The Joy of Inquiry-Based Learning

One of the more prominent theories about how people learn is called “constructivism.” The basic idea is that you learn better when you construct your own knowledge. And not bogus explanations — correct interpretations built from existing knowledge chunks that you know and understand. Constructivism is a large reason inquiry- or problem-based learning is so effective. When students figure something out for themselves, there’s a strong cognitive foundation for the new knowledge because it’s built on things they know, not things they were told.

But there’s also a simpler reason discovery leads to great learning. When you learn something through an insightful “aha” moment, you’re more likely to remember it:

The present study investigates a possible memory advantage for solutions that were reached through insightful problem solving. We hypothesized that insight solutions (with Aha! experience) would be remembered better than noninsight solutions (without Aha! experience). 34 video clips of magic tricks were presented to 50 participants as a novel problem-solving task, asking them to find out how the trick was achieved. Upon discovering the solution, participants had to indicate whether they had experienced insight during the solving process. After a delay of 14 days, a recall of solutions was conducted. Overall, 55 % of previously solved tricks were recalled correctly. Comparing insight and noninsight solutions, 64.4 % of all insight solutions were recalled correctly, whereas only 52.4 % of all noninsight solutions were recalled correctly. We interpret this finding as a facilitating effect of previous insight experiences on the recall of solutions.

The depressing thing about the importance of discovery is that there’s inherently a low ceiling in any classroom where a teacher must try to create an “aha” moment for 30 different students. There’s no way it can happen for every kid.

One thing that’s frustrating about the state of American schools is that even though nobody is happy with the classroom environment, there’s not a lot of momentum behind revolutionary classroom models. Teachers want smaller classes and better materials; reformers want more differentiation and improved technology; and learning scientists want more inquiry-based learning and adherence to constructivist principles. But even though there are a few promising initiatives (e.g. New York City’s iZone), you don’t see a lot of “classroom of the future” stuff going on. Obviously nobody wants their children to be guinea pigs, and there are also a lot of good reasons for teachers unions to oppose innovations that will drastically change the profession. But it would be nice to see marginally more financial or intellectual resources invested in schools doing highly irregular things with grade levels, learning time, academic subjects, and assessment. In general we should be attempting more things that could potentially make somebody say, “that’s a terrible idea.” One of them might lead to 30 kids having 30 “aha” moments.

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Danek, A.H., Fraps, T., von Muller, A., Grothe, B., & Ollinger, M. (2012). Aha! experiences leave a mark: facilitated recall of insight solutions Psychological Research DOI: 10.1007/s00426-012-0454-8

How Confusion Facilitates Learning

Last week a study made the rounds that showed how even after learning what’s correct, people never truly forget the misconceptions they have. The finding leads to an important follow up question: If these naive pieces of knowledge have a constant presence in our minds, what are the real-world implications for learning?

One interesting idea is that learning will be improved by things that help suppress our prior knowledge, and one thing that may accomplish this is confusion. During moments of confusion everything that’s in your head is insufficient to solve your problem. It’s a sign that whatever your existing beliefs and knowledge are, they’re not good enough. If confusion thus leads us to temporarily cling less strongly to whatever is already in our brains, might it actually help learning? The research suggests that it does.

We tested key predictions of a theoretical model positing that confusion, which accompanies a state of cognitive disequilibrium that is triggered by contradictions, conflicts, anomalies, erroneous information, and other discrepant events, can be beneficial to learning if appropriately induced, regulated, and resolved….Confusion was experimentally induced via a contradictory-information manipulation involving the animated agents expressing incorrect and/or contradictory opinions and asking the (human) learners to decide which opinion had more scientific merit…Whereas the contradictions had no effect on learning when learners were not confused by the manipulations, performance on multiple-choice posttests and on transfer tests was substantially higher when the contradictions were successful in confusing learners.

The official explanation for why this occurs is called the “Facilitative Confusion Hypothesis” — the idea is that when we’re confused, we’re more motivated to stay focused and comprehend information at a deep level in order to resolve the confusion. It seems likely that a piece of this is an increased willingness to suppress or weaken previously held beliefs.

