Intro to Working Memory and Cognitive Load

I don’t get the time to update the blog much these days, but here’s some of my slides from a session I did last week with trainee teachers. If they are of any use to you, feel free to use:

 

Special thanks to Oliver Caviglioli for his design work that inspired the design of these slides.

Advertisements

Feedback and what good ‘looks like’

I’ve been thinking a lot about feedback lately and reminiscing on my younger days as a sports coach. When introducing a new skill to an individual, it was imperative that I could model, or show an example of what good looks like, otherwise learners would simply not know what they were aiming to achieve.

 

Learning something new is really challenging, it becomes more so if we don’t know what good ‘looks like’. I’m not an engineer, but let’s take the example of learning a fillet lap weld. Without seeing what a good fillet lap weld looks like, it would be nigh on impossible for a learner to do one successfully. Take the correct use of apostrophes – without seeing the various uses of an apostrophe, one simply wouldn’t know know how to use it.

 

Just knowing what good ‘looks like’ isn’t enough to learn something effectively however. Along the way to mastering a fillet lap weld, or correct apostrophe use, there’ll no doubt be mistakes made. This is where feedback is essential. According to Ramaprasad (1983, p.4) ‘feedback is information about the gap between the actual level and the reference level of a system parameter which is used to alter the gap in some way’. In other words, feedback should identify the strengths and weaknesses of performance in relation to what good ‘looks like’. But is it that simple?

 

No. In 1996, Kluger and DiNisi explored the effects of feedback on performance. Their meta-analysis revealed that on average, feedback improved performance but bizarrely, in over a third of cases, feedback actually impeded performance. Upon further exploration, their work revealed that the more effective feedback focussed on the quality of the work (task-oriented), rather than the person (ego-oriented). In other words, focus was on the strengths and areas for development of the work, rather than assigning numbers or grades to the work, which allow for comparisons between learners. In addition to this, they found that more effective feedback focussed on what and how the individual could improve their performance (the future), rather than focussing too much on the performance itself (the past). I liken this to the analogy of driving a car. If we focus too much on what we can see in our rear view mirror, we’ll probably crash (image 1). Whereas, if we acknowledge our mirror, but focus our attention on the road in front, we’re more likely to be moving forward positively (image 2).

Similar findings were noted in the work of Hattie and Timperley (2007); they determined that feedback was best served with clear goals for improvement. If we think back to my above mentioned point about knowing what good ‘looks like’, if feedback is provided in relation to a good example of a fillet lap weld and looks at how current work could be developed to achieve a good standard, then it is more likely that the learner will make improvements.

 

The thing with feedback is that it becomes extremely challenging for a teacher to provide 20-30 learners with regular individual feedback in a session. Here’s the thing, you don’t need to. Once learners are clear with what good ‘looks like’, there are 20-30 other resources at a teacher’s disposal, so why not ask them to provide feedback to one another?

 

Some common methods to do this are identified in Petty’s (2009) fantastic Evidence Based Teaching book. One of his diamonds is the ‘medal and mission’ approach – very simple, yet also very effective. Firstly task centred information is provided to the learner in relation to the goals (what good ‘looks like’) – the medal. Following this, learners are given a clear target for improvement in relation to the goal – the mission. For example:

 

‘Jamal, you have clearly fit-up the plates accurately and your weld indicates that the distance to the joint was good, as the arc is the correct depth (medal). If you look at the model example, the bead size is slightly larger. To increase the size of the bead, you need to decrease the speed that you move along the joint. In your next attempt, continue in the same manner as before, but with a slightly slower speed’ (mission).

 

Similar approaches that may be used include:

  • 2 Stars and a Wish – useful for peer assessment, the learners give one another 2 stars (i.e. 2 things they think their peer has done well in relation to what good ‘looks like’) and a wish (i.e. something they wish could be improved upon in relation to what good ‘looks like’).
  • WWW/EBI – as before, this acknowledges the past – What Went Well (in relation to what good ‘looks like’), before looking to the future with clear guidance for improvement, Even Better If…(in relation to what good ‘looks like’).

