Learning by Doing
BY ULRICH BOSER
Learning by doing works after you’ve already gained some familiarity with the content. It works because the technique calls you to actively engage with the material and generate the knowledge yourself, bit by bit.
One effective technique to facilitate learning by doing is what’s known as the “generation effect.” Also known as the testing effect or retrieval practice or even learning by doing, the “generation effect” underscores that students understand and remember material better when they have been asked to generate it themselves rather than reviewing an account generated by someone else (e.g., re-reading a section of a textbook, sight-reading a musical piece).
Many teachers focus on imparting knowledge to students; they imagine themselves as “putting information into students’ minds.” But, the science of learning shows that students need to construct knowledge for themselves, and in many cases, effective learning would be better described as a process of “pulling information out of students’ minds.” Next time your student or child reads a new text, consider: What’s this text about? What point is the author trying to make? Is there anything here that seems confusing? These questions focus the student’s attention on the substance of the material and guide them into the learning by doing the technique.
We learn a lot more when we consistently ask these questions be it at the end of each paragraph—or even the end of a sentence. So while some textbooks might offer “reading comprehension” questions at the close of each chapter, you’ll take away a lot more if you ask yourselves these sorts of queries more frequently.
One way to incorporate the “learning by doing” technique into the classroom is to give students frequent low-stakes quizzes. By design, these quizzes do not really assess performance. Instead, they prompt students to engage with the content and generate the learned information from their own minds.
Indeed, research shows that the very process of retrieving such information itself improves understanding, increases recall and promotes the “transfer” of knowledge to new settings.
Psychologist Rich Mayer believes that learning is a generative activity. First, we select information and decide exactly what we’re going to learn—like maybe a bit of Soviet history or Buddhist philosophy. Then we integrate that information into what we know by creating some type of mental connection between current knowledge and the information we hope to learn.
So if someone is learning about the Soviet dictator Stalin, they need to link what they know (that Stalin was a dictator) to what they want to learn (that Stalin grew up in Georgia, killed millions, centralized power in Russia, and helped win World War II).
We see the power of mentally doing—of creating value in an area of expertise—in even the most basic of memory tasks. Want to remember the French word for home, “maison,” for instance? Simply delete the letter “o” when you read the word and you are far more likely to recall the word. While deleting a letter to recall the word might seem counterintuitive, this makes sense when you consider what that deletion does to how we process the word. Adding the “o,” effectively completes the word. You’re finishing the thought—and in the most basic of ways, you’ve done some work to produce learning–and it’s that work that makes it more meaningful and more likely to stay in your long-term memory.
This same basic idea of working harder to more effectively produce learning extends to more difficult cognitive tasks like reading. If we push ourselves to dream up some sort of mental image of what we’re reading–say by imagining the text in our minds—we retain a lot more of the knowledge. By creating a type of “mind movie,” we’re building more cognitive connections which make learning more durable.
Recent research on learning as mental doing has shifted conventional wisdom around how people gain expertise. In a large and recent review of the research, Kent State’s John Dunlosky and colleagues evaluated various learning techniques and found that two of the most common learning techniques, highlighting and rereading, are also some of the most inefficient ways to learn. But the question remains, why? The answer is that rereading and highlighting does not push people to build their knowledge.
So which approaches did Dunlovsky’s landmark analysis find to be most effective? Those which facilitated learning by doing. Over the phone, Dunlovskly told me that the most effective techniques were the more effortful activities like self-quizzing and self-explaining. “This is a fundamental feature of how our minds work,” and as he explained, when we learn, “we’re not just copying the information. We are making sense out of facts.”
Rather than issuing a multiple choice quiz, ask your students to explain the concept or process in question. Use a concept known as elaboration and ask your students to make connections between different concepts and explain how they are connected.
Indeed, recent research led by Michelene T.H. Chi found that successful students tend to generate many self-explanations that refine and expand the conditions under which a concept may be applied. Conversely, less-achieving students rely more on isolated examples. Other research by Chi found that something as simple as saying explanations and elaborations aloud can lead to robust benefits for students’ learning.
Another simple to implement technique is what’s known as “repeat backs.” The next time someone gives you a set of detailed instructions, take a moment and repeat the instructions back. Deliberate repetition forces you to generate that knowledge which means you’ll be far more likely to remember the instructions.
Brain dumps, or more formally “free-recall” are just that—jotting down what you remember about a given topic. In spite of their simplicity, brain dumps have been shown to be a very effective learning technique. Because brain dumps force you to retrieve and roughly organize the material yourself (i.e. learning by doing), they can be really effective in fostering deep learning.
In conclusion, active engagement ,and techniques which force you to work harder to remember the material are the most effective ways to learn. Yet, you have to be mindful of when to implement these techniques. Jump in too fast without laying a basic groundwork for learning, and the benefits of learning by doing dissipate.
You have to give your short-term memory bit-sized chunks of information before you can expect to gain the expertise in question. It’s time to update the old adage from ‘practice makes perfect’ to the more accurate ‘actively engaged practice makes learning more effective.’ #
For more info visit learningaagency-lab.com