by Andrew Sheppe ‘00 and Jordan Graham, History Faculty
This “analysis over content” theory faced its first real challenge from that same old stubborn annoyance that has bedeviled all theories: the students themselves. As much as we derided trivia, we could not help noticing that the students doing the best analysis were exactly those students who had memorized the most facts. This phenomenon makes intuitive sense. What, exactly are you meant to be analyzing if you don’t know anything. Put another way, why would you Google, “When did the Ottomans conquer Constantinople?” if you have never heard of the Ottomans or Constantinople. Put a third way, Facts without analysis are trivia, but analysis without facts is nonsense.
Our suspicion that we have not, in fact, moved into a world where education can be divorced from memorization received some solid support recently. During faculty in-service training in 2015 and 2018, longtime educator Dr. Kevin Mattingly, drawing largely on the work of Peter C. Brown and his book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, emphasized the importance of memory in the learning process. We heard about the limits of working memory, the process by which memories are converted from short-term to long-term, and the difference between guided and free recall. Dr. Mattingly insisted that, more than focus or time on task, the act of thinking and comparing while learning led to successful memorization. The tactics were important, but not as important as the shift in underlying assumptions: we were now back in a world where the goal of education was to make information stick in students’ heads. Uncoverage without coverage joined “learning styles” on the list of theories that look, in retrospect, like fads.
During our in-service last summer, we met Dr. Efrat Furst, a Fellow at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. Dr. Furst also serves as Education and Research Communicator for researchED, an organization that brings research in education to educators. Dr. Furst shared Dr. Mattingly’s confidence that knowledge and memory are inseparable. Where Dr. Mattingly focused most on the importance of “what you are thinking about when you encounter a new fact,” Dr. Furst shared with us her work on the importance of “recall practice.” Put simply, we do not remember the ideas that we have seen the most, or the ideas that are the most compelling. Rather, we remember the ideas that we have tried, actively, to recall the most. Each time we try to find a fact or understanding in our memory, we strengthen the “pathways” to that idea. This observation has implications for every stage of the learning process...
This summer we sat down to redesign three of our courses, AP US History, AP European History and Advanced History of the West, a combination of the first two. We built in time every week for low-stakes recall exercises. We give ungraded recall quizzes early in the week and gave a follow-up quiz for a grade at the end of the week. We ask the students to answer with terms, rather than prompting them with key terms. For example, “Identify a Native American civilization that established permanent cities with high population densities” works better than “Describe Cahokia.” While both styles have merit, ours allows for a high volume of recall at little cost to class time. The quizzes are comprised of only 10 questions and take less than 5 minutes. Again, limiting impact on class time is a major focus. As the year goes on, the quizzes constantly overlap each other, allowing students to see the same content repeatedly. Quizzes will include content from the past week of class, the weeks before, and/or content from months before, thus putting Dr. Furst’s research into practice.
While the framing appears simple, the project offered two clear barriers. First was the creation of question bank. We addressed this first problem with the creation of a stockpile of these recall questions (300-500 questions per course) so that we can deploy them as often as possible with little time devoted to preparation. As the AP tests move toward interpretive multiple-choice questions, we push back, insisting that the facts must come first. The second barrier was what to do with the data we took in from the quizzes. How do we know that students are seeing increased retention from one week to another? From one quarter to another? In the first month of classes, students are remembering content after the second or third quiz, where they were missing it on the first quiz. However, the success of this will be determined if student recall improves with even greater space between initial contact with the content (time in class) and continued recall (quiz #2, #3, and beyond)...
by Mike Carrigan and Ian Casey, Science Faculty
In the introduction to his (relatively) famous Physics Lectures, the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman noted, “We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules. The rules of the game are what we mean by physics.” Almost a century earlier, another famous physicist, Ernest Rutherford, wrote more dismissively, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” These quotes touch on a feature of teaching and learning physics that is both liberating and deeply challenging. There’s very little information to commit to memory (“content”), and instead we devote our time learning how to apply a small set of tools to make predictions (“skills”)...But the skills-intensive nature of physics presents its own set of difficulties, greatest of which is that problem solving through the application of first principles is a high-order thinking skill, and many students have little experience with this type of challenge. In fact, most successful high school students have become successful by using the brute-force approach of reducing problem solving to a set of algorithmic steps that can be memorized and then applied unthinkingly. Creating, organizing, and applying such heuristics is a valuable skill in its own right, but it’s an end-run around the real prize: Transference.
Transference is “a cognitive practice whereby a learner’s mastery of knowledge or skills in one context enables them to apply that knowledge or skill in a different context. Because transfer signals that a learner’s comprehension allows them to recognize how their knowledge can be relevant and to apply it effectively outside original learning conditions, transfer is often considered a hallmark of true learning” (Barnett and Ceci). The question for all teachers-- but especially for physics teachers-- is how to teach students to solve novel problems using tools they’ve used in other contexts...So, rather than looking at a situation and wondering, “is this a chapter six problem?” a student would be encouraged to ask, “which model best applies to this scenario?” It’s a subtle shift, but one that we hope will lead our students to become more flexible problem solvers...