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.

2 Reasons Why Learning a Second Language Is So Hard

second language acquisition

In my studies abroad and within my language-related work, I’ve heard plenty of second-language speakers. Yet I’ve only met one person who spoke my language as a second language with native-like fluency. I actually couldn’t believe it was his second language.

Why does learning a language seem so gleefully easy for babies, but so cruelly hard for adults? Why is it that the better you get at learning in general, the worse you perform in learning a language?

Here are your two culprits.

  1. The brain
  2. The learning process

For babies, learning means choosing. A three-year-old has about twice as many neural connections (synapses) as an adult. When synaptic pruning kicks in, weak connections get deleted while those that are used get a boost. So, as the brain gains in efficiency, it must let go of some opportunities.

This operation is obvious when it comes to language learning. A study by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson shows that, if you miss the boat and don’t get early exposure to a language (yes, the famous critical period), you’ll likely never reach native-like proficiency (sorry).

For example, babies at birth have the amazing capacity to distinguish the sounds of all human languages, but as they grow up, their brain cleans out the unused connections, and this sensitivity to other languages gets radically reduced.

Similarly, it seems impossible to perfectly re-acquire a gender-category system if you didn’t develop it as a kid (unlike English, most European languages attribute gender to nouns).

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s see what we can learn from the way babies master their native tongue.

Second language acquisition feels like climbing Mount Everest because we typically engage System 2 (see my post on this topic). When you study German in your living room or classroom, you emphasize that rational, deliberate and conscious learning process. You sit down and try to find ways to assimilate the material, right?

Children, on the other hand, master their native tongue exclusively through System 1, and don’t even need feedback about whether they’re getting it right. Unlike System 2, which takes place in the prefrontal cortex, System 1 uses the limbic system, where the learning process is implicit, instinctive and spontaneous.

That’s why immersion is so effective. Of course, sheer exposure plays a big role, but this method also enables System 1 to kick in and open up a whole new type of learning.

So what’s the lesson for those trying to pick up a foreign language?

First, relax. Feeling overwhelmed is normal. Your brain needs time to create new pathways. Also, bear in mind that some aspects of second-language learning have no critical period. Second, as peak learners now know, call upon the power of System 1 (stay tuned for more info on that).

People don’t naturally think like scientists (but peak learners should)

learners as scientists

One of my close friends definitely prefers “being right” than being accurate. He has lots of opinions and theories on everything, but if you show him evidence that contradicts one of them, he’ll put the full weight of his reasoning power to discount your evidence.

As it turns out, we’re all like him to a lesser or greater extent, and this flies in the face of the popular theory of discovery-based learning, which posits that students intuitively learn like scientists.

What does it mean to learn like a scientist?

It means you’re an active creator of your own learning, and you do this by

  1. exploring your environment,
  2. generating ideas about how things work,
  3. testing those ideas and
  4. changing your model accordingly.

In other words, scientific thinking is about coordinating evidence (things you observe) and theory (ideas about how those things work).

So, for people to think like scientists, they need at least to be able

  1. to distinguish theory and evidence and
  2. to update their theory in the light of new evidence.

As many studies have found, untrained people are bad at both.

After reading Researcher Deanna Kuhn’s study, you’ll indeed notice that people easily blur the difference between theory and evidence in everyday life.

Let me give you the simplest example. When you see people smile, you probably take this as evidence that they’re happy, right? But the thing is, you can’t see happy; happy is a theory. It may look like a safe theory, but it’s still a theory.

But even when theories don’t get confused with facts, shifting theories to match facts doesn’t come naturally for most people. As Lord, Ross and Lepper’s classic study showed, when they come across a fact that contradicts their theory, people will often ignore it or interpret it in a biased way (confirmation bias).

Of course, as evidence accumulates, people will eventually adjust their theory accordingly, but that process often occurs unconsciously; unlike scientists, people don’t actively review their models (Kuhn).

With information currently flowing from all directions, critical thinking is more needed than ever. But thinking like a scientist is an acquired skill, and a difficult one at that. And if you want to become a peak learner, you have no choice but to develop that skill.

The best first step you can take in that direction is to set your ego aside and ask yourself: “What would show me I’m wrong?”

4 Basic Strategies To Boost Learning Performance

how to be a top learner

Recently, one of my colleagues wanted to test my budding expertise and asked me to give him learning strategies you can’t live without, be it for improving dance moves, public speaking or language acquisition.

So here are four basic tricks given by Professor Monisha Pasupathi in How We Learn.

