Tag Archives: teaching

Why I regularly test my students even if it’s not popular (and the takeaway for peak learners)

testing students

This may surprise you, but I get criticized for my way of teaching. More precisely, some of my colleagues think I give too many evaluations. I confess I love my quizzes, and I typically assess my students’ progress every week.

But “teachers should spend less time testing and more time teaching” as the Badass Teachers Association often reminds me on Facebook. Similarly, for some of my colleagues, my strategy just reeks of old-school thinking. They say frequent quizzes undermine learners’ sense of responsibility and intrinsic motivation.

But, to me, regular testing has always felt intuitively right, and a few years ago, this intuition was confirmed by the largest evidence-based research about what works best in education. John Hattie’s mega-study Visible Learning is a synthesis of 50,000 studies involving more than 80 million students; there’s a reason why it’s been called the holy grail of education.

Hattie has identified 138 influences on student achievement and ranked them by degree of effectiveness. Here’s his top ten.

Optimized-ranks

As you clearly see, providing formative evaluation ranks third (formative means low or no point value). Let me repeat this: testing has the third most powerful effect on learning among hundreds of investigated variables.

The thing is, formative assessments do two main things.

  1. They measure learning
  2. They strengthen learning

First, progress monitoring provides a great window into where you’re at as well as what works and what doesn’t, which allows both the teacher and the student to adjust accordingly. And the more often they get this feedback, the faster they can course correct.

Second, many recent studies (most likely included in Hattie’s mega-study) have established that taking tests is one of the best ways to reinforce learning, and that it should be done sooner rather than later (even if you haven’t finished learning).

For example, one of the studies shows that giving short quizzes on a regular basis like I do increases performance by about half a letter grade as opposed to relying on four major exams. The most famous research has been done by Roediger, who has listed ten benefits of testing.

This is the takeaway for peak learners. You really have to stop seeing studying and testing as two different things.

Testing / self-testing is learning at its best.

Of The 3 Domains of Learning, Which One Is Yours?

bloom's three domains of learning

I’ve been going to that new coffee shop in my area, and this place has two doors side by side, but you can only open one of them because the other is kept locked. Each time I leave the building, do you know what happens? I go for the wrong door (on my left) even if I know it’s locked.

Doctor, why can’t I learn faster? Breaking stupid habits should be a piece of cake for peak learners, shouldn’t it?

The thing is, learning is a big concept that applies to many situations. Of course, it always involves some change or adaptation, but that’s about where the common denominator stops. So you can easily be a peak learner in one domain and an average joe in another.

As it turns out, all things learnable can be sorted out into three big domains. As the education expert Benjamin Bloom showed, you can either make a change in what you know, in what you feel, or in what you do.

In other words, learning can occur in:

  • the cognitive domain (head)
  • the affective domain (heart)
  • the psychomotor domain (hands)

The cognitive domain includes knowledge recall and mental skills; it’s really about things you learn in school. In my posts, I may seem to be biased toward this domain, but that’s because I’m a teacher and I can’t help it (sorry).

The affective domain involves emotions, attitudes and behaviors; so it covers everything from being aware of your environment to internalizing values that will determine the way you act. This domain is often overlooked, but it’s everywhere in your life.

The psychomotor domain is about manual and physical skills; so it includes manipulating objects and moving your body to perform tasks found in most jobs. Here, you learn by doing, either through imitation or mental representation, which often requires System 1 (see previous post).

Even if it’s possible to reach peak learning in solely one domain, try to take a holistic approach and get the three domains involved whenever you can.

Creating as many neural pathways as possible is the ultimate goal of peak learning.

Why Rewards Aren’t Good for Learning

kids and rewards

I want my kids to become peak learners. So, I have them play creative games, do cognitive activities, and practice foreign languages.

And to get them fully on board, I’ve been using the magical power of rewards. I started with cute little stickers, then I moved to a token system, but now I’m giving cold, hard cash.

Is it yielding results? You bet it is! They’re hooked on it. Skinner was dead on the money. Rewards act as powerful reinforcers; they do increase the occurrence of behaviors.

So what’s the problem?

As it turns out, external rewards undermine autonomy and intrinsic motivation, which are the holy grail of lifelong learning. According to the self-determination theory, in order to persist in their learning, people need to feel in control; they’re also better at what they choose to do. Rewards do the opposite, as they basically tell you that someone wants you to do something.

For example, many studies have shown that when you give people a reward for an activity at one time, later they’re less likely to choose that activity over other options, and when they do, they don’t persist for very long.

I can see this with my kids. When I stop paying, sorry, rewarding them for their efforts, they wonder what is going on, and they don’t instinctively turn to puzzles and memory games afterwards.

So what’s the solution?

First, don’t discard rewards altogether. Incentives like grades and competitions are wonderful motivators and provide great feedback. What you want to do is make sure the learning continues after the exam, contest or bonus is gone.

How do you do that?

Boost the learner’s autonomy and sense of competence. For example, focus on his/her own happiness of doing well instead of yours, reduce monitoring, and offer as much choice as possible (when, where and what task to do).

You want to train peak learners and really ignite their desire to learn? Give them passion, not rewards.

How To Create Teachable Moments

perfect teachable moment

What is a teachable moment? How do you provoke such a moment in the classroom, the office and the playroom?

(pause)

This is usually how I start my class. Question. Silence.

A teachable moment is often defined as an unplanned opportunity to offer insight to learners.

I don’t agree. You can plan teachable moments. As a teacher, trainer or parent, you should try to create them all the time.

How do you do that?