 

Whilst peer feedback is really useful, it is worth noting the limitations of the above approaches. Indeed, Nuttall (2007) acknowledges that around 80% of feedback in a typical classroom is between peers, yet around 80% of that feedback is inaccurate. If we can provide suitable structures, such as the above, and ensure that clear success criteria is provided (what good ‘looks like’), then we improve the effectiveness of peer to peer feedback.

 

To summarise, if we really want to maximise feedback in classrooms, we need to ensure the following:

  • Everyone is clear with what good ‘looks like’
  • Feedback looks forward and not back
  • Feedback focuses on the task and not the person
  • Feedback involves everyone

 

References:

Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research. 77 (1), p. 81-112.

Kluger, A.N. and DiNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119 (2), p. 254-284.

Nuthall, G. (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. NZCER Press

Petty, G. (2009). Evidence Based Teaching. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

Ramaprasad, A. (1983). On the definition of feedback. Behavioral Science, 28, 4–13.

Think about thinking hard

I recently stumbled across this statement in Coe’s excellent ‘Improving Education‘ publication and it really hit home:

Some research evidence, along with more anecdotal experience, suggests that students may not necessarily have real learning at the top of their agenda. For example, Nuthall (2005) reports a study in which most students “were thinking about how to get finished quickly or how to get the answer with the least possible effort”. If given the choice between copying out a set of correct answers, with no effort, but no understanding of how to get them, and having to think hard to derive their own answers, check them, correct them and try to develop their own understanding of the underlying logic behind them, how many students would freely choose the latter? And yet, by choosing the former, they are effectively saying, ‘I am not interested in learning.’

Coe goes on to inform us that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard‘. But how do we ensure that learners are both thinking hard, and putting effort into their learning? Easier said than done eh?

download (1)

Here’s some ideas for you to think about using with learners at the start of the academic year:

  1. Teach students about the importance of hard work and effort: Now this is no easy feat. Marzano informs us that this can have a high effect of achievement and suggests sharing examples of personal experiences or those that learners can relate to. He also suggests that learners self-assess their effort in lessons when self-assessing achievement against success criteria – not something I have tried myself, but certainly one to consider.
  2. Establish routines early: For those working in an FE college, most learners are joining your class with no idea as to what to expect. they will be in new surroundings, with new people and this is a great opportunity to establish high expectations in the classroom – Start as you mean to go on! If you have learning activities that require little effort, or if learners are allowed to put little effort in, then guess what? Yes, that will be the routine for the year.
  3. Find out what learners know and use the information: Initial assessment is crucial, but I’m not talking the whole sticking the learners on a computer to complete a maths and English IA to determine… well, not-a-lot. What I’m talking about is finding out what the learners know about your subject. Give them an advanced organiser to help them identify current knowledge and how this fits with information they’re going to learn. Use what they know to help them make sense of new information, to challenge misconceptions and to give a clear direction to the learning that they’re about to embark on.
  4. Organise information: Building on from the above, the more organised the information that learners are dealing with, the better. Provide a range of concrete examples to explain abstract concepts and use both verbal and visual information simultaneously (dual coding) to reduce cognitive load. Cognitive science research also indicates the benefits of revisiting information on several occasions over the term/period of learning (distributed practice) to enhance retention. There are many other strategies that have shown time and time again to be effective – summarised clearly for teachers by the learning scientists (every teacher needs this in their life).
  5. Test learners regularly: As with the above, our memory trace is improved when we have to work hard to retrieve information from long term memory, thus improving retention. Therefore, we should aim to test learners frequently through mini quizzes and self testing. This not only supports retrieval practice, but it also allows both teacher and learners to identify strengths and any misconceptions that learner have, thus allowing for appropriate intervention.

All of the above are simple ‘off the shelf’ strategies that may help to increase the effort and ensure that learners are working and thinking hard in your classrooms. They are not silver bullets and may work better in some situations than others, but all are worth considering – particularly as the new term is about to begin.

