this? How did this relate to other events?” Asking yourself all of these questions, and then looking in your class materials to find the answers or discussing them with your classmates or your teacher. So the idea is that you’re making connections, right? So doing this helps you connect different ideas, and you can do that explicitly, take two ideas and explain how they’re similar. Take two ideas, explain how they’re different. As long as you’re making sure that you’re then looking in your materials and really making sure that you’re accurate, and then, of course, like with every strategy as Yana mentioned, you want to work your way up to the point where you can describe and explain these things on your own with the class materials put away. So basically working your way up to retrieval practice.

GONZALEZ: I can see how teachers could build this in very easily to their instruction into class time. It almost, it’s funny, because in sort of, like, K-12 classrooms we always have this time where the students want to pack up their materials and get ready to go to the next class, and we tell them to stay still. This type of thing seems like it would be perfect for letting everybody go ahead and pack everything up, having them sit, and then spend the last few minutes of class doing this kind of stuff, where it’s like they don’t even have access to their things, and you can do elaboration and retrieval practice, and those kinds of things in those last few minutes.

SMITH: Yeah, and we should mention too we have these materials aimed at students and briefly for teachers. We also worked with a couple individuals who run Train Visual. Yana, is that a name that people would now?

WEINSTEIN: Mmhmm. That’s correct.

SMITH: HOW2s. And we’ve been creating HOW2s with Train Visual, so that they’re available for free on their website, and the six strategies will always remain free, giving more detailed explanations about how teachers, specifically primary teachers, could integrate these into their classroom. I just thought of it, because the elaboration one just came out. We’re releasing them one at a time.

GONZALEZ: Oh. Very nice. We’ll make sure that we provide a link to that site so people can find those really easily. Great.

WEINSTEIN: Yeah. It’s teachinghow2s.com, with a No. 2, but I’m sure you’ll put that link in.

GONZALEZ: This will help people who are in their cars. Teachinghow2s.com.

WEINSTEIN: With a “2,” yeah.

GONZALEZ: So we have covered so far spaced practice, retrieval practice and elaboration. What is next?

4. Interleaving

WEINSTEIN: Next is interleaving. Now this one can be quite similar to spacing, in a way, but it’s a slightly different strategy. So the idea is that when you’re sitting down to study, and let’s say you’re doing some math problems. This is most highly applicable to subjects that have problems, like math, physics, but it can also be applied to others. So let’s say you’re doing a bunch of math problems. What’s fairly typical is that students will be doing the same type of math problem. They’ve just learned a particular strategy or a particular calculation or formula or whatever it is in class, and then they might be doing homework, and there’s five of the same problem, or 10 of the same problem. Interleaving would involve instead of doing that, trying different problems in different orders.

So right now I’m going to, let’s do simple, calculate the area of a square. Now I’m going to calculate the area of a circle, now triangle, instead of, like, 20 triangles. And so the thing about that is that as students are doing this, it’s actually harder. So they’ll be getting more wrong, they’ll be making more errors, but they’ll also be learning something very important, which is how to choose a particular strategy for each problem, as opposed to just repeatedly doing the same thing. The other thing that’s great about interleaving is that you can make connections between things. So, for example, now going away from math problems into something more sort of content-based rather than a calculation, if you’re studying related topics, instead of spending a whole hour on one topic, but you’re looking sort of a little bit at one topic, a little at another, you can start realizing that there are some similarities between the topics, and also some differences, and these realizations can help you learn the material more deeply. So by varying the order of the content you look at and not spending too long on one topic, you can actually increase the learning that happens in the long run.

GONZALEZ: This one is the one that I think probably teachers are going to feel the most resistant to, because what we’re told is that we want to build muscle memory in things or just that repetition is such a foundation of teaching. And I can remember going through Bloom’s taxonomy with somebody one time, and they were talking about how the more you repeat an action in a sequence, the lower it starts to go on Bloom’s taxonomy, because the thinking is no longer there. It just becomes a standard, like, application of a formula, for example. Whereas like in the example you gave, if they’re having to see something and decide what strategy to use, that’s a much more complex, cognitive act than just repeating a process, repeating a process over and over again.

SMITH: Right. And if you think about, you know, using these things in the real world, right? So an engineer who’s building something, they’re not just going to spend a whole day doing one type of problem, or at least not usually. A lot of times the problems they’re trying to solve vary, and they’re also going to have to pick the solution or the way that they’re going to try to solve each of these problems. And so in a way, it makes more sense — to me, anyway — to interleave, because part of getting the problem right is picking the right strategy on your own.

