How Much Information Should Students Be Told?

One of the unresolved debates about learning surrounds how much students should know before they attempt something on their own. Some say withholding any important information will only make it harder for students, while many reformers and constructivists believe students learn best when they learn their own way.  A new experiment by a group of Standford researchers scores one for the latter group.

In the experiment two classes learned about density in different ways. The first class used a method generally labelled “tell and practice” (T&P). Students were given a handout with the density formula and a worked example, and then asked to calculate densities from a series of images of buses containing different numbers of clowns. A second class used a method called “inventing contrasting cases” (ICC).  Instead of being given information about density, these students were given a handout about how to construct an index (using examples like batting average), and then told of the need for a clown company to develop a “crowdedness index.” The students were then asked to invent a procedure for computing such an index.

When the students were later tested on their knowledge, those in the ICC condition had a better understanding of the underlying ratio structure of density calculations. In addition, the ICC students were also better at transferring their knowledge of the ratio structure to unrelated topics (e.g. spring constants).

On the surface the study has nothing to do with technology, but I think it’s actually a good demonstration of the kinds of best practices that won’t really take hold until schools fully embrace E-learning. The best argument against ICC or “student exploration” is that it’s a high variance learning strategy. It may take a long time and certain students could end up far below where they would have been after a T&P lesson. Regardles of whether there are overall gains, these individual losses make it politically difficult for schools to move away from T&P.

However, when computers are capable of presenting personalized lessons, the students who made huge gains from ICC can move forward on their own, and the students who didn’t can get one-on-one attention from the teacher.  By the end of the day, both groups of students should end up ahead of where they would have been had they been taught with an impersonal T&P lesson.

The way we view the benefits of educational technology is relatively misguided. Technology won’t transform education because of some magical cognitive connection with human brains, it will transform education because the efficiency gains that come from personalized learning will finally allow the implementation of classroom forms that aren’t geared toward the lowest common denominator.


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