 

Learning my Craft pt 1.

I’ve been reflecting on where it all began for me as a teacher. At 16, I left school with six GCSEs above grade C and didn’t think that further study was for me, so I embarked upon a career in the leisure industry. I worked for a couple of years as a lifeguard, swimming teacher and fitness instructor before going back into education. When I think about it, it was during this period that I learnt most about the craft of teaching. Let me explain why:

images

Like many activities, both gym based exercise and swimming involves a range of motor skills. From the breaststroke technique, to performing a bench press, both involve complex motor skills and for novices, both can be difficult to master. Whilst learner confidence is an important ‘affective’ characteristic in both environments (particularly in swimming, which I might blog about at a later date due to its relevance to FE learning), once a level of confidence is developed, the teaching of a new skill can be done with efficiency and impact. However, the teaching of a skill can also be very inefficient and ineffective. In this post I hope to share some of the theories/strategies that I learnt early on in my career which have helped me to hone my craft and I’d like to think are the more efficient/effective approaches.

 

Further Education (FE) caters for a diverse group, which makes it challenging when recommending particular teaching strategies. Last year I blogged about the different approaches one might take with 3 learners.  There are many technical subjects where the vast majority of learning is skill based (procedural knowledge to the cognitive scientists). When one learns a practical (motor) skill, for example, welding, sewing, cutting, drilling etc, according to Fitts and Posner (1967), there are certain stages that one goes through in order to develop ‘automaticity’. A summary can be found in the table below:

190tab_Main
Image Source

STAGE 1: Cognitive Stage Huber (2013) states that the cognitive stage is:

‘verbal–cognitive in nature (Schmidt & Lee, 2005) because it involves the conveyance (verbal) and acquisition (cognition) of new information. In this stage, the person is trying to process information in an attempt to cognitively understand the requirements and parameters of motor movement.’

In other words, this involves the learner making sense about how to perform a skill. In order to do this, they need to see what ‘good looks like’ (blog to follow). To see this, they require explicit instruction by a competent individual. In the case of a teacher, the most effective way of doing this is to accurately model the skill and explain each step clearly. This is supported by research in the fields of fitness and gymnastics where it was found that effective modelling improved performance over other methods of instruction/development. Of course, as McCueeagh, Weiss and Ross note, there are many other factors to consider when modelling skills, e.g age and stage of learners, but if we think about principles of cognitive load theory, clear, chunked explanations and a combination of coherent visual and auditory information (dual coding) are proven techniques for supporting knowledge acquisition.  When I think back to my fitness instructor course in the early 00’s, effective modelling and instruction was inherent. The main strategy adopted when supporting gym users with new exercises/equipment was NAMSET:

  • N= Name of the Exercise – the name of the skill is outlined by the teacher
  • A= Area of the body worked – the teacher identifies the area of the body that is being worked
  • M= Muscles used – the teacher uses the correct anatomical terminology for muscles used
  • S= Silent demonstration – the teacher demonstrates the new skill in silence
  • E= Explanation of the exercise – the teacher explains the skill in small steps, with key points of consideration.
  • T = Teach the exercise – the teacher supports the learner as they complete the skill

Whilst I didn’t always follow this to the letter, I used the principle to instruct clients and found that they often managed to grasp techniques quickly. Incidentally, I hadn’t heard about cognitive load theory until around 18 months ago, but had been implementing key principles in my instruction. As with any new information, one needs to manage cognitive load and the NAMSET steps allow for this. I’ve placed in bold, the sections that are perhaps most relevant to teaching any new skill.