First, you need to grasp this fundamental principle: learning happens when thinking happens.

So what’s the easiest way to make learners think?

Here’s my two-step recipe:

  1. Ask a thought-provoking question.
  2. Wait.

Your thought-provoking questions must bring about vulnerability and curiosity, and they best achieve that goal when they start with how and why.

In Globalization, Lifelong Learning and The Learning Society, the education expert Peter Jarvis explains that learning can’t occur without a tension or disjuncture. He describes a disjuncture as a situation when our unthinking harmony with our world is disturbed, or when our past experiences are no longer sufficient to cope automatically with the situation.

This is exactly the kind of situation your questions must create.

The second step is as important, but very often omitted. You must give learners time to think about your questions. If you answer your own questions right away like I used to do, the whole process becomes worthless.

Waiting for the learner to come up with an answer often feels awkward, but that’s where the gold is found. As Jarvis shows, learning occurs when sudden changes or novel situations make people stop in their tracks, because they don’t know automatically what to do or how to respond.

That’s your teachable moment.

People don’t remember much of what they’re taught unless they stop and think. Asking (ourselves) questions is key here. So peak learners must do like kids. Never stop asking why.

How I Still Struggle with The Most Common Communication Mistake

public speaking

As a teacher and speaker, it still happens to me. Almost all the time actually. Even after many years of practice. My Toastmasters colleagues often remind me, but I can’t seem to learn.

In my lectures and speeches, I deliver too much info, I speak too fast and afterwards, I wonder why I can’t manage to fit all the material I prepared.

In his great book Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina calls this practice force-feeding, and says it’s the most common mistake in communication. Actually, the problem isn’t so much the amount the information, but the time given to connect the dots afterwards.

Why do teachers and trainers overstuff their students?

They focus too much on the feeding (teaching) and too little on the digesting (learning). Don’t get me wrong. Lectures and speeches are one of the best ways to quickly communicate knowledge, but the problem is that very little learning occurs while they’re given. Learning is an active and internal process that takes place afterwards.

What can you do to remedy that?

The solution is to prioritize learners, and learners want focus and clarity. Most experts forget what it’s like to be a novice, and flood their audience with too much information.

As a professional speaker once told me, a good speech should only deliver one point, and your audience must be able to clearly identify what it is. Lectures should similarly focus on one core concept.

So how can I defeat that communication demon, and finally become a great communicator?

I must understand that less is more. I must slow down, eliminate needless information, and focus on the one thing I want my class or audience to remember after I stop speaking.

Why The Most Depressing Fact in Education Isn’t That Depressing

how to prevent forgetting

I’ll always remember what our stats professor told us at the beginning of the semester years ago: “You’ll only remember 5% of what you’re currently learning at university.”

As a teacher now, I must bow to the evidence. The battle against forgetting has no end.

And Ebbinghaus’ famous forgetting curve confirms that. Students typically forget 90% of what they learn in class within 30 days, and most of that forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class.

This has got to be the most depressing fact in education, don’t you think?

Actually, not quite. For two reasons. There are two types of forgetting, and each plays an essential role in learning.

The first type of forgetting is active, and acts as a spam filter. It enables you to prioritize information and focus on what your brain thinks is important.

But what exactly does your brain deem important?

Our brain has evolved to retain info and skills that we need to use over a long period of time. Basically, we’re evolved not to waste a lot of energy learning what’s going to be used only one time. What is considered useless gets filtered out.

So for the brain, repetition means usefulness. Rehearsing and repeating tell your brain not to lose track of that info or skill because you’re going to keep needing it in the future.

This leads to the second type of forgetting, which is passive and referred to as decay. Memory fades with time, and that’s a pain, isn’t it?

But here’s the good news. Dr. Robert Bjork’s New Theory of Disuse shows that forgetting actually increases learning. Memory seems to have a muscle-like property; breaking down promotes rebuilding. This means that without some forgetting, you may get no benefit from further study.

As a peak learner, you should see forgetting as what it really is. It is a filter that blocks the background noise so the right signal can stand out.

You should also make the most of it. You want to remember something for a long time? Space your learning periods. This will enable forgetting to strengthen your learning.

Why I Send My Kids to A Traditional School (Old vs New School)

old school teaching

My two daughters attend a good old traditional school. They wear a uniform, learn respect, and have to memorize things. A lot of things. Sentences, formulas, dates, and many other facts.

Is this focus on raw knowledge justified? Is there a case to be made for rote learning? The answer is yes. If you want to become a peak learner, you first need to prioritize memory over thinking.

The supporters of the modern curriculum like to quote Montaigne, who famously preferred a well-made rather than well-filled head. They also argue that facts quickly become obsolete, are easily forgotten, and memorizing them is often a waste of time since so much info now lies at our fingertips. So learners should instead hone their reasoning, creativity and critical thinking.

No doubt, such skills lie at the core of what peak learning is. Relying on rote learning alone would restrict you to solving past problems.

But developing your thinking without a solid mental database is like starting a building without having all the necessary material. It’s counterproductive, and the best planning and building skills can’t make up for the lack of material.

As Hirsch notes in his famous essay “You Can Always Look It Up”, a simple definition can only be understood if you already know a large part of what you read. Ironically, you learn what you already know. That’s why experts are peak learners. They learn more, better and faster, precisely because they have access to a rich repertoire of knowledge.

Like in all things, balance is key. Learning without thinking leads nowhere, but reasoning and analyzing without having a good grasp of the facts will often prove as sterile.

Do you want to be a peak learner? Do like my kids. First master the fundamentals; then the higher levels of thinking will come naturally.