Tuesday, February 23, 2016


If you have read this blog for long, you know that I have two interconnected goals.  

--The first is that every teacher should strive to become 5 percent better each and every year.   Never stand still.  Always push yourself to find some area of improvement.  

--The second goal is to Experiment-Evaluate-Evolve.   It is that active level of experimentation that leads to improvement.   No improvement is possible without making some change.   You should always be able to look at your current situation and point to specific changes that you are trying and evaluating.

If I stopped right now and asked you “what experiments are you trying this semester that might make you 5 percent better,” could you identify one or more? 

Experiments work better if they are directed at identified problems.  

After nearly 45 years in the classroom, one thing continues to irritate me.   I have many bright young people in my classes who have never learned how to become great students.  They are good at note-taking and they are good at memorization but they struggle when the learning goes beyond that level.   They don’t know how to respond.   How can a 20 year old who has been in school for 15 of those 20 years not know more about efficient learning?   That is an issue that seems to hold back many, if not most, students in college.   I don’t understand why we don’t exert more energy to help students learn how to become better learners.

There are a number of excellent books on the market that tell teachers what their students need to do to be better students.   Go to Amazon right now and you’ll probably find dozens.   But they all seem to be targeted at the wrong audience.   It should be the students who read and study such books rather than the teachers.  

So, last semester, around December 10, I emailed the 55 students who were going to be taking my Intermediate Accounting II class this spring.   This class is known for being particularly challenging.   Most students enter wanting a good grade but with a great amount of trepidation.  

In my email, I explained to the 55 students that I wanted them to become better students so they could be more successful in my class.  That seemed reasonable.   I also pointed out that they would probably have some spare time over the winter break.   I then offered to give them up to three bonus points on the first test of the spring semester if they would read the book Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.  Read the book -- get three points.

On the inside cover of "Make It Stick" is the following description:   “Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners.”   Wow, that’s exactly what I want for my students.   The description goes on to say “many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive.  Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly.   More complex and durable learning comes from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.”  

I think that is an understanding of learning that every college student should consider.   I was willing to offer bonus points just to see how many students would read the book and what the impact might be.   It was an experiment.

Fast forward three months.    Our first test was last week.   Of my 55 students, 20 said they had read less than 20 percent, one said he had read 20 to 50 percent, 7 said they had read 50 to 80 percent, and 27 said they had read 80 percent or more.   Roughly half the class claimed to have read roughly the entire book.   Interestingly, 63 percent of the top 16 students on the test (before the bonus points were added) said they had read at least 80 percent of the book.   Only 22 percent of the bottom 9 students claimed to have read that much.  

Of course, it helped that I gave them the assignment over a long holiday and offered points for a course that already begun to scare them.  It is hard to motivate students by being too easy.

Did the students tell the truth in their self-assessment?   It was only a couple of points; I accepted their word.  They are adults.   They know the rules.   I suspect that 80 percent or more told the truth.  To me, the potential benefit of the experiment far outweighed the risk that some student would falsely get 3 extra points on a single test.

More importantly, did the reading help them?   Has the book changed their behavior?   Do they now understand more about the science of learning?   I’ll wait until the end of the semester to ask them about those questions.   Unfortunately, we have lost several days to snow so it is hard to compare the test results so far this semester with that of previous semesters.

Here’s what I want to happen:
--I hope that the very assignment of this book helps to open the students' eyes to possible improvements in how they study.   Most students never seem to question how they go about learning.   It is like breathing—they just seem to do it without thought.   I wanted to raise the question:   What works in learning complex material?   I do wish that effective and efficient learning was a topic more stressed in middle school and high school.
--I hope the students threw out some of the study habits they have relied on in the past.   Cramming over the 48 hours just before a test is one “study” habit that I would love to outlaw.  Why spend time doing something that does not help?
--I hope the students considered some new study techniques that they might never have considered previously.   In that way, this voluntary assignment might well have a long lasting benefit.

I don’t want my students to learn just accounting.  That has never been my goal.   College education should be more than that.  I want them to become more successful students.   In the world after graduation, when a teacher is no longer around to provide guidance, that efficiency in learning might well be more important to them than anything else I can teach them.

Will I do this same experiment again next fall?   I am still evaluating.  I like the idea.   I would like to figure out how I could make better use of it.   I guess it is still in the planning process.  

I will leave you with a line from page 226 of Make It Stick:   “Students generally are not taught how to study, and when they are, often get the wrong advice.  As a result, they gravitate to activities that are far from optimal, like rereading, massed practice, and cramming.”  

Yeah, I agree.  Let’s start introducing the students to better practices so that they can become the capable students who will make our jobs much more interesting and easier.   Sometimes all it takes is three bonus points.

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