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Science confronts edu-babble

By Michael Zwaagstra
web posted February 7, 2011

It is wrong to force students to memorize information simply because it's going to be on the test. Research shows that "rote learning" is largely out-of-date in the twenty-first century. Instead of telling students what they need to learn, teachers should encourage them to construct their own understanding of the world around them. The progressive approach to education is far more useful to students than the mindless regurgitation of mere facts.

Anyone involved in education knows these types of edu-babble statements are often heard in teacher training institutions. Education professors continually push teachers to move away from traditional methods of instruction.

A friend of mine who graduated several years ago with his bachelor of education degree told me the main question on one of his final exams. "Explain why testing is a poor way to authentically assess student learning." The irony of testing students on their understanding of why testing is bad never seemed to sink in for that professor.

Unfortunately, this anti-testing mantra affects more than just educational theory in Canada. Over the last decade, Manitoba eliminated most provincial standards tests while at the school level many administrators expect teachers to reduce their use of tests in the classroom. These administrators claim that students benefit more from hands-on activities than memorizing items scheduled to appear on the next test.

However, a new research study published in the January 21 edition of the journal Science presents a significant challenge to the reigning educational ideology. Researchers from Purdue University had 200 college students read several paragraphs about a scientific topic, such as how the digestive system works. Students were then divided into several groups, with each group using a different study technique. The study found that students who took a test in which they wrote out the key concepts by memory significantly outperformed students who did not take a test.

A week later the same groups of students were given a short-answer test about the material in question. Once again, students who had studied for a test one week earlier substantially outperformed everyone else. Even the students themselves were surprised at the difference studying for a test made to their long-term retention of the subject matter. These results certainly challenge the assumption that students who study for tests simply forget the material immediately afterwards.

The lead researcher on this study, psychology professor Jeffrey Karpicke, noted that these results confirm the importance of actively committing concepts to memory. "But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practicing retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy," stated Karpicke.

In other words, learning, particularly in the lower grades, has more to do with acquiring existing knowledge than constructing completely new knowledge. There is a core base of knowledge and skills that all students need to acquire and schools are responsible for ensuring that this happens.

The Purdue University study lends considerable weight to the position that teachers should require their students to write tests on a regular basis. Although this does not necessitate the complete abandonment of other assessment methods, it does mean that professional development for teachers should recognize the value of traditional teaching methods.

One of the arguments commonly used against this approach is that it encourages rote learning instead of critical thinking. The problem with this argument is it creates a false dichotomy since critical thinking can only take place if students possess the necessary knowledge base about a subject matter. For example, students who memorize their basic math facts are far better positioned to master complex mathematical concepts than those who never learn them.

In addition, if we want to help students retain the knowledge they acquire in school, it makes sense for schools to require students to write final exams in core subject areas. It is not difficult to see how the process of studying for final exams helps students retain key concepts from their courses.

None of this means that teachers should rely exclusively on making students memorize information for tests. However, we must ensure that testing remains a central component of what happens in school. ESR

Michael Zwaagstra, M.Ed., is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre. He is a Manitoba high school teacher and co-author of What's Wrong With Our Schools: and How We Can Fix Them.




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