  1. Name the skill/task. What will you be showing and why? Giving reason and purpose to any new skill is likely to improve the focus.
  2. Where possible, demonstrate how to do it in silence. This allows the learner the opportunity to observe and self talk. I’d like to explore this a little further if I’m honest. I’m not sure that this should come before or after the explanation. Thoughts?
  3. Explain whilst demonstrating. This uses both the visual and auditory pathways to working memory (dual coding) if the explanations are clear and concise. Using complex terminology and excessive information risks losing the focus of learners, and/or overloading their working memory.  What are the key points for consideration? How can you explain the process clearly and concisely?
  4. Allow learners to complete the skill independently, but guide as required.  This is an opportunity for learners to apply their new knowledge and carry out the procedure themselves. As they do, the teacher should guide, reinforce key points and question the learners to ensure accuracy.

It is this early stage of skill development that the learner is likely to make quick gains in their performance of the task (as outlined by Fitts and Posner above), so this is arguably the most important stage for a teacher to consider when introducing new and complex practical skills.

In summary, this post has focussed on the early stages of learning a new motor skill. The discussion is supported by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, whose work with novice learners found that minimal guidance during instruction is less effective and less efficient than explicit instruction. Here we can see that this stage of learning a new skill requires a lot of teacher input, but this needs to be done so with accurate modelling and clear explanations. My next blog post will focus on stage 2 and 3 of Fitts and Posner’s model, where the teacher begins to move towards the role of a coach to support learners with fluency/automaticity with their skills.

 

 

 

Mastery Learning – getting the foundations right

In the 12th Century, construction of a bell tower behind the Pisa Cathedral began. Due to it being built upon soft soil with only 3m of foundations, the tower began to subside on one side during the construction phase. Despite this, the bell tower was eventually completed nearly 200 years after starting. However, each year the tower increased its tilt by 1mm, until in 2001 it got to the point of no return. Had work not been carried out to correct the foundations, the tower would have collapsed under the immense pressure being exerted on it. Although it has now been corrected (to an extent), engineers believe that in a couple of centuries, it will likely be at a point where correction will need to be made again.

The_Leaning_Tower_of_Pisa_SB.jpeg.jpeg
Isn’t this interesting? Due to building upon poor foundations, the building will never last without regular intervention…

Reminds me a bit of education. Before I make the link more explicit, let me digress to a term that is bandied around a lot in education – MASTERY LEARNING. Sounds pretty awesome, indeed I imagine you’ve heard a consultant, manager or colleague throw the term around in an attempt to sound awesome and you’ve no doubt thought to yourself… they’re awesome! For those of you that don’t know what it is, here are a couple of definitions:

The Wikipedia definition cites:

‘Mastery learning (or, as it was initially called, “learning for mastery”) is an instructional strategy and educational philosophy, first formally proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968. Mastery learning maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery (e.g., 90% on a knowledge test) in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information. If a student does not achieve mastery on the test, they are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information and then tested again. This cycle continues until the learner accomplishes mastery, and they may then move on to the next stage.’

Slavin defined mastery learning as:

‘The principal defining characteristic of mastery learning methods is the establishment of a criterion level of performance held to represent “mastery” of a given skill or concept, frequent assessment of student progress toward the mastery criterion, and provision of corrective instruction to enable students who do not initially meet the mastery criterion to do so on later parallel assessment.’

Isn’t this just good teaching?

In maths, would I allow learners to move onto percentages if they can’t perform division and multiplication?

In anatomy and physiology, would I allow learners to move onto the energy systems if they didn’t understand the structure and functions of the respiratory system?

Of course not. Without sufficient underpinning of the foundation knowledge, then I’d be setting them up to fail by introducing new concepts.

Let me go back to the leaning tower – had the builders established it upon a solid layer of soil and with much deeper foundations, it is unlikely that their successors would be required to save the damn thing every couple of hundred years. So with teaching, if we spend time getting the basics right before moving on to more advanced things, perhaps our successors won’t need to go back over the foundations.
For all their faults (according to others, not me), the EEF actually inform us that mastery learning can improve achievement by 5 months. They state that:

  1. Overall, mastery learning is a learning strategy with good potential, particularly for low attaining students

  2. Implementing mastery learning effectively is not straightforward, however, requiring a number of complex components and a significant investment in terms of design and preparation

  3. Setting clear objectives and providing feedback from a variety of sources so that learners understand their progress appear to be key features of using mastery learning effectively. A high level of success, at least 80%, should be required before pupils move on

  4. Incorporating group and team approaches where pupils take responsibility for helping each other within mastery learning appears to be effective.