GONZALEZ: So if I’m a math teacher, and I’m actually teaching a new concept to my students, how would this look in class? If I’m teaching the area of a square, for example, and typically I’d show them how to do it, and then everybody would go off and do some practice problems. What would change if I wanted to incorporate more interleaving?

WEINSTEIN: So I think the really simple thing to do would just be to use that homework, like you said, or even class work with the students, as you said. Go away and practice 10 problems on the circle, or whatever you just taught them, whichever one you mentioned. You also include some other ones. So, you know, maybe there’s more of the one you just taught, so they get to practice that, but you still put in a few of the other ones that they’ve already learned in the past, so that they can see for themselves, “Oh, OK. So calculating a square is kind of like calculating a triangle, but … “ or whatever it is. At first it will shake them up. It’s definitely harder, and students probably won’t appreciate it, especially if they’re used to practicing the same thing over and over again, but this is where it’s important for the teachers to tell them, “It’s OK if you’re making mistakes on this, because then we can look at, you know, why you made that mistake and try to figure out what’s going on there,” and then that’s going to produce more learning. Again, it’s kind of a long-term gain and short-term pain thing.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

WEINSTEIN: And I think it’s just sort of normalizing that experience of something being hard and making errors, rather than just hoping to get 100 percent all the time, because you just get it right away, and you’re repeating it over and over again.

GONZALEZ: Right. I think that a lot of gains can happen if the teachers will just explain the research to students. Because sometimes I think kids see adults as we just want to make things hard for them, or we just want to challenge you, and it’s like, “Eh,” you know? But if we say, “Look. This actually is better for your brain, and here’s why,” and explain it in layman’s terms to them, I think you would get a lot more buy-in from the kids.

SMITH: Yeah. And one nice thing about interleaving too is that in the lab we can disentangle interleaving and spacing, but in practice, when you interleave, you’re actually also then producing spacing, because you’re taking problems or materials from previous classes and integrating them with the ones you’re learning now, creating little spaces naturally, so those two go hand in hand.

GONZALEZ: And Yana, I cut you off before. Do you remember what you were going to say?

WEINSTEIN: Oh, I was just thinking about the children buying in, because I have children of various ages, and I’m thinking about, you know, I do describe the strategies to them, and I have them watch the videos. They’re aged 4, 10, almost 12 and 13, and there’s variable buy-in. I think they’re curious. I think they have that same sort of thing where you’re saying, “Oh, adults just want to make things harder for us.” But I think that it’s, you know, mentioning it little and often, and if the teacher’s sort of … the earlier the better, and the teachers can bring it in often. I think a one-off might not be enough. You know, if the teacher just says one time, “Oh, this is good for you.” But if it’s something that’s infused in the curriculum and the way that things are taught in the homework, then I think it can become a habit, and students will begin to understand the value.

GONZALEZ: I’m starting to imagine what it would be like if a whole school was using these terms and so that the kids, you know, from middle of elementary school on up they start understanding, “Oh, we’re interleaving right now, so that’s just how this works.” I don’t know. I just think the long-term effects could be amazing. OK. Anything else?

WEINSTEIN: Yeah, that’s what we think too.

5. Concrete Examples

GONZALEZ: OK. So strategy No. 5.

WEINSTEIN: Concrete examples, so I think this is mine. We have a very funny video about this one on our website. I do recommend watching it, because I am dressed up as Pikachu in this video. So I think a lot of people, children and adults as well, might appreciate that, or at least find it ridiculous. So the thing about concrete examples, so if you’re trying to explain or learn a concept that is abstract, it’s very difficult to really understand it fully and commit it to memory, and then be able to retrieve it. What makes it easier is if you can have concrete examples that explain that concept. So in the video, we used the example of scarcity, and I won’t give you the fun Pikachu example, but I’ll tell you the other example we used.

So scarcity, sort of a vague, abstract concept. But here’s a way to describe it with a concrete example. Let’s say I’m going to buy some plane tickets, actually I am trying to do that, perhaps for next summer. Well, if I look right now, the plane tickets are going to be fairly reasonably priced, because there’s lots of seats available. But as time goes on, as we get closer to the travel date, the seats are going to become scarce, there aren’t going to be as many seats, so the prices are going to go up, and that explains scarcity in a concrete way. And then you can come up with more examples, so then what ends up happening is that students have a collection of different examples to illustrate an abstract concept.

