THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

HomeAbout The Teaching Economist Contact the Editor Support

Issue 46, Spring 2014

William A. McEachern, Editor


The 19th century humorist Artemus Ward once said, "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we do know that just ain't so." That could apply to teaching and learning. We teach based on how we were taught, plus any experience gathered along the way. Students approach their studies using whatever they did in high school plus whatever good and bad habits they pick up in college. Although cognitive scientists have been studying teaching and learning for decades, not many teachers and fewer students rely on this research even second or third hand. As a result, some teaching and learning practices have no empirical support- they are simply myths. Here I'll identify and try to debunk what I'll argue are ten myths about teaching and learning. I will ignore myths about the brain itself, such as that we use only 10% of our brains, because brain myths usually have little practical relevance for how we teach and how students learn.

Myth # 1: The more we know about a topic, the more effective we are as teachers. It seems intuitively obvious that the deeper our knowledge, the more effective our teaching. The catch is that once we know something, we have difficulty conveying that information to someone without our knowledge. Simply put, knowing the answer to a question makes that answer seem more obvious to us. This "curse of knowledge," as it's been called, makes it harder to judge how well those who don't share our knowledge will respond. "It's hard to know what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know," says cognitive scientist Steven Pinker of Harvard. "It's the chief driver of bad writing and, I would argue, bad teaching." Caroline Hoxby of Stanford argues that few faculty from elite institutions will become stars of massive online open courses (MOOCs) because they will have difficulty teaching normal students. As a caricature example, consider Sheldon Cooper, the fictional genius on the TV series The Big Bang Theory. His difficulty communicating with nearly everyone is the comedy gift that has helped him win three Emmys so far and has kept the show's ratings in the stratosphere for years. What can we do about the curse of knowledge? We can keep reminding ourselves that our students see the world differently.

Myth # 2: Students learn best after we have smoothed out the kinks in our classroom presentation. If you have ever taught two sections of the same course, by the second section you probably calmed any hiccups experienced during the first. But, from my experience, students seem to learn more during the first class, that first draft. Why? Because they have to noodle through any hiccups with me. Simply put, we both have to stop and think along way. Desirable difficulties are challenges introduced during instruction that may slow down students in the short run but seem to benefit long-term learning. Teaching that appears to create difficulties for students, such as having to work through something in your own mind or presenting material in different contexts and different formats, may seem to slow the apparent rate of learning in the short run, but this improves long-term retention and transfer.

For example, in one experiment students were required to read an article after first having studied an outline that was either consistent with the organization of the article or inconsistent with that organization (but offering the same information in either case). The inconsistent condition impaired verbatim recall and recognition of the article's content (compared to the consistent condition) but improved performance on tests that required students to solve problems based on their general understanding of the article's content. I'm not suggesting that you purposely confuse students, but a lecture that challenges students to stop and think engages them more and helps them learn. Be sure your class is not just a long string of explanations, a long list of answers, with few chances for students to solve problems. Insert many questions along the way.

Myth # 3: Each student has a different learning style. According to this theory, some students learn visually, others by hearing, others by reading, and so on. The student's brain is a lock that's accessed only with the right key, the right learning style. According to an October 2012 study in Frontiers of Psychology, 94% of the 242 teachers surveyed believed a student does better when lessons are delivered in his or her preferred learning style. I even heard an MIT Frontiers of Education symposium discuss the benefits of recognizing and acting on learning styles. Only problem is: there is no evidence supporting this theory. Granted, students seem to have preferences about how they learn, but they do not appear to learn any better when those preferences are matched. A comprehensive review commissioned by the Association for Psychological Science concludes that there's no evidence that customizing instruction to match a student's preferred learning style leads to better achievement. For example, in one recent study, researchers first identified a student's preferred style and then randomly assigned a form of instruction that either matched that preference or didn't. There was no relationship between the learner's preference and how much was learned. As UVA cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham summarized, "People do have preferences, but they don't think or remember better when [those preferences] are honored." Because interest stems from variety, cater to a mix of learning styles in your course.

Myth # 4: No questions? No problems. Some teachers, particularly new ones, tend to believe that if students have no questions, then they probably understand. But it's also likely that if there are no questions students don't know what's going on. In fact the more in the fog students are the fewer questions they ask. From my experience, this is particularly true with a large class size. Don't expect students to ask questions. If they don't ask you, you ask them. Be sure to ask specific questions, not general ones such as "Do you understand?"

Myth # 5: The mind functions like memory machines. Students believe they sit in class and soak up the knowledge. They read a chapter and absorb the material; they read it again and encode it. All this sounds reasonable, but cognitive scientists find no evidence to support this memory-machine model as an efficient way to learn. In this case, intuition misleads students about how they learn. Instead, new learning is reinforced by retrieval. Learning improves when students actively retrieve information from memory rather than passively study course material. Information that's more frequently retrieved thereby becomes more retrievable in the future and is therefore more transferable to other situations. By recalling information repeatedly, especially in varied contexts, the student strengthens access to that information across contexts. Many studies support this finding. For example, a study recently reported in Science found that students who studied a text, tried to recall it, and repeated those steps did at least 40% better on later tests than those who spent the same total time reading and rereading the material. The importance of retrieval helps debunks Myth # 6, which is next.