  1. Spread out your rehearsals
  2. Mix them up
  3. Draw the connections
  4. Sleep on it

Spacing out your rehearsals is the essential first step for anyone serious about learning. Leaving enough time between your practices or studying is like changing your Pentium computer for the latest iMac (sorry if you’re not into Macs). It just turbo-charges your performance. To know how much time is enough time, check my post on the topic.

Varying the way you learn is your second performance booster. Remember the old advice of sticking to a strict practice routine? Throw that out the window. You want to often change where, when and how you practice and study. For example, instead of always reviewing your Spanish with flashcards at the kitchen table, try finding the words in texts or talking about it to friends. Each change in your routine reinforces your learning by making it more independent from the context.

Using elaborative encoding in the third strategy applicable everywhere. This big word simply means that you need to connect your new material to what you already know, either deliberately by organizing it around past info and experience, or implicitly by using past movements to generate new ones. For more details, check my post on the topic.

Getting a good night’s sleep is your fourth power. Sleeping consolidates learning by helping the brain complete new neural connections forged through practice and study. Brain images show that the patterns of activities occurring while learning are reproduced during REM sleep (and it’s a good thing your body is paralyzed during that phase). Sleep is like an extra rehearsal at the brain level.

So that’s what I told my colleague. You want to reach peak learner status in your field? Start by making these habits part of your daily routine.

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.

The Two (Almost Opposite) Ways of Learning: System 1 and System 2

humans' dual cognitive processor

In my recent posts, I’ve insisted on the importance of deep thinking. I even said that there’s no peak learning without effective thinking.

Well, this is not exactly true.

In some cases, thinking can actually hamper your learning. The popular Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a whole book (Blink) to show that deliberate thinking often reduces performance.

Really? How can that be?

That’s because humans have two separate learning mechanisms, often called System 1 and System 2. In fact, this idea of a dual process is applied to many cognitive functions such as memory, attention, social cognition, reasoning and decision-making.

By the way, the prominent psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on this topic, which he summarized in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive and unconscious. It’s an old system based in the limbic system and shared by all animals. Thanks to this system, babies learn languages, you fine-tune your movements when playing a sport or musical instrument, and you update the map of your city without being aware of it.

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, logical and conscious. It’s located in the prefrontal cortex, and enables you, for instance, to learn foreign languages, change a behavior and operate a new machine.

Of course, we take pride of System 2, which has produced most of our culture, knowledge and expertise. In comparison, we often look down on system 1 as primitive and prone to error.

But brushing aside System 1 like I’ve done so far in this blog is wrong. This system is fast, powerful and most of the time reliable. Unlike System 2, it can process tons of information at the same time.

Many studies have shown that experts mostly rely on pattern recognition (S1) rather than analysis (S2) to solve typical problems. That’s why experienced doctors, chess masters and top football players are so quick at spotting the best solution, and that’s also why musicians’ and athletes’ performance suffers as soon as they start thinking about it.

In certain domains, peak learners need to move beyond academic learning, and turn their system-2 analytic skills into system-1 intuitive expertise.

Why the Gap Between the Educated and the Illiterate is Growing

people no longer read

Recently, I attended a conference on the future of the book. The speaker made the distinction between two kinds of readers, namely shallow and deep readers.

Shallow readers typically grab information on the go and consume it on electronic devices. Deep readers, on the other hand, practice slow reading and like to pause to reflect on the text they’re reading.

One type of reader, the speaker said, is growing in number, while the other is in sharp decline. Can you guess which is which?

Deep reading is losing ground for the most part because it’s increasingly hard to find distraction-free spaces (and yes, those are getting scare because deep reading is less popular). Even university libraries seem to shy away from guaranteeing the three prerequisites for deep reading, namely withdrawal, attention and silence. Rather, the big trend is for multimedia areas, team rooms and coffee shops.

What’s the consequence of this shift?

The speaker at the conference wasn’t the timid type. He argued that the old divide between the educated elite and the illiterate masses is making a comeback. People are losing the necessary skills to integrate written knowledge effectively.

Yes, my friends, you’ve read me right. The ideal of the democratization of education is taking a blow.

To me, this is overly alarmist. Neither do I agree with Nicolas Carr that Google is making us stupid.

That being said, there’s room for concern. Whether this is a modern problem or not, few people fully engage with written knowledge. Most are merely interested in getting information.

Deep reading enables you to transform information into knowledge.

Knowledge is information that has become part of your understanding and experience. If you don’t take the time to connect the dots and integrate what you read, you’re not really learning.

So find a quiet spot, dive into your reading and become a peak learner.

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