Last week we discussed how to move students from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset as well as how to address misconceptions in the classroom. In this next segment, we will begin to uncover how students learn both new information and information that conflicts with what they already know.
We will also be exploring how to help students with contextual learning and the transfer of learning from one application to another as well as to commit this information to their long-term stores.
Principles 3, 4 and 5 of the “Top 20 Principles from Psychology for Prek-12 Teaching and Learning” (APA, 2015) aim to help teachers understand why it is important to facilitate learning across contexts as well as how to help students use higher level thinking and reasoning skills.
Principle 3 – Students’ cognitive development and learning are not limited by general stages of development.
For the longest time, it was believed that students’ knowledge and reasoning was based solely on age (or grade). However, this simply is not the case. Student knowledge and their ability to reason is based on something called schemas.
Schemas, simply put, are like file folders in the brain. People (throughout the lifespan) are continually adapting and taking in new information as they experience and encounter new things. As we take in new information, our brain “files” it for future reference.
For example, a young boy might develop a schema for a cow. The boy knows that the cow is an animal, is big, and has four legs. The brain creates a new file folder – “cow”.
The boy might see a horse for the first time the next day and initially call it a cow. It fits in with what he already knows – animal, big, four legs. However, the child’s parent will most likely correct the child and tell them that it is not a cow, but a horse. The child will “edit” their file folder for cow and make a “new” file folder for horse.
Point being – the more schemas or “file folders” a child has and the more information they have in their “file folders”, the more they will be able to think and reason at a higher level. This is not determined by age alone.
So how can teachers help their students use higher level thinking and reasoning?
There are a lot of different strategies teachers can use. However, the following have been found to be tried and true:
There’s always something teachers can do for a student. It may not be easy but there’s always an intervention out there to help students reach their full potential. It might take a combination of efforts but learning and understanding is possible for every child.
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Six Traits of Quality Pre-Assessments
Zone of Proximal Development
Teaching Strategies that Enhance Higher-Order Thinking
Principle 4 – Learning is based on context, so generalizing learning to new contexts is not spontaneous but instead needs to be facilitated.
Students learn in context but need help transferring and using this information in other settings. For example, students might learn about ratios in math class (context = school subject) but need to be assisted in transferring this knowledge to science class where they need to mix two chemicals together in a 2:1 ratio.
Technically, the reasoning is the same, but students won’t automatically make the connection between the two. It needs to be facilitated by teachers. The quality of learning is said to be linked to a student’s ability to transfer their learning to other settings and contexts.
How can teachers help facilitate their students’ learning across varying contexts?
Research shows us that it is very important to teach a topic in multiple contexts (like the ratio example above). It is not enough to simply teach a math lesson on ratios and expect it to trickle down into all other areas of the student’s life.
It is also essential to help students make their own connections between what they already know and what you want them to know. Application of concepts to the real world is very important. If a student does not have the ability to apply what they already know, what is the point in having that knowledge in the first place?
Again, by teaching in multiple contexts, using multiple different examples, and by helping students apply their knowledge to the real world, you can give them their best chance at success.
Contextualized Learning: Teaching Made Highly Effective!
The Real Stuff of Schooling: How to Teach Students to Apply Knowledge
Top 12 Ways to Bring the Real World Into Your Classroom
What is “Transfer of Learning” and How Does it Help Students?
Principle 5 – Acquiring long-term knowledge and skill is largely dependent on practice.
It is not enough to simply give our students knowledge by teaching lessons. Teachers need to actively be engaging students in practicing and using that knowledge in order to transfer the learned material from their short-term/working memory into their long-term memory stores. The key? PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.
But not just any practice. Thoughtful, deliberate, engaging practice over time. Research shows that through this type of practice, students become more motivated. They are able to transfer their learning to more difficult tasks. They are more likely to be able to retrieve the information in the future and the skills and application become more automatic.
What if students aren’t motivated? What if they don’t want to practice?
Let’s be honest, practice isn’t always fun. Students might not enjoy practicing as much as they need to in order to reach the goals described above. However, teachers can help this process by showing them how much they can improve by practicing, praise them for their efforts, and give graduated practice problems (give easier ones first and progressively increase their difficulty).
Worksheets and practice tests are tried and true and provide structured practice. However, these can become monotonous and students might not actually be engaging with the material as much as they should be.
By using open-ended questions on worksheets (or having students answer verbally to the class or with a partner), they have to know the information well enough to retrieve it, not just fill in a blank or select an answer from a multiple-choice list. Designing practice time and practice problems around what students already know and enjoy learning about is also a helpful strategy.
Making it Stick: Memorable Strategies to Enhance Learning
Effective Memory Strategies for Special Needs Children
Memory, Not Memories: Teaching for Long-Term Learning
Top 5 Strategies for Motivating Students
American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK-12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf
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