Why are we not connecting the science of learning to our expectations of what good edtech tools should do to be effective?

There have been many studies and findings published in the fields of learning science, neuroscience, cognitive science, etc., that provide insights into how people learn most effectively. One would think that this would be something that the makers of education technology products and services would seek to leverage as they design and promote their wares. Yet this is not often the case.

I would really like to see this change. I think the burden needs to lay with educators as well. We need to be asking edtech vendors to explain how their products support the findings of learning science. Interestingly, some of those tools may very well already support numerous proven learning techniques, yet vendors may not even realize this. I was reminded of this when reading this excellent article on EdSurge last week.

Let’s explore some of the proven learning techniques that edtech vendors and educators should look for when considering the procurement and implementation of edtech products and services. Note that quite a few of these techniques can overlap to produce even better results.

Memory Encoding

“Encoding is the crucial first step to creating a new memory. It allows the perceived item of interest to be converted into a construct that can be stored within the brain, and then recalled later from short-term or long-term memory” (Mastin).

There are four primary types of encoding: visual, acoustic, elaborative, and semantic. (Lumen Learning)

Visual Encoding: The creation of ‘mental pictures’ is one way people use visual encoding. Our brains associate a picture with some information when it is stored. (This is an easy technique for edtech products to tap into – everything from digital Flash Cards to Powerpoint slides can leverage visual encoding.)

Acoustic Encoding: Similar to visual encoding, but based on sounds. “This is aided by what is known as the phonological loop. The phonological loop is a process by which sounds are sub-vocally rehearsed (or “said in your mind over and over”) in order to be remembered” (Lumen Learning). Just think of how often a phrase you will hear will bring to mind a song you know!

Elaborative Encoding: Elaborative encoding uses information that is already stored in your brain and relates it to the new information you encounter. “Studies have shown that the long-term retention of information is greatly improved through the use of elaborative encoding” (Lumen Learning).

Semantic Encoding: “Semantic encoding is a specific type of encoding in which the meaning of something (a word, phrase, picture, event, whatever) is encoded as opposed to the sound or vision of it.” (AlleyDog.com) There has been a great deal of research around semantic encoding and its effectiveness.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice” is a learning strategy where we focus on getting information out. Through the act of retrieval, or calling information to mind, our memory for that information is strengthened and forgetting is less likely to occur. Retrieval practice is a powerful tool for improving learning…” (RetrievalPractice.org).

This seems like another easy learning technique that edtech vendors can use and tap into when drawing the connection between their products and how they support learning. Any sort of memory game is using retrieval practice to improve learning. Another example is having students make a mind map to highlight key concepts from some learning content that have engaged with. Yet when is the last time your heard someone explain how a tool they are considering makes use of retrieval practice to support learning?

The relationship between moving our bodies and learning 

Have you ever sat through a long day of professional development that required you to sit most of the day. Was it exhausting? I’ve heard colleagues in this situation say things like, “using your brain all day is tiring”. But there is something else going on here that we overlook – sitting all day is exhausting! Our bodies are designed to move. Yet most classrooms are designed to get kids to “sit still and listen”.

There is so much evidence supporting the relationship between physical activity and improved learning, yet this is generally not our ‘default’ position when it comes to thinking about our classrooms and our students.

“Studies suggest that regular physical activity supports healthy child development by improving memory, concentration and positive outlook. For example, researchers found that children who had an opportunity to run 15-45 minutes before class were less distracted and more attentive to schoolwork. These positive effects lasted two to four hours after their workouts.” (Wilson, 2014)

So how can technology play a role in this? Simply letting students get up and move around the classroom, perhaps using learning stations, or to work together collaboratively building STEM kits or creating a group report. Another example would be to use some sort of movement tracking technology to combine movement and exploration of science or math concepts (there are some phone apps that do this, and of course there are wearable trackers like the Fitbit). This reminds me of a discussion with a chemistry teacher who had his students do a ‘scavenger hunt’ for things going on around the school that reflected chemistry and take pictures of them with their cell phones (think food prep in the cafeteria, fire extinguishers, janitors cleaning floors, etc.).

Chunking

“Chunking refers to an approach for making more efficient use of short-term memory by grouping information. Chunking breaks up long strings of information into units or chunks.  The resulting chunks are easier to commit to memory than a longer uninterrupted string of information.” (The Peak Performance Center)

Chunking is especially useful when trying to absorb to organize or classify large amounts of information. There are numerous types of tech tools that lend themselves to this, such as graphic organizers, and digital “pin boards” that let you group information. Of course, the simple act of typing out ideas and facts and organizing them with tools like these is also a fundamental learning technique as well.

Spaced Repetition

“Spaced repetition utilises the spacing effect, which comes from an observation made by Ebbinghaus over a hundred years ago.” (Nickson, 2017)

As for the spacing effect, www.gwern.net provides an excellent description of how this works:

“The spacing effect essentially says that if you have a question (“What is the fifth letter in this random sequence you learned?”), and you can only study it, say, 5 times, then your memory of the answer (‘e’) will be strongest if you spread your 5 tries out over a long period of time – days, weeks, and months. One of the worst things you can do is blow your 5 tries within a day or two. You can think of the ‘forgetting curve’ as being like a chart of radioactive half-lives: each review bumps your memory up in strength 50% of the chart, say, but review doesn’t do very much in the early days because the memory simply hasn’t decayed very much!” (Branwen, 2018)

So, in order to learn best, students should space out review and retrieval practice over a period of days and even weeks. Storing information (notes, learning content, etc.) online certainly lends itself to spaced repetition. There are plenty of edtech tools that can support this technique. The GoConqr learning platform actually explains what spaced repetition is and how it supports it. This article by Thomas Frank on CollegeInfoGeek.com contains a section discussing Spaced Repetition apps like Supermemo and Anki.