And so at first, we recommend that students just look at their materials, because whenever teachers are explaining abstract constructs, they do tend to include examples, it’s just whether students pay attention to them and sort of collect them, and then make links between them, and they figure out, “Oh, this is why this example applies.” And then maybe talk about examples, and then say, “Well, this one’s not really quite right, so that’s an example of some other principle.” And the important thing here is that if you’re having students generate the examples, especially younger children, especially if they’re looking on the internet, or that even applies to adults as well, they can come up with examples that are not quite right, but that can be a great learning experience, because then the teacher can say, “OK, so you found this example that you think is scarcity. Now let’s think about how it’s different to the other examples, and how it actually illustrates something else.” And then you can sort of get into the details of what exactly the abstract concept is by illustrating it with different examples.

Ultimately, the goal is to have students be able to come up with their own examples that are accurate, but we can’t expect that to happen right away, especially not with younger children. So we kind of scaffold them up to that stage by having them collect examples, share them with their friends, discuss them, and then try making them up, and then have the teacher sort of look over them and give feedback as to whether they’re correct. So the idea here is just to go from the abstract to the concrete, because that’s much easier to process, and the links between these concrete examples can help to understand the bigger abstract concept.

6. Dual Coding

GONZALEZ: Excellent. All right. Last one. This is another one of my favorites, because I just think it’s so obvious, and yet I just don’t see enough of it happening or being taught to teachers. So last one.

SMITH: Dual coding. OK. So the idea behind dual coding is that you’re combining words and visuals. So for students who are doing this on their own in their textbooks or their class materials, maybe they have slides or handouts from professors or teachers. If they look, they probably will find both words and visuals. So the idea is to pay attention to both of them, don’t just look at the one that you’re sort of drawn too. Don’t just look at the pictures or read the words and ignore. You want to take them both and compare one to the other to see how they link up, how the words are explaining what the visual is depicting. And then you can take, you know, visuals and put the words away and begin to describe the visuals in your own words. And then take the words and draw your own visuals to go along with them. And ultimately, just like with every strategy, you can work your way up to the point where you are both producing the information via retrieval practice by writing out or speaking what you know, but also sketching or drawing visuals to depict the information. And when we say visuals, we don’t necessarily mean anything specific, so it depends on the types of materials. You could have an infographic, a cartoon strip, a diagram, a graphic organizer, timeline, anything that makes sense to you so long as you’re sort of depicting the information both in a way with words and a way with pictures.

GONZALEZ: Dual coding really can be accomplished, I mean as simply as when kids have a vocabulary list if they’re just asked to draw a small doodle beside each one to represent. They don’t have to be talented artists or anything, but anything visual that can represent the concept to them can just help to reinforce it?

SMITH: Yeah. My doodles almost always involve stick figures, and they are not necessarily pretty, but they get the point across.

GONZALEZ: And teachers need to know that. If a teacher’s thinking, “Well I don’t know. I can’t draw anything at all.” It really doesn’t matter. If it’s just a line with a couple of marks on it, it can sometimes be really powerful to just show a concept to students.

SMITH: Yeah. If the students are then, honestly, in terms of desirable difficulties, if the visual portrays the concept mostly, but they sort of have to fill in some of the gaps, that could actually be a desirable difficulty where they’re producing some of the information and thinking, “Oh, I would add this or I would add that,” maybe they draw their own. It actually could be a good thing.

WEINSTEIN: Yeah. And the other thing to remember as well is that this isn’t just for students who like pictures or are good at drawing. The ones who are not may hesitate and say, “Oh, this isn’t for me. I’m not artistic. I prefer something else.” But this is going to help all students, even the ones who don’t enjoy drawing. It’s not about the quality of the drawing, as you said yourself. It really just needs to be a visual representation as you can depict it. And I like Megan’s idea. Even the student themselves, if they draw a picture that isn’t fully detailed, that can actually be a good thing if they look back at it later, and they have to think, “Hmm. What did I mean when I drew this?” And then they have to think about it. Whereas if they drew something so amazingly detailed that everything was already there, then it would be harder to practice retrieval in a way. But if the picture’s sort of a vague sketch, then it can give them what’s called a retrieval cue to then start remembering more information about that topic.