Whilst I understood points 1, 3 and 4 (features of good teaching), I was a little perplexed by point 2, so investigated this further. In one of the cited articles looking at the impact of a mastery maths programme, the following was stated:

‘Typically, mastery approaches involve breaking down subject matter and learning content into discrete units with clear objectives and pursuing these objectives until they are achieved before moving on to the next unit. Students are generally required to show high levels of achievement before progressing to master new content. This approach differs from conventional approaches, which often cover a specified curriculum at a particular pre-determined pace.’

I’m not convinced that this is dissimilar to conventional approaches. Sure, there is often a lot of content to cover in most qualifications, but good teachers know how important it is to master the basics before moving on. The EEF go on to add that:

‘In addition to the ‘mastery curriculum’, other features of the approach include a systematic approach to mathematical language (see Hoyles, 1985; Lee, 1998), frequent use of objects and pictures to represent mathematical concepts (see Heddens, 1986; Sowell, 1989), and an emphasis on high expectations (see Dweck, 2006; Boaler, 2010).’ 

Hang on… so what was being measured in this study? Was it the impact of mastery learning, language use, dual coding or high expectations, or…all of the above? At this point I was confused, but I did note that these are, what I would call, characteristics of good teaching.

 

As can be seen, mastery learning is a bit of an en-vogue concept with, in some cases, a lack of clarity. In reality, it is a sign of good teaching – ensuring that the foundations are right before moving on.

Cognitive Load Theory

It was around 18 months ago that I first came across Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and shortly after, I blogged about its application in my practice. Recently CLT has gained a lot of traction on social media; helped by the fact that Dylan Wiliam cited it as the most important thing for teachers to know earlier this year:

Capture.PNG1

Oliver Caviglioli also recently created one of his fantastic illustrative summaries on Sweller’s book and this reignited the CLT flame for me. A few weeks ago I posted about CLT on the Society for Education and Training’s Blog, in an attempt to further promote what I and many others consider to be an essential learning theory. I thought I’d share it on my blog in an attempt to reach a few more practitioners, so here it is:

 

What is the one learning theory that I feel all teachers should be made aware of?

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) – Coined in 1988 by John Sweller, this theory posits that our working memory is only able to hold a small amount of information at any one time and that instructional methods should avoid overloading it in order to maximise learning (Sweller, 1988).

 

Why have I chosen this theory?

We’ve all been in learning sessions where the teacher has whizzed through the content, leaving us with little to remember. We’ve also been in those sessions where the content is so complex that we leave more confused than when we entered. CLT goes some way to explaining why this happens and what we, as teachers, can do to maximise the learning of individuals within our classrooms.
Building on the work of Baddeley and Hitch (1974), CLT views human cognitive architecture as the working memory and long term memory. Put simply, the working memory has a limited capacity and consists of multiple components that are responsible for directing attention and coordinating cognitive processes. Long term memory on the other hand, has an endless capacity for storage and works with working memory to retrieve information (Baddeley, 2003).

What can teachers do to reduce cognitive load?

  • Activate prior knowledge before sharing new information with students – Our long term memory is said to have a number of organised patterns of knowledge (known as schema). Each schema acts as a single item in working memory, so can be handled easier than having lots of new, isolated information. Through retrieving information from the long term memory via quizzes, visual aids and discussions, students can bring crucial information to working memory (see image 1) and assimilate new information to build upon what they already know (Baddeley, 2003). Activating prior knowledge is also supported in the work of Marzano, Gaddy and Dean (2000), who found a substantial improvement in achievement (0.59ES). Furthermore, retrieval practice has shown to strengthen our retention of the information (Wenger, Thompson and Bartling, 1980) – a win win!