Myth # 6: Testing is not learning but is a mere yardstick to measure how much has been learned. Most students don't like taking tests and most instructors don't like preparing, administering, and grading them. So testing is usually not a valued activity in itself. Tests, however, are forced retrieval, and this helps students learn and remember. There have been dozens of studies showing the power of testing as a learning tool. For example, in one experiment students were sorted into three different groups. One studied a list of words eight consecutive times without taking any tests; the second studied the list six times and was tested twice. The last studied the words four times interlaced with four tests. All three approaches took the same total time. Two days later, students were asked to recall as many words as they could. The group that took four tests recalled more words than the other groups and up to twice as many as the group that only studied the words. As cognitive scientists Henry Roediger of Washington University notes, "Taking a test on something is a very effective way to learn about it." Frequent, low-stakes, classroom quizzes may be one of the best ways of helping students learn new material. Try giving short quizzes at the end of each class covering the material from that day and recent days. Intervening tests help subsequent test performance, and mixing up the type of test seems to help students with later retrieval.

Myth # 7 Laptops help students take more detailed notes, and this helps them learn. The intuition here is that typing is faster than writing longhand and yields more legible notes. Thus, more detailed and more legible notes provide a better basis for later review. But a forthcoming study in the journal Psychological Science by Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA questions these conclusions. In the first of several experiments, students listened to the same lectures and were instructed to take either handwritten or typed notes, whichever was their typical note-taking strategy. Soon after, students were tested on the facts and concepts covered in the lecture. The researchers found, not surprisingly, that students using laptops took more notes (apparently, the experimental setting had no distracting Internet service). These laptop users were also more likely to take verbatim notes. In a test a half hour after the lecture, both groups recalled about the same number of facts from the lectures, but the longhand students did much better than the typists when tested on concepts.

A second experiment was like the first except that students knew in advance that they would be tested a week later and would have a chance to review their notes. The longhand students took fewer notes overall with less verbatim recording, but they nevertheless did better on both factual knowledge and on higher-order learning. These results suggest that longhand note-taking yields higher quality learning right after class and is a better strategy for storing new learning for later study and testing. At one point in the experiment, the researchers encouraged some laptop users to try not to transcribe the lectures word-for-word. But these laptop users still took verbatim notes. There may be something about typing that encourages mindless transcription, and there may be something about longhand note-taking that prompts students to summarize, refine, and reframe information in their own words. A study published by Intech ( speculates that writing by hand allows the brain to get feedback from motor actions, and this feedback differs from that received when typing. The focal point of writing is at the tip of pen, whereas typing divides the focus between the keyboard and the screen.

I would argue more simply that writing notes involves more thinking than does typing notes. For example, I always take handwritten notes during the annual ASSA meetings. I estimate that I took more than 12,000 words of notes during the three-day conference last January. In the process, I summarized, criticized, underlined, flagged, and made other notations that would not be as easily reproduced on a laptop. I read my notes on the flight home and added more notations. My point is that with handwritten notes, one can capture a lot of information. I believe that my notes are richer and more textured than I could have captured on a laptop.

Myth # 8: Memorizing facts is a waste of time. Some educators and many students believe that it's a waste of time trying to memorize key dates, formulas, laws, and other facts that can be easily found in a textbook or online. On the contrary, some cognitive scientists say that the best way to learn a subject is by laying down a base of facts. After committing some facts to memory, the student needs less time recalling those facts, which frees up more time for deeper understanding and even creativity. I would summarize the argument this way: in order to connect the dots, a student much first know what the dots are.

Myth # 9: Cramming works. Whether by necessity or by design, some students believe that studying in a concentrated session right before an exam is the way to go. Better to cram before the exam than to scatter that same total effort over days or weeks. Much of this, of course, results from mere procrastination. But many students believe cramming right before an exam yields the best results. On the contrary, spacing out study sessions is good for both exam performance and for long-term retention. In fact, the near-term and long-term benefits of spacing out study sessions is one of the most robust findings in the history of experimental research on learning and memory.

Because new learning depends on prior learning, spacing study sessions lays a foundation for subsequent learning. I would liken this process to how a 3-D printer creates an object a layer at a time. Each layer builds on the previous layer, and each layer needs time to set. Likewise the material in a course is learned a layer at a time over days, weeks, and months. The course cannot be absorbed overnight. Student retrieval helps "set" each layer as the course progresses. That's one reason why we spread material out a class at a time over the term rather than offer twelve-hour classes three days in a row.

Another problem with cramming—in the extreme, the all-nighter just prior to the exam-is that it leaves little room for the sleep necessary for learning. Much evidence suggests that sleep is critical for consolidating new information. A sleep-deprived student loses focus and attention, making new information less absorbable. And a lack of sleep degrades the ability to access previously learned information. William C. Dement, a pioneering sleep researcher and founder of Stanford's sleep disorder center, writes in The Promise of Sleep that forty years of research has convinced him that sleep is the key prerequisite to learning.

Myth # 10: Your classroom presentation determines how much students learn. What you do in class matters less than what you ask and expect students to do in your course. Student effort determines how much is learned, how well it's remembered, and under what conditions it's recalled and applied to different situations. Remember, it's not what you teach; it's what students do for themselves to learn.

Top                                                                                                                                                                                          Next