SMITH: Yeah, and the pictures are the new thing with dual coding, but it is important to remember too that what we mean is pictures or visualizations along with words. So making the link between the verbal information and the visuals is key.

GONZALEZ: What about actual visualization? I became familiar with a strategy called the mind’s eye strategy. Not Harvey Silver’s book. Yeah Silver and Strong’s book, “The Strategic Teacher,” it’s one of my favorites. But they reference dual coding in this strategy called mind’s eye. It’s a prereading strategy where the teacher reads a few key terms that are going to come up in the reading, and the students have to try to form pictures in their mind about what they think is going to happen. And then when they read the book, those words really pop out at them, and they’re sort of fixing what their assumptions were and that sort of thing. But is there some research to support just the stopping and trying to visualize something in your mind without having an actual picture in front of you?

WEINSTEIN: Megan, I feel like your covert retrieval question …

SMITH: Yeah. So I was going to say with this specifically, I guess, I guess I’m not sure about that exact method. But I have done some work on this idea of covert retrieval as opposed to overt retrieval. So the difference really is with overt retrieval, you’re writing or typing or even speaking, although I didn’t do that in my experiments, whereas with covert retrieval, you’re really just bringing the information to mind, but that’s as far as you go. From a theoretical perspective, all you should really need is bringing the information to mind. That’s the cognitive process. And with basic materials, I showed that there was no difference between covert and overt retrieval. But some of the work that our colleagues are doing right now, Roddy Roediger, who is one of the authors of “Make It Stick” and was my master’s adviser and worked with Yana when she was doing her post-doc. And then Yana and I together are actually doing some more work on covert retrieval on more complex materials, and the evidence so far is mixed. So I’m not sure that we’re ready to say that just bringing information to mind is going to be as good as producing it. And so at least with complex things, like definitions of terms or explaining concepts beyond just, you know, matching two words together like you would have in simple materials. And so I guess the jury is still out on that one, but the safest way would be to have them physically produce it.

GONZALEZ: Got it. Is there anything else about any of these strategies that you wanted to add before we close up?

SMITH: Go ahead, Yana.

WEINSTEIN: Oh. We may be saying the same thing. I was just going to say that they can be combined in various ways, so you don’t have to do just one at a time. So as I mentioned before, I think retrieval practice can be applied to all of them, so you can do dual coding with retrieval practice, concrete examples with retrieval practice. So that’s just something I would add, that as students and teachers get more familiar with them, it’s good to mix and match the strategies.

SMITH: And I was going to say the reason they’re in this order is that Yana and I tried to organize them in a way where the first strategies — spaced practice and retrieval practice — have what we see is the most evidence from cognitive psychology, and then worked our way down. Not to say that dual coding doesn’t have evidence from cognitive psychology, but we see spaced practice and retrieval practice really as having the strongest or the most evidence going … retrieval practice goes back, gosh, more than a century, I think, in terms of research from cognitive psychology. So they’re in order — in the order we presented them — for that reason. But in terms of combining them, it makes sense to me to say, you know, you would start out by planning, so using spacing and interleaving. So that’s step one, figuring out what you’re going to do. Then once you have the plan, you need to do something during the planned time. And so you might use dual coding, concrete examples and elaborative interrogation intermixed or whatever works for you to try and really understand the material. So for starting from a very low level of understanding or no understanding, you’re using those three strategies to gain comprehension. But ultimately, you’re working your way up to retrieval practice, and then for each thing you’re doing, you want to get to a point where you can sketch it out on your own, write it out on your own, make connections on your own, come up with examples on your own, all of that kind of thing.

GONZALEZ: Oh I really want this information in every classroom. I hope we can do it. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that it does. Tell the listeners where they can find you again.

WEINSTEIN: So our website is learningscientists.org, with an “s,” learningscientists.org. And then we are actually also on most social media. So on Twitter we’re at @acethattest, and then on Facebook you can also find us at facebook.com/acethattest, then we also do have Instagram and Tumblr and even Pinterest. So we’re sort of trying to branch out and reach as many people as possible, but the website is the hub.

GONZALEZ: Fantastic. thank you so much. I think … I’m really just excited about the work you’re doing, and to know that you’re really just getting started. I’m really looking forward to seeing what else you end up doing in the future.

SMITH: Thank you so much.

WEINSTEIN: Thank you.

For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, go to cultofpedagogy.com/pod and click on Episode 58. To get weekly updates on all my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.

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