 

  • Use visual and verbal information to present information to students – This has nothing to do with the infamous ‘learning styles’, rather empirical research suggests that our working memory has two points of entry (Chandler and Sweller, 1992). One accepts auditory information, whilst the other visual. If the auditory and visual information correspond to one another, then the burden on working memory is far less than using one pathway alone. Image 1 shows the effect of using one pathway to working memory, whereas image 2 shows the use of both. However, please note that if the text and visual information are not clearly integrated, then it could have adverse effects on learning (Chandler and Sweller, 1992).

 

  • Use worked examples and models to support learning – There are a wealth of studies that have shown the positive impact of using worked examples to enhance learning (Chandler and Sweller, 1991). According to Clark, Nguyen and Sweller (2006, p.190), ‘a worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem’. These steps provide learners with direction and support to create mental models of how to tackle a problem/task, or what ‘good’ looks like. Discovery or problem-based learning on the other hand can be burdensome to working memory due to learners having insufficient prior knowledge to draw upon to support their learning. Moreover, the vast amount of information they have to consider in completing work independently can result in a struggle to direct their attention. As learners develop a greater understanding of the topic, elements of the worked or modelled examples can be ‘faded’ (removed) to foster greater independence.

Worked Example

 

In summary, regardless of one’s philosophical predisposition, I argue that all teachers need to have an awareness of the potential benefits and limitations of the ways in which they present learning opportunities for learners. CLT and the associated empirical research provides us with an understanding of how we process, organise and store information most effectively and for this reason, all teachers should acquire a basic understanding of the premise.

References
Baddeley, A.D. (2003). Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, p.829-839.

Baddeley, A.D. and Hitch, G. (1974). Working Memory. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 8, p.47-89.

Chandler, P. and Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 8 (4), p. 293-332.

Chandler, P. and Sweller, J. (1992). The split-attention effect as a factor in the design of instruction. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62 (2), p.233–246.

Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F. and Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Marzano, R.J., Gaddy, B.B. and Dean, C. (2000). What works in classroom instruction. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load during Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12, p.257-285.

Wenger, S.K., Thompson, P. and Bartling, C.A. (1980). Recall facilitates subsequent recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6 (2), p.135-144.

5 Diamonds

There are several blog posts knocking around at the minute regarding 5 things that individuals wish they’d have known when they started teaching (here and here). I like to follow the trend, so here are the five absolute diamonds that I wish I’d have known before I started teaching:

2000px-Playing_card_diamond_5.svg.png

1. If we don’t have an understanding of how information is received, processed and stored, then we don’t really understand learning.

It’s only in recent years with the ‘online cognitive science revolution’ that I’ve really acquired an understanding of how memory works and how to best support long term retention. You’d be a fool to ignore Cognitive Science. Whilst we can’t prove anything about memory, there’s a wealth of empirical research to support our understanding of it. Cognitive Load Theory is in vogue at the moment, but despite its popularity, unlike other fads, there is a compelling evidence base for its application. I actually wrote a blog post for the Society for Education and Training about CLT recently, which I shall share on here soon – stay tuned.

2. You’re not a bad teacher if you tell your learners stuff.

When I started teaching, everything had to be active. If you didn’t have active learning in your lessons, then you’d be chastised by observers and the like. Back then, being a sports lecturer, I thought active learning actually involved learners being ‘active’. For this reason, I would often get learners moving around the room doing star jumps (OK, I exaggerate, but why ruin a good story by telling the truth?). Anyway, my point here is that explicit instruction is actually really effective, particularly with novice learners. They need to know stuff and expecting them to figure it out for themselves is frankly absurd.

3. You really should assess learners at the start of every lesson

When I started teaching all the other teachers used to read objectives off before rolling into their lesson, so that’s what I did. Regardless of where learners started with prior knowledge, they were all doing this lesson at my pace. If I actually took the time to identify gaps in knowledge and diagnose misconceptions, I would have known where to focus my attention – I didn’t get this for a long time.

