Every teacher is different. On one end of the spectrum, we find that history teacher who spent forty years reading the same content from the same book; on the other, Dead Poets Society’s John Keating, who inspires his students to make their lives extraordinary by whispering “Carpe Diem”.
Diversity and freedom are key in the world of education, but let’s face it: if we could ask all teachers to be as charismatic as the late Robin Williams, we would probably do it.
Now, though science probably won’t ever be able to turn us into wonderful actors, the last few decades have witnessed a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that link brain and education. The results of research conducted by cognitive scientists have led to more and more schools adopting new approaches that fall under the umbrella of “active learning”.
Such innovative methods are called “constructivist”, as they focus on activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert in traditional exposition-centered course designs.
As a teacher in a traditional set-up, is it necessary to completely overturn one’s habits to improve student engagement and performance? The answer is no: devoting as little as 10% of lectures to cooperative activities is sufficient to start reaping the benefits of active learning, as proven by a 2014 meta-analysis of 225 studies (Freeman et. al, 2014).
By making sure your courses include several of the following elements, you can make your classes more engaging than most:
Students know what the lesson is going to be about before it starts. Ideally, they should come to class having read the material at home.
You start with the conclusions. That way, in case some students get distracted during the lecture, they will still have heard - and hopefully remember - the key elements you wanted to communicate.
You appropriately split your course content into units, or “chunks”. Research demonstrates that, on average, individuals can store seven items in their short-term memory. In other words, giving students too much material at once is counterproductive.
You make frequent use of quizzes (open and multiple choice questions, etc.) during class, not only to evaluate your students’ performance, but also to structure their knowledge. This is called retrieval practice.
You design some of these quizzes to test the deeper understanding of your students. You make sure they are able to transfer their knowledge to a fresh new context.
You use pre-existing concepts and previous material to explain new concepts, so that students strengthen their network of knowledge and learn to do this autonomously.
Spaced learning is a very effective learning technique that is seldom applied: do not hesitate to review content during the weeks or even months following the initial exposure.
You organise problem solving exercises by making your students alternate between problems they are familiar with and new ones. This technique is called interleaved practice.
You always provide metaphors and examples, and you combine verbal explanations with graphics and images. This means students encode the same information multiple times, greatly facilitating their brain’s storage activity.
Students are encouraged to ask questions and reformulate the concepts being taught, by generating their own examples or by creating schemes and diagrams. They should know why and how things work.
You devote some class time to discussion between students. By doing so, students can share the strategy they employ to understand new concepts with their peers, which is a piece of information you should also carefully take into consideration as a teacher!
You are aware that letting peers discuss a problem has several positive effects on students: they are more committed; they can externalise their answer; they shift from facts to reasoning; eventually, they get emotionally invested in the learning process.
These solutions are not the whole story. Many elaborate models of active learning exist, but they all give maximum importance to the end-user, the student, and they generally revolve around the following four concepts:
Student ownership: as the old adage says, “whoever does the work does the learning”. Indeed, once they own their learning, students will be enabled to evolve in their professional future without someone praising or supporting them.
Personalised education: Students should get the right material at the right time. However, this doesn’t mean that the teacher should provide a personalised treatment at all times. Rather, that is an area where technology can help. Kids who are ahead of others could interact with a computer and complete some extra tasks.
Mastery based education: students should show competency before moving to a different topic. This should allow them to fill their gaps on time.
Deep relationships: this is one of the most difficult goals to achieve in the classic thirty-to-one class format.
We know what you’re thinking: few teachers have the freedom to structure their time the way they wish. Start by focusing on what you can do rather than what you can’t; make sure every one of your students can benefit from new experiences: this will be the first of many iterations. By embracing this approach, you’re doing school design already!
If you want to shake up your teaching practices to make your classes even more effective, download our checklist: “9 things to keep in mind to captivate your students”!
For more information:
- Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, Institute of Education Sciences (U.S. Department of Education) https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498555.pdf
- Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-017-0087-y
- Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., & Caviglioli, O. (2018). Understanding How We Learn. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203710463