Interleaving

“Interleaving is a process where students mix, or interleave, multiple subjects or topics while they study in order to improve their learning. Blocked practice, on the other hand, involves studying one topic very thoroughly before moving to another topic. Interleaving has been shown to be more effective than blocked practice for developing the skills of categorization and problem solving; interleaving also leads to better long-term retention and improved ability to transfer learned knowledge.” (The University of Arizona)

Most platforms for the creation of digital learning content inherently support interleaving because it is up to the content designer to determine which content they want to use. Note that interleaving doesn’t only apply to different subjects, but to different topics with a subject area.

This also reminds my of another favorite teaching and learning concept of mine, cross-curricular teaching. If we could design school from the ground up, we could probably gain time and enhance learning considerably by making all course work cross-curricular (much like project based schools like High Tech High are doing).

Writing it Down by Hand

Numerous studies have shown that writing things down by hand remember more than those who type notes out. This Scientific American article explains a study in which, “students who used longhand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material” (May, 2014).

So why am I mentioning the benefits of long-had writing in an article about digital technology? Two reasons – first, we’re talking first and foremost about learning, and this is an important observation (especially if you are focused on tech); and second – digital writing slates are a thing (and this basic functionality is getting incorporated into many digital devices). So if you take long hand notes in a digital format, it would seem that perhaps you have the best of both worlds? (Hmm, reminds me of blended learning…) 

Teach Someone Else (Peer Instruction)

“Peer instruction is an evidence-based, interactive teaching method popularized by Harvard Professor Eric Mazur in the early 1990s. Peer instruction as a learning system involves students preparing to learn outside of class by doing pre-class readings and answering questions about those readings … then, in class, the instructor engages students by posing prepared conceptual questions or ConcepTests that are based on student difficulties.

The questioning procedure outlined by Eric Mazur is as follows:

  1. Instructor poses question based on students’ responses to their pre-class reading
  2. Students reflect on the question
  3. Students commit to an individual answer
  4. Instructor reviews student responses
  5. Students discuss their thinking and answers with their peers
  6. Students then commit again to an individual answer
  7. The instructor again reviews responses and decides whether more explanation is needed before moving on to the next concept.

I had the wonderful fortune of meeting Dr. Julie Schell when she was a member of the Flipped Learning Network Board. Dr. Schell worked with Dr. Mazur and runs a site called “Turn to Your Neighbor“, which focuses on Peer Instruction.

Like all of the other techniques above, technology is not necessary in order to use these ideas in the classroom. Peer Instruction can be done without any use of technology, but it is also a great companion for flipped learning, which leverages digital content heavily, hence the tie to tech.

I am rather surprised that it does not appear that any peer instruction tools have been created by the countless purveyors of edtech products (although I am also not entirely sure it would be a good idea).

Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive listing of learning techniques that have been shown to work through research and science, but it is a great starting point for edtech product vendors and educators alike. If you are aware of a learning techniques that you feel should be added to this listing, please drop a comment (and provide a reliable online reference to help readers learn more).

In the meanwhile, I plan on referring to this post regularly as I interact with edtech product vendors and asking them, “how does your product leverage proven learning science concepts to help students learn?”. If they can’t answer that question, well, they better go do their homework!


AlleyDog.com. (n.d.). Semantic Encoding. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from Alley Dog: https://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Semantic+Encoding

Branwen, G. (2018, May 25). Spaced Repetition. Retrieved from Gwern.net: https://www.gwern.net/Spaced-repetition

Lumen Learning. (n.d.). Boundless Psychology – Step 1 Memory Encoding. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from Lumen Learning Courses: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-psychology/chapter/step-1-memory-encoding/

Mastin, L. (n.d.). Memory Encoding. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from The Human Memory: http://www.human-memory.net/processes_encoding.html

May. (2016, October 12). A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop. Retrieved from Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop

Nickson, C. (2017, October 2). Learning by Spaced Repetition. Retrieved from Life in the Fast Lane: https://lifeinthefastlane.com/learning-by-spaced-repetition/

RetrievalPractice.org. (n.d.). Transform Teaching with the Science of Learning. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from RetrievalPractice: https://www.retrievalpractice.org/

The Peak Performance Center. (n.d.). Chunking. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from The Peak Performance Center: http://thepeakperformancecenter.com/educational-learning/thinking/chunking/

The University of Arizona. (n.d.). The Learning to Learn Series – Interleaving. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from Academic Affairs: http://academicaffairs.arizona.edu/Interleaving

Wikipedia (crowd sourced). (n.d.). Peer Instruction. Retrieved July 29, 2019, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_instruction

Wilson, R. (2014, March 12). Move Your Body, Grow Your Brain. Retrieved from Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/move-body-grow-brain-donna-wilson

 



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