A number of Colgate faculty (some examples below) have been taking advantage of empirical findings from applied cognitive science. One class of findings, “Desirable Difficulties“, refers to conditions where a learner feels that an approach is difficult or ineffective, but that approach actually leads to better learning. While at first this content area may seem to be oriented to the learner (our students), there are implications for us as faculty.
An example of a desirable difficulty is retrieval practice. Students tend to like to “re-study” material versus testing themselves on it, as forcing themselves to try and retrieve information is effortful, not always successful, and feels premature. The data, however, are clear that retrieval practice (whether self-testing, low-stakes quizzes, or “real” tests) has a powerful impact on learning (and not just memorization). A comprehensive review of this literature may be found here (Roediger, H., & Karpicke, J., 2006), and the reference and resource section below has other related links.
Three Colgate faculty, Spencer Kelly and Neil Albert in Psychology, and Liz Marlowe in Art and Art History, were kind enough to share with me how they use frequent assessment techniques in their courses. As you will see, Spencer, Liz and Neil report other benefits to their approaches in addition to the learning effects predicted from the literature.
Thus in addition to potential learning effects, Spencer notes his approach helps students come to class prepared, better integrate the information, and receive early and frequent feedback on their performance. Spencer also uses the results of the frequent assessments to adjust his teaching during the semester, rather than waiting for end-of-semester Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) and adjusting his course the next time it is offered.
Liz uses a graded mini-exam every class period, and wrote:
Like Spencer, Liz notes that the frequent assessments help students integrate information from various parts of the course, and to treat their learning as incremental and connected as opposed to packed knowledge acquisition and a “brain dump” during a high-stakes exam.
Neil also uses student work to adjust his teaching (“Just in Time Teaching”, see reference and resource section below), and wrote:
Thus, Neil’s approach to frequently asking students to reflect on the material indirectly requires retrieval practice by its very design, while also encouraging coming to class prepared and allowing the adjustment of his approach to the material based on where the students are struggling.
It is important to note that helping students utilize retrieval practice does not have to depend upon graded assignments nor use a lot of class time. For another example, in my Psychology 309 course, I utilize a number of low-stakes quizzes that take place out of class and that are submitted electronically. Each student has a separate data set, so they can share concepts with each other, but each must do their own calculations and they cannot “check” answers with each other, since each will be unique. Setting up the quizzes takes some time, but I can then use spreadsheets and a form plug-in in Google to quickly grade responses and provide feedback.
If you have been experimenting with more frequent assessments or finding other ways to enhance learning related to the “testing effect”, please do share your approach, as well as any consequences that you noticed (pro and/or con) in the comments section.
Happy teaching and learning.
References and Further Reading
- Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice from the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA.
- Test-Enhanced Learning in the Classroom – PDFs for research papers from Henry L. Roediger, Mark A. McDaniel, & Kathleen B. McDermott at Washington University.
- A write-up on Just in Time Teaching from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.
- An argument in favor of frequent, low stakes assessment from Faculty Focus.
An enormous THANK YOU to Professors Albert, Kelly and Marlowe!
Colgate Faculty: If you have ideas for future posts related to teaching at Colgate, please contact Doug Johnson in the CLTR.