4. Being cool and relaxed is not a good way to manage 16 year olds.

I’ve written before about my erroneous ways with behaviour management. When learners arrive at college, they often don’t know what to expect. If we set the expectations high and be consistent with these, it will save a whole load of bother over the year. If you try to be the cool cat, there’s only one way that it’s going to end.

5. Doing group work is often more hassle than it’s worth.

I believe that working cooperatively is really important, after all, we are social creatures. The thing is, most group work is ineffective due to the fact that it doesn’t meet the fundamentals of effective cooperative learning (individual accountability and working towards a common goal), as identified by Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain. I’ve observed so many sessions where the group work has actually been one learner’s work, with 4+ other learners piggy backing. Effective group work is something that is carefully crafted and in all honesty, I prefer paired work as it addresses the key features of cooperative learning. A previous blog on group work explains my thoughts in greater detail.

 

So that is my 5, what are yours?

Remove your headphones!

It’s revision season. Exams are nearly upon us and learners up and down the country are locked away in their rooms revising (I hope they took on board my advice with the do’s and don’ts of revision).

college-library-girl-with-headphones-studying-with-music.jpg

When I was revising for my GCSE’s back in the late 90’s, we only had one television in the house and I didn’t have a mobile phone, so I’d be in my room testing myself against the OCR revision guides for each subject. This didn’t prove very fruitful in all honesty, but I would dread to be revising in the modern world – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, Phones, TVs, Laptops, iPads and iPods. You name it, there are so many distractions that face young people today.

 

What’s the problem?

Due to the problems associated with memory, and the subsequent distractions students face, this can limit the cognitive resources that can be allocated during the learning process. Salame and Baddeley found that the auditory pathway (phonological loop) is susceptible to negative effects of speech and other sounds. In other words, when there are noises in the room, beeps from the phone, the TV on in the background, the music etc, it increases the cognitive load, thus impeding the ability of working memory. What’s worse, when we are reading, we aren’t using the visual pathway (visuospatial sketchpad), we are actually using our auditory pathway as a result of ‘self-talk’. This is largely corroborated by the work of Alley and Greene who also found that individuals are pretty rubbish at judging just how much their working memory is impaired by irrelevant sounds. So when learners are telling you that having their headphone in is helping them to concentrate, they’re likely to be wrong.

 

What does this mean for teachers?

There is a real need for teachers to promote effective study strategies to learners and this starts in the classroom.

  • Learners should be encouraged to work in silence during independent practice – this includes removing phones, tablets, or anything else with a sound… even peers.
  • I recommend strongly that learners are not allowed to use headphones when working independently – even if they think it helps them.
  • Encourage learners to follow the ‘dos’ on my revision guide, and of course, ignore the ‘don’ts’.
  • When at home, learners should be encouraged to revise in a ‘distraction free zone’. TV off, phone in another room.

 

 

Why I do PowerPoint

There’s been a bit of a hoo-hah on Twitter today about PowerPoint (PPt). I think it began following this post from Jo Facer, which makes some fair comments. This led to a share of a previously written, more balanced argument by Robert Peal. I certainly agree with points in both, but not all. Here’s why I think we shouldn’t be so hasty in dismissing the use PPt:

Microsoft_PowerPoint_2013_logo.svg

1. It provides a structure for lessons – note the term lessons. I often have a PPt that spans more than one lesson and based on the content that needs to be taught. I don’t see a problem with planning via PPt, so as long as the time spent is on thinking about the order/structure of content. Taking the time to think about the structure helps to organise my thoughts and enables me to move information around to suit the needs of the class. It’s as if I am putting my schema to paper (figuratively speaking). I could use other means to do this, but the PPt serves as a prompt during the session and means that the risk of learners missing out on crucial information is minimised.