Here’s a thought exercise. Imagine somebody has figured out a legitimate way to shoot a fireball out of his palm, and even though you’re skeptical, he decides to teach it to you. Now imagine the exact same situation, but right before the person begins the lesson, you witness a man cross the street by levitating over traffic. In the second scenario, won’t you be more receptive to abandoning prior beliefs about fireball shooting? Won’t you be more ready to focus on what you’re about to hear with cognitive flexibility? Almost all learning involves replacing old information with new information. It doesn’t matter if the new information is the name of the 27th U.S. President, the concept of utilitarianism, or the way to shoot fireballs. A general sense of confusion may open the door for the new information by lowering how much we value old information.

The potential benefits of confusion also illustrate the importance of classroom differentiation. The more we learn about learning, the more we discover different motivational constructs that influence people in different ways. It’s bad enough that a single teacher has to teach 30 kids with different knowledge levels. But when each kids has a different ideal level of confusion, the task is even harder. At some point in the next 5-10 years it will become very difficult for a teacher to compete with 30 different computer programs all geared toward individual students.
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D’Mello, S., Lehman, B., Pekrun, R. & Graesser, A. (2012). Confusion can be beneficial for learning Learning and Instruction DOI: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2012.05.003

How Generalizations About Learning Hurt Student Motivation

Recent research on implicit theories of intelligence (i.e. whether you believe intelligence is fixed or malleable) has paved the way for some of the most promising low-cost high-reward educational interventions. For example, a series of short lessons about the brain’s potential to grow like a muscle can have significant and long-lasting effects on student achievement. Even something as simple as responding to good work with “you worked so hard” rather than “you’re so smart” can make a difference.

The problem, as a new study shows, is that there are countless inputs that go into forming a child’s beliefs about intelligence. A pair of experiments led by Andrei Cimpian of the University of Illinois discovered that simply linking success in something to a social group — for example, telling children that “girls are good at soccer” — can lower performance by instilling the mindset that intelligence is fixed.

We hypothesized that the mere act of linking success at an unfamiliar, challenging activity to a social group gives rise to entity beliefs that are so powerful as to interfere with children’s ability to perform the activity. Two experiments showed that, as predicted, the performance of 4- to 7-year-olds (N = 192) was impaired by exposure to information that associated success in the task at hand with membership in a certain social group (e.g., “boys are good at this game”), regardless of whether the children themselves belonged to that group.

The bad news is that blanket statements about groups is rampant is society. Even serious education policy analysis often contains some form of the sentence “underprivileged kids from a poor socio-economic background can’t/are bad at/have no chance to….”. Kids hear these things, whether it be from other kids, teachers, parents, or strangers, and they do have an effect.

I also think there’s a more abstract lesson about the diminishing returns modern humans are experiencing when it comes to broad “un-nuanced” generalizations. The reason people categorize things is because it’s often a useful heuristic for making sense of the world. But as our cognitive abilities have become more advanced the number of categorizations that benefit society (e.g. all berries with red spots are poisonous) is decreasing while the number of categorizations that can cause great harm to society (e.g. all tea party supporters are violent racists) seems to be increasing.

Over the next 100 years a key piece of human cognitive development will be finding ways to learn and teach how to instinctively understand the variation and flexibility within categorizations, and how to quickly break them into less biased and more useful increments. For example, when an 8-year-old girl hears “girls are bad at math,” it would be great if she had the psychological skills necessary to instantly interpret it as “from a statistical standpoint, girls tend to get lower scores on math tests, but this in no way means that working hard will not allow me to be better at math.”
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Cimpian, A., Mu, Y., & Erickson, L. (2012). Who Is Good at This Game? Linking an Activity to a Social Category Undermines Children’s Achievement Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429803

Students Need Timely Feedback

The recent emphasis on school choice and school funding has kept us from considering enough possibilities when brainstorming about school reform. (For example, although we rarely think about the standard K-5/6-8 school divisions, they may not be a good way to divide students.) One thing worth examining is the excessive amount of time students must wait between completing an assignment and receiving feedback on the assignment.

When a student messes up a math problem it’s a lot more helpful if somebody immediately tells him what he did wrong rather than waiting 20 minutes or 20 days. With timely feedback he still remembers what he was thinking and therefore he’ll have an easier time pinpointing mistakes. With untimely feedback he might be left attempting to correct mistakes involving diameter when the class is already on to learning about area.

