Post No.: 0323
Most people say they personally prefer a certain learning style to another. For example, some say they’re more of a visual versus verbal or auditory learner, some prefer to read something on a page or screen rather than have it presented face-to-face, some like going to a live lecture while others prefer to just read up on the notes afterwards, and some prefer learning hands-on while others say they’re fine with just watching a video. And these preferences tend to be stable over time.
But do these personal preferences in the way information is presented actually make a difference to people’s learning efficiency? Well the data is currently mixed so it’s inconclusive, with some studies suggesting that it helps when learners receive their preferred style while others give the opposite result(!) Perhaps a more careful definition of learning styles and/or a more sensitive test can clear this up? In the meantime, teachers should use whichever method works best overall, whether this happens to fit the preferred style of an individual student or not. And regarding small classes, these aren’t necessarily better either unless we take advantage of giving more time to each student and design lessons that make the most of small classes.
Due to fluency or cognitive ease (see Post No.: 0303), watching an easy-to-digest documentary may make the subject matter go down easily, which may make the subject seem easy, which may in turn make people feel good about themselves and make them think they fully understand the material – but test them on the material a month or two later and you’ll frequently find that they cannot remember the details; yet the memory of them finding it easy at the time sticks, which all together may lead to them mistakenly thinking that they know more than they actually do about the subject. And seeing things happen doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know those things either (e.g. watching movies doesn’t mean you’ll know how to make them). So cognitive ease can give the illusion of understanding and long-term retention.
Meanwhile, it has been shown that an optimal, rather than easy, level of difficulty can enhance true and long-term understanding and retention. This has been coined ‘desirable difficulties’ – a learning task should ideally involve a considerable yet desirable amount of effort. And this somewhat links with the feeling of ‘flow’, where flow is achieved when accomplishing a task that is optimally between being too boring and too challenging.
A lot of education in schools involves listening passively to a lecturer, but it would be far better if students were more actively engaged, such as learning by doing, experimenting for themselves, letting students come up with their own examples, giving them homework or testing them a day or two later, outlining or summarising what was last taught and generally generating content themselves. It’s not optimal to be merely a passive sponge. The effort and struggle in coming up with ideas and content of your own is what helps make learning stick.
So if you’re a teacher – make your students work for it! The answers cannot be handed to them on a plate. You won’t be doing them any favours if the material goes down too easily as they might start to believe that they understand it when they actually don’t. Don’t present material in such a polished way that it will simply wash over your students without them needing to interact or think hard about it. So a bit of reading (like with this blog!) does some good, and if they write up their own lists or draw their own diagrams rather than passively copy existing ones then they’ll improve their learning and retention of the material. The material must obviously still be clear – the challenge shouldn’t be in the deciphering of the confusion or ambiguity of the material but in the testing of the understanding. They might hate the extra effort at the time but they’ll thank you later in life! Woof!
Mix up questions from across multiple chapters so that they have to try to figure out where to find the answers, rather than just what the answers are. There has to be some challenge and struggle – an achievable but challenging struggle. The difficult balancing act is for lessons to be effortful without students losing enthusiasm or getting frustrated, so it must also balance interest, fun, excitement, intrigue, have some teasers and have some logical organisation too.
Maybe use flashcards with the question on one side and the answer on the reverse. Don’t just simply give the question and answer together. Reading a question and answer together dozens of times doesn’t reliably lead to retention – students must generate the answers from memory and without prompts, just like in a real-world situation where one needs to demonstrate one’s knowledge (where not being able to recall a piece of information has the same practical effect as not knowing it at all, and it’s usually a bit late when you can recognise the right answer but only after it has been revealed because everybody knows what the right answer is by then!)
Through failure and trial and error, one can learn. If it feels easy then it’s not the best preparation – train harder than in the competition/test conditions! This will make the competition/test day feel comparably less stressful. Short-term pain, long-term gain. Make the material not too perfectly organised. Space lessons apart too – retrieval from memory and spacing is the basis of doing homework. Vary the situations or place of learning and revision so that they’re not constant or predictable – adaptability indicates deep understanding rather than merely memorising via rote.