2. The ‘visual’ argument – there’s no denying the vast body of research supporting Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory. I used to be guilty of putting reams of text on slides, which I proceeded to read to my learners and wondered why they never remembered anything. The issue was that whilst I read aloud and learners read the text (self talking), all information was entering working memory via the verbal pathway. Having developed a (basic) understanding of the theory, I began to change my approach, ensuring that more visuals were used to support explanations rather than text. Where visual information can’t be used, I keep text to a minimum, emphasising key points only. Having the visual means that the two pathways to working memory are being used, thus less of of burden for the learners (as shown below). PPt is a platform that enables me to quickly create or add visuals, meaning that all I have to concentrate on is explaining it clearly.

Picture1Picture2.png

3. Animations – I’m not talking the swirling and whirling of individual letters which take ages to create sentences. No, I’m talking animations to grab learners attention, to direct them to important components of visuals as they are being discussed. I have blogged about this here, but the Clark and Lyons research is a much more comprehensive read on this. Whilst there are many other ways to direct attention, PPt can be used really effectively to do so.


4. Everything in one place – Another benefit of PPt is that I can place my quiz, my content, links to reading, learner task instructions etc all in one single place. I can upload this to the Virtual Learning Environment and if learners wish to access anything, it’s all there for them. The fact that everything is in one place also helps keep my OCD in check.


5. Aesthetics – I must admit, I am guilty of putting too much time into the aesthetics of my PPts. I have got better at making the information less of a burden on the working memory; gone are the GIFs, the tenuously linked images, and text heavy slides. In spite of this, I still like to have clear, crisp, well designed slides. The fact that I put effort into making my resources look nice probably won’t get me any thanks from anyone, but with the care I place, I know that the spellings will be correct, the animations will support the learners at the right time and (I’m going to throw this out there) it’ll probably engage the learners a little more (by engage, I mean grab their attention). Whilst this probably makes no odds to the learning, it’s far better than my handwriting on a white board.


To summarise, bad PPts are bad. Similarly, bad teachers are bad; as are bad pens, bad textbooks and bad technology. There is another way and I strive to be at the opposite end of the continuum.

Questioning questioning 

Since Geoff Petty shared his ‘which questioning‘ strategy with me around 6 years ago, I have been on a mission to hone my questioning. It is a great little activity that really gets you thinking about making effective use of questions. To this day, I use an adapted version of the activity with my own trainees. Indeed, I often focus observation feedback on the development of questioning as an essential formative assessment approach.

deep-thought-1296377_960_720

It’s easy to see why this is the focus of many teachers up and down the country. Hattie’s synthesis of classroom experiments (2015) found questioning to have a modest, but positive effect size of 0.48 and the resulting classroom discussion a huge 0.82.

The thing is, I’ve found more and more that trainees are focusing too much on questioning individuals (they do it well), and less time on the instructing or allowing learners to practise. It seems that ‘the question’ has taken precedent over ‘the answer’.

I observed a session recently where the teacher insisted on working their way around the class with questions, yet many of the learners didn’t have sufficient prior knowledge to allow them to explore understanding through discussions. It appeared that the opportunity cost of such a strategy was not as fruitful as one might have thought. Due to questioning being a strategy held in high regard, I can understand why they persisted, but it just didn’t help the learners. Instead, the group lost interest rather quickly and low level disruption ensued.

Were the teacher to use questioning more efficiently (second time I’ve used this term in as many posts), through a selection of multiple choice questions which can be answered by all in a short time, the teacher may have realised that the learners required some input/guidance to increase knowledge and enable greater participation in discussions.

Arguably a good starting point for thinking about questioning in the classroom is to ask yourself what the purpose is. Is it to assess learner knowledge/understanding, or is it to teach learners something through discussion? Perhaps it is both, but the main reason should influence the type of questions used. Personally, I use questioning as an assessment tool and the quicker I am able to assess ALL learners the better, so that I can identify gaps in knowledge that need filling. I’m not dismissing questioning as a means to generate good class discussion, but appreciate that time is of the essence with our learners and we should aim to maximise every last drop of it.