How Can We Convince Students That Easier Doesn’t Always Mean Better?

Full vitae highlighters stop

Image: photosteve101Creative Commons

When our student newspaper invited me to contribute an essay to its Faculty Corner column, I decided to give myself a challenge: Write something about learning research that students might actually read. So I picked a provocative headline: "Want Good Grades? Ditch That Highlighter."

I’ve spent the past decade conducting research and writing books about how to improve college teaching — but all of that work has been aimed at faculty readers. My goals in this case were to reorient the research for students and avoid a lot of eyes glazing over.

The column I eventually published, and reposted on my blog, was designed to show students why their most common study habits — highlighting and rereading their notes and textbooks — were mostly ineffective for long-term learning.

There’s nothing wrong with highlighting, I explained, and it can work for some students in the short term, like cramming right before a test. But because highlighting has little long-lasting effect, it requires students to study longer, and with less impact, than if they had been using more effective strategies all along — like self-testing or "spaced practice."

That 2018 essay has been the most-read post, by far, on my blog. It represents my contribution to a growing list of web resources designed to help students recognize how scholarship on learning can make them more successful in college. A new generation of cognitive scientists has been working actively to translate their research findings into practical recommendations for both teachers and students.

For example, a group of four cognitive-psychological scientists have created a website, The Learning Scientists, aimed at providing clear, useful summaries of recent research and debates about learning, as well as practical takeaways for students, faculty members, and even parents. Last year their research group produced a highly accessible book, Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide, that includes graphic illustrations of core concepts.

On their website you can find weekly digests, a podcast, downloadable materials, videos about learning, and more. I find their work enlightening and readable, as I’m sure would any learner who explored the online resources they have designed specifically for students.

Academics face a fundamental challenge, however, in their efforts to help students use these findings to their advantage. Translating our research into practical recommendations will make a difference only if we can persuade students to actually follow those recommendations.

The problem is: Effective learning requires a lot of hard work, and students — much like all humans — prefer things to be easy.

One learning principle that takes more effort but has been demonstrated to produce lasting results is "interleaving" — the practice of studying subjects in a mixed, recursive order, as opposed to "blocked" (or "massed") learning in which students study one topic at a time in depth before moving on to the next.

Say you have to learn three new concepts: A, B, and C. In blocked learning, you focus first on concept A until you feel you have it mastered. Then you do the same for concepts B and C. With interleaving, you study concept A for a while, but then move to concept B before you’re completely ready. You return to A, and then maybe try C for a while.

That kind of reiterative approach to learning forces you to continually exercise your memory as you shift from concept to concept, and also helps you develop the critical skills you need to discriminate between different contexts. Interleaving helps students solve problems, retain knowledge, and adapt what they’ve learned in one subject to another.

Unfortunately, researchers also have discovered, time and again, that interleaving feelsineffective and uncomfortable, at least in the short term. When you master subjects one by one, that feels good. Interleaving, by contrast, puts you off-balance, continually back on your heels. For that reason, students prefer to study each subject in a distinct block of time.

That preference runs so strong that even understanding the limitations of blocked learning might not change students’ behavior.

A 2014 book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning — another outstanding resource for both teachers and students — cites a study in which students practiced learning about the painting styles of different artists in blocked (focusing on one artist at a time) and interleaved (studying a mix of artists at once) fashion. The test results clearly showed the greater power of interleaving.

But those results, the authors wrote, didn’t change students’ preferences: "Even after they took the test and could have realized from their own performance that interleaving was a better strategy for learning, they clung to their belief that the concentrated viewing of paintings by one artist was better."

We should all resist the urge to use any of this as yet another excuse to criticize "today’s students." Most of us — students or not — prefer an easy route over a hard one, especially when it feels like the easy route will get us to the same destination (i.e., passing a test).

Persuading students to try more difficult, yet more effective, study habits may become increasingly challenging thanks to the explosion of cellphone apps and other new technologies that promise to make our lives easier. And they are indeed an incredible boon: I use apps when I need driving directions, quick reviews of nearby businesses, and weather reports; I use them to track my steps throughout the day and send me reminders about my schedule.

All of those apps have been designed for ease of use. That very quality, according to Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, determines their popularity. A faculty member recommended I read Eyal’s work after I gave a presentation about my current book project on attention and distraction. He thought it might help me to study how app designers capture, and keep, the attention of users.

A guru on the development of tech products, Eyal documents (with the book’s co-author, Ryan Hoover) the ways in which successful app developers and technology companies design for ease. He outlines a fourfold process for this development, one step of which is "Action" — that is, the moment when the user engages with the app or product. In order to get the user to take action, Eyal explains, the design must make it as painless as possible. "Doing must be easier than thinking," he writes. "The more effort — either physical or mental — required to perform the desired action, the less likely it is to occur."

You have probably noticed how frequently you can now sign up for things with your Facebook credentials, eliminating the need to spend a whole two minutes typing in your information. As Eyal notes: "For companies building technology solutions, the greatest return on investment generally comes from increasing a product’s ease of use."

Take another look at the Google home page, and notice how much white space you see there. Ever wonder why? According to Eyal, that design leaves you nothing to think about: Just type in your search words and you’re done.

The faculty member who suggested Eyal’s work to me thought I might learn something from it, and learn something I did: As technology makes our lives ever easier, we might find it increasingly challenging to persuade students (and ourselves) to put in the hard work that produces durable learning.

I’m neither a doomsayer nor an eternal optimist about technology. It changes what we do, and those changes can affect both teaching and learning in contexts ranging from the kindergarten classrooms to the tech-rich learning labs of the new academic building in which I work and teach. We should be willing to look those changes in the eye, and consider how to adapt and respond. Sometimes those changes will lead us in productive new directions — and sometimes they will pose obstacles.

Today’s obsession with ease of use seems like something academics might have to fight against in the college classroom. The good research we are producing about how students best learn can only go so far. For it to have an impact, we have to find ways to get students to follow it.

I stalled on finishing this column for a long time, hoping that eventually a clever solution of some kind would present itself to me, and I could then share it with you, dear reader. After all, writing poses some of the same challenges that learning does: It benefits from struggle and time. Flashes of inspiration come along, but they don’t get words on the page. That requires putting in the hours, butt in the seat, and returning again and again to the draft until you get it right.

When you do get it right, of course, nothing beats it. The same goes for true learning. The pleasure we get from mastery of new knowledge and skills remains in our corner as a motivation for students to do the hard work that learning requires. I’m not by any means giving up hope that we can both show them the way toward real learning and guide them down the path.

But it won’t be easy — and as our technologies continue to smooth the rough pathways of our everyday lives, it might just get harder.

James M. Lang is a professor of English and director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse

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