I definitely think that a great tip is to indeed train harder than in the competition conditions, if possible. At least occasionally train as hard as it’ll be during the competition (bearing in mind one’s training and competition schedule to peak at the right time(s) regarding physical competitions). This is why athletes train at high altitude or in hypoxic chambers even though the competition venue might be at sea level. It’s also why good product design involves testing products a little bit beyond how they’re expected to be used by consumers (i.e. allow some tolerance for abuse). At least occasionally perform in public during training and/or train with something important at stake now and again – this way it’ll all feel familiar thus you’ll feel less nervous and you should find it relatively easier to perform as you know you can, come competition time.
Push your comfort zones during practice so that your comfort zones get wider and your confidence gets higher for the real thing – succeeding with tough challenges, in any case, builds up your confidence. Just like physical exercise must be tough, yet achievable, in order for us to grow stronger and more confident of meeting the next challenge – cognitive exercise must also be tough, yet achievable, for the same reasons too. You won’t get smarter by staying comfortable and practising your 10x table, no matter how much you practice it(!) And during training is the best time to experiment and make mistakes too.
Too often, people only learn in situations or ways that are too far removed from the actual exam situations or ways, but reading the answers in front of you isn’t the same as recalling the answers purely from memory. The best way to answer if you’ll be able to do something well in the future is to simulate it in the present by using as close to the exact real-world or test circumstances as possible. If you want to get better at dancing in front of an audience then practise dancing in front of an audience. It’s the same principle with academic subjects. For example, if you want to get better at solving maths problems then do some real-world maths problems in a real-world way (e.g. by doing your saving and budgeting plan for your next holiday), and ideally do a bit regularly each day or week rather than rely on cramming. You wouldn’t cram for a marathon after all. (Yes the body obviously needs regular rest to build physical fitness over time but the mind also needs regular rest and the spacing of lessons to optimise long-term retention.)
Practising under safe conditions (e.g. singing alone at home) is not the best way to practise if you want to be sure that you will cope with potential anxieties like stage fright. Again practise under competition, test, audition or stage situations regularly (if nothing else, record your practises, play them back and critique them). Plan and prepare for every possibility too. There are ways to try to stay composed when on stage or on court (e.g. breathing more fully/diaphragmatic breathing, mentally centring oneself, bringing oneself mentally back to the present, personal rituals like bouncing the ball twice before a free throw for absolutely every free throw no matter how important or unimportant the points are).
So it’s best to rehearse for these potentially stress-inducing situations in order for us to know that we can perform under these situations, because there’s a massive difference between remembering what to do and being able to do it under ‘safe’ compared to under ‘real’ conditions. It’s like it’s easy to claim what you ‘will’ or ‘would’ do as you sit there all calm, but hard to know whether you actually will or could do it when your adrenaline is soaring (this is a common arrogance of armchair critics who harshly criticise sportspeople or quiz show contestants!) It’s not always possible to emulate the stakes or situations during training but we should try the best we can.
However, most of us actually perform at our best not when completely calm but when optimally aroused. Some nerves means that you care or are excited, but being too nervous can lead to hesitancy or choking. And fun and motivation are still vital during lessons and training because these optimal techniques for learning come more naturally if we find something fun and if we’re (intrinsically) motivated to do them. In making the exams or competitions less scary, we shouldn’t make the lessons or training too scary instead!
When training for situations that will be inherently uncertain, highly stressful and dangerous (e.g. in the event of an outbreak of fire in a building) – have pre-planned ‘standard operating procedures’ and practise them until they become second nature because you never know when you might need them – this is why we have regular fire drills, and we treat these drills as if the real event. Unless you can stay composed enough, the last thing you’ll want is to need to think hard about what to do under a fuzzy, panicky state of mind because bad or irrational decisions are mostly made under these circumstances. So in these situations, you don’t want to think too much – just execute what was rehearsed. Thus even though we cannot always safely train by accurately emulating the ‘real’ situations, we can still somewhat train for them so that we’re mentally prepared in a worst-case scenario.
Devices or other things that make our lives easier can often eventually become crutches too (e.g. if we always use smartphones to help us navigate then we might not bother learning how to navigate without them, or if we keep relying on reminders or alarms for even the simplest things then we’re not practising using our own memories as much). Therefore it’s wise to remove such aids and go ‘old school’ now and again to improve our skills and comfort zones in case we might need those skills. (Phones are also a constant distraction for many people – just having one nearby causes people to constantly check it or at least constantly want to do so.)
Woof! If you know of any other ways to make exams or competitions less scary then please share these tips with us via the Twitter comment button below.