Chapter 7 sort of

This article came in just after Christmas:
Research for Practitioners: How to Improve Knowledge Retention
By Julie Dirksen
December 26, 2012

Article itself on a recent study of knowledge retention is behind a membership wall at the eLearning Guild. An alternate by the study’s authors’ is available here:

Whole report here: (free, but requires registration).

Quoting from the abstract:

“Educators rely heavily on learning activities that
encourage elaborative studying, while activities that
require students to practice retrieving and reconstructing
knowledge are used less frequently. Here, we show that
practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful
learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping.
The advantage of retrieval practice generalized across
texts identical to those commonly found in science
education. The advantage of retrieval practice was
observed with test questions that assessed comprehension
and required students to make inferences. The advantage
of retrieval practice occurred even when the criterial test
involved creating concept maps. Our findings support the
theory that retrieval practice enhances learning by
retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative
study processes. Retrieval practice is an effective tool to
promote conceptual learning about science.”

As someone with a history of crashing on tests, plus training in graphic arts, it has always been a wonder that mapping has consistently failed me as a study technique. Having been assessed a number of times as a “visual learner” the only conclusions are that I initially construct maps that already evidence misunderstandings. Or that my memory is like Swiss cheese—nothing, even visuals, stays there for long. Or, yikes! elaboration by visuals, metaphors or other cues intrudes on my verbal constructions—this is a principal of user interface design—and confuses the message?

This topic also caught my attention because the majority of the tests and exams I load into online courses are purely based on recognition or recall. To my mind, neither of these methods of “knowing” gives evidence of learning beyond surface registry. There’s nothing lasting here. Which begs the question–why bother teaching things that are strictly temporary and then test at the shallowest level? How low can expectations go? Having two journeyman’s licenses in carpentry and gas fitting I understand that some abstractly “known” concepts need to be held for use later in the field (and even for passing exams) but when the whole of your learning experience is based on the promise of possible potential utility in an unknown future of shifting eventualities aren’t we skating pretty close to nonsensical knowledge?

Anyway, according to the authors, the results of the study:

“…suggests a conceptualization of mind and
learning that is different from one in which encoding places
knowledge in memory and retrieval simply accesses that
stored knowledge. Because each act of retrieval changes
memory, the act of reconstructing knowledge must be
considered essential to the process of learning.”

To me this is a clue to why blogging (or any sort of reflection on course subject matter) enhances learning. Ever time something is brought out it not only strengthens memory, it is learned again and likely from a slightly different perspective. As speculation it might be that there is an advantage in having things remain malleable rather than fixed in place by certainty or dogma? That learning is a continuum poorly appreciated by testing as we practice them now?

Terms used:

Retrieval practice: used here had student study a science text and then recall as much as they could. Later, they studied again and repeated the recall for a second time. This double recall practice is designed on the assumption that students are retrieving concepts from long-term memory, hence the term “Retrieval Practice.”

Concept Mapping: considered an active learning task, vital concepts are written down as nodes then linked together by relationship to each other. Similar but not the same as mind maps and topic maps, concept maps attempt to graph whole systems by illustrating how various components (nodes) influence, modify or enhance each other. Very useful for science studies.

Recall vs Recognition: recognition involves picking the right option from the list while recall asks the student to pull answers from memory.

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  • Lisa M Lane  On January 12, 2013 at 4:31 PM

    It’s an interesting question why we should teach concepts that will only be retained temporarily. Thinking about it that way, those facts I expect them to retain for a short time can be applied immediately within a larger constructivist framework. So let’s say they’ve learned the factual meaning of political “sovereignty”, and taken a quiz including it’s definition or application to the 17th century. Then when they do constructivist work to find a source for the 17th century (say, a painting of Louis XIV) they can refer to the image as connected to sovereignty, a concept that they didn’t know before. If they later lose the idea of sovereignty, they’ve still worked with it in a constructivist way using a method they’ll practice weekly throughout the course. That practice seems to fall under the “mapping” idea.

    • scottx5  On January 12, 2013 at 5:31 PM

      Wonder if I unconsciously associate “temporary” with unimportant when in fact everything moves along moment by moment and we really don’t know which will matter and which will be lost? I’m curious about how understanding is built when things seem to come at us in disconnected odds and ends. How do we compile things for retrieval without some way sorting the important from the unimportant? Or are there such categories? John Mak noted a blog by Tara Hunt where she talks about content as more than then just stuff:

      What I mean to say is: CONTENT IS IMPORTANT. And there is a specific skill and finesse to doing content well that may seem like magic to most people. It requires left/right brained people with sharp critical thinking skills. The type of people who have big libraries of books (that they actually read) and are constantly checking their mobile phones for the latest news and world events. This person consumes more content in a day than most people consume in a year. S/he has so much knowledge in her/his head from so many different industries and disciplines that s/he will connect dots you would NEVER think to connect and sometimes the connection is only clear in her/his head (but it is usually innovative). This person studies people and networks and gets giddy when the data uncovers counter-intuitive evidence. Her/his instincts are sharp even though s/he can’t fully explain where her/his idea comes from. This is not a full or completely accurate description of this person.

      This says something about taking things in as more than one way process but almost propelling a cycle that feeds further understandings. A whole landscape of understandings.

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