What might happen if all teachers had to return assignments within three days? Although there hasn’t been much research on how feedback timing affects motivation and interest in schools, a new study reveals that in the workplace timely feedback results in greater resource allocation.

The study described here tested a model of how characteristics of the feedback environment influence the allocation of resources (time and effort) among competing tasks. Results demonstrated that performers invest more resources on tasks for which higher quality (more timely and more specific) feedback is available…Results also demonstrated that performers do better on tasks for which higher quality feedback is available.

The goal of the experiment  was to learn about resource allocation for multi-tasking in an office environment, but the results can be applied to students in the sense that their daily lives involve multi-tasking between school activities (e.g. homework) and leisure (e.g. playing video games.) Perhaps if schools gave more timely feedback students would allocate some resources away from video games and towards their homework.
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Northcraft GB, Schmidt AM, & Ashford SJ (2011). Feedback and the rationing of time and effort among competing tasks. The Journal of applied psychology, 96 (5), 1076-86 PMID: 21463017

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Zombie Motivation

Educational video games tend to evoke a wide range of opinions among educational researchers, but one thing they tend to agree on is that the more the “material to be learned” is integrated into the game, the better. A new study in the Journal of the Learning Sciences helps illustrate this point.

Researchers observed students play three different versions of Zombie Division, a video game designed to teach mathematics.  In the “intrinsic” version, mathematics was a crucial component of the gameplay — a dividend displayed on the zombie’s chest told the player about the zombie’s vulnerability to various attacks. In the “extrinsic” version the only math content was in the form of a between-level quiz. In the control version the math content was completely removed.

The results showed that children learned more from the intrinsic version of the game under fixed time limits and spent 7 times longer playing it in free-time situations.

I think researchers occasionally tend to over-emphasize the sometimes murky distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and this paper does a nice job avoiding that pitfall by focusing on the intrinsic integration between a game and its learning content. The more that killing zombies and calculating quotients are part of the same activity or goal system, the more interest and engagement there is.

Can Prediction Markets be a Learning Tool?

Ah, prediction markets. Nothing is better for convincing yourself you know exactly what will happen in every upcoming election.  According to a new paper in Computers & Education, prediction markets may also be useful in classrooms. The basic idea is that prediction markets improve cognitive skills and increase student engagement by requiring new knowledge to be applied to the decision making process.

To test their hypotheses the authors used a prediction market called the “Insurance Loss Market” that was specifically designed for an undergraduate rick management class. Students were required to collect and analyze data in order to make weekly bets on property losses in various states. So, how did it work?

Our exploratory research has demonstrated that learners’ decision making in a specific problem domain has improved over the module. We have identified trading behaviours that demonstrate learners will integrate new information into their cognitive framework and alter their decisions based upon this new information. This is a clear indication of active engagement by learners. Finally, we have demonstrated that learners are actively searching for relevant information that is not supplied to them in lectures and are integrating this information into their decision making processes.

There’s more good news.  The class also counts as credit toward the school’s new “legitimized gambling” major.

Is it Good When Your Brain Hurts?

The work on naive theories of intelligence (see: Carol Dweck and her academia-tree) demonstrates how the belief that intelligence is malleable leads to improvements in student motivation, persistence, and grades.  A recent study by David Miele, Brigid Finn, and Dan Molden helps explain the mechanism through which this happens.  They investigated how beliefs about intelligence affect whether people use the easily learned = easily remembered (ELER) heuristic to evaluate their learning:

We conducted two experiments in which participants studied word lists and then predicted their future recall of those items. Results revealed that subjects who viewed intelligence as fixed, and who tended to interpret effortful encoding as indicating that they had reached the limits of their ability, used the ELER heuristic to make judgments of learning. However, subjects who viewed intelligence as malleable, and who tended to interpret effortful encoding as indicating greater engagement in learning, did not use the ELER heuristic and at times predicted greater memory for items that they found more effortful to learn.

Essentially, people who viewed intelligence as fixed believed that increased effort was a signal learning had stopped. On the other hand, those who viewed intelligence as malleable believed that increased effort signaled greater learning was taking place. The finding helps shed some light on why students with incremental theories of intelligence are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty.