Teachers Should Read Research

Teachers should read research, on top of their teaching.
I know that teachers are always busy and the addition of reading academic research on top of the teaching/planning/grading load is unappealing. But hear me out. You will find that reading research saves your time, improves your teaching, and helps your students learn more. What’s not to like?

Through reading research on feedback, I found evidence that merely grading an assignment is not effective feedback. Now, I still must grade assignments, I am a teacher after all but I have been working on actually grading only summative type assignments. For formative assessments I have switched to completion based grading system with whole class feedback. When I apply this strategy, grading an entire class set of assignments takes 5-15 minutes depending on the type of assignment. And, better yet, my students are able to apply that feedback. I have more free-time and my students are learning more. It is great.

Through researching about cognitive science, I stumbled upon the Learning Scientists. From them I found out about spaced repetition and retrieval practice, among other strategies. I combined these findings with what I have learned about knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes.

Creating the knowledge organizers and flashcards was more work initially (Here is a how to blog I wrote on knowledge organizers and flashcards). But the payout for the effort has been tremendous. My students are using academic vocabulary to describe concepts instead of continuing to describe scientific concepts in everyday language.

For example:

Before After
When the convection current goes up it is because it weighs less when it is hot. It sinks when it is cold and heavier. A convection current rises because the heat lowers the mantle’s density. It sinks when the temperature is reduced and it becomes denser than the surrounding mantle.

Knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes are all great ways incorporate both spaced repetition and retrieval practice into your classroom. They are also a fantastically powerful tool to for vocabulary acquisition. Students with a better vocabulary will likely grasp the concepts you are teaching better and be able to more effectively think critically. This has opened new doors for my students as they can understand the concepts at a high level and now they have the vocabulary to not only answer questions properly (improving grades) but to ask much much better questions!

The Matthew effect is powerful. I try to teach my students as much as possible to leverage these effects for their benefit. It just so happens that I benefit too. 🙂

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Don’t Be Sexy: Just Teach!

Don’t be sexy, just teach!

Education is rather famous for its buzzwords/directives/policies that are here today gone tomorrow (STEM, STEAM, student-centered, sage on the stage, guide on the side, DI, di, montessori, discovery learning, inquiry-based instruction, explicit teaching, project-based learning, jigsaw, stations, lead learner, cloud classroom, Genius Hour, No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and many more). Some of these, I think are important approaches, and will prove themselves to be timeless. Others are neither inherently good or bad. Some, are harmful.

As teachers, we must be aware of this. Know that the latest craze is likely just a flash in the pan. If it fits and it helps students learn, do it. If not, don’t. Do not use things just because they are fun/sexy/new, use them because they are useful.

The fundamentals of education do not change, because the fundamentals of how humans learn don’t change. There have obviously been changes, but those changes have been cosmetic. Even the big ones. For example, computers are objectively a revolutionary technology. They have impacted us in a myriad of ways (education included). But even computers, with immense power both for and over us, (Is Google Making Us Stupid?) have not fundamentally changed how we learn.

Before electricity humans learned by observing, being told, and attempting. And now, we learn by observing, being told, and attempting. This is because we essentially have the same brains as our ancestors. Our knowledge is stored in our brains. Our neurons fire in a certain pattern, bringing the memory (information) to mind. The more we do this, the stronger the memory becomes (Learning Rewires the Brain).

Because how we learn has not changed, we can look at what time has tested to see what works.

So, no matter what your school is doing, apply time/research-tested approaches.

  1. Spaced repetition
  2. Retrieval Practice
  3. Elaboration
  4. Interleaving
  5. Concrete Examples
  6. Dual Coding

The best resources I have found are from the Learning Scientists and Retrieval Practice websites. Both have articles explaining the research base and resources for teachers to use.

You can apply any of the 6 strategies in your teaching no matter what your context is.

Ultimately, don’t blindly follow the sexy new thing (the sexy new thing can be BOTH inquiry-based learning and explicit teaching depending on your crowd). If you know how humans learn, know what works, and why it does, then you can apply that to whatever new, sexy education thing comes your way.

Don’t be sexy, just teach.

How To Make Knowledge Organizers and Flashcards And Reduce Your Workload

Knowledge organizers are a great way to…organize knowledge. They are also versatile and can be used in any subject. They should be used for the “core” information in a unit. This is information that you want all students to master. It will obviously include key terms, but it is not limited to memorizing vocabulary. Knowledge organizers should include concept based questions as well.

How to make a Knowledge Organizer

I start all my knowledge Organizers (KOs) in Excel/Googel Sheets. I do this because I use a brilliant tool created by Adam Boxer, Retrieval Roulette (Click on the link to see how to use Retrieval Roulettes, click on this one to see completed Retrieval Roulettes). I start by inputting the terms from an entire chapter of my science textbook.

The terms are in one column and the definitions are in another.

Next, I highlight the terms and definitions and copy them into a Word document. My KO is started. (In this example, I have already added concept questions to this Excel sheet, so the vocabulary words are spread out. To split them, I just insert a row below the last definition for the lesson.)

The Start of a KO.

The next step is to add key concept questions. I begin this in the Excel Retrieval Roulette file as well. As mentioned above, I insert the questions under the last vocabulary word for that lesson. To do so, I add a row and click the repeat button to add rows as necessary.1I repeat this step for each of the lessons in the chapter. Next, I select the questions that I think are most important for my students to grasp and I insert those into the KO using the same method as above.

Below is an example of a finished, diagram heavy KO.

After I make a KO for the chapter, I then create a flashcard set. Again, this relies on the Excel program and, as a bonus is incredibly simple. I simply highlight everything for that chapter and import it into Quizlet.

  1. Click create study set 2
  2. Click on import from Excel 3.PNG
  3. Select and copy the content you want to include from the excel file 4.PNG
  4. Paste the info here 5.PNG
  5. Click import 6.PNG
  6. Give your flashcard set a title, and then create it!

Next, depending on your students and school, physical flashcards may be more practical. Luckily, Quizlet offers an exceedingly simple solution. You can print your set of flashcards out.

  1. Click on print
  2. Select the size of flashcards you want
  3. Select double-sided printing
  4. Open the pdf
  5. Print

7.PNG

I’ve included some sample cards so you can get an idea of their sizes.

Small Double-Sided Flashcards Large Double-Sided Flashcards

The last thing I want to mention is that this process has greatly reduced my prep time (Once I figured out how to use the various programs/systems). I basically have my tests prewritten in the excel file and just need to reformat them when I create a test. I can also easily use the excel file to AUTOMATICALLY generate quizzes (seriously check out the retrieval roulette links at the beginning of the article, they are an absolute gold mine!)

And, as always, you must teach your students how to use the KO and flashcards even if it seems intuitive. If you don’t then your students will not benefit.

Flashcards in the Classroom

In this brief article, I intend to explain how I will put my previous article (how and why flashcards are effective) into practice.

First, I started by teaching my students how to use flashcards. This is paramount! Do not assume they understand how to use them effectively. To model how to use flashcards I borrowed a student’s set and put it under the visualizer so the whole class could see.

First, I read the card.

“Hydrosphere.”

Then I modeled my thought process.

“Hmm. Hydrosphere, well, I know that hydro means water and I know that sphere means ball. Hmm. Earth is round and has water. Hmm. Water on Earth? Wait. All the water on Earth!”

Next, I flip the card over and check my answer.

“Awesome! I got it right. Ok, so now I will put this card into the correct pile.”

I move on to the next card.

“What causes convection currents in the geosphere?”

I model my thinking again.

“Hmm. Geosphere, well that is the Earth. Hmm. The wind causes convection currents because the sun heats the Earth unevenly.”

I flip the card over.

“Oh. I was wrong. Convection currents in the geosphere means inside of the Earth. Convection currents are actually caused by heat from the Earth’s core heats the rock and which makes it less dense so it rises. Then it cools, gains density, and falls.”

I put the card in an incorrect pile.

I then tell the students to finish the deck. Next, students need to go through the “incorrect” pile until all the cards are in the “correct” pile.

I tell my students that they must read the card and say the answer in their head before flipping the card over. I also give them a small printout that includes the steps.

Introducing New Flashcards

I introduce new KOs and flashcards on the last day of a unit because I give some sort of assessment, and when students finish they can pick up their KO and flashcards to get a head start on the new unit.

When students finish the assessment, they will turn it in and pick up a knowledge organizer (KO) and a flashcard sheet (or several) that includes vocabulary and concept Q&As based on the KO (I will explore how I make them in a future post. For now, just note that this has helped reduce my workload).

In order to assure that students actually cut out and use the flashcards, I will begin the next class by having students practice using their flashcards either by themselves or with a partner for 5-10 minutes. This approach allows me to give a quick check to see if they actually did the work and serves to get the students familiar with the chapter’s terms/concepts. A study by Kelly Grillo in 2011 found that flashcards can have a positive impact in a short amount of time, at least in terms of test scores.

One benefit I have found in implementing flashcards is that all my students are more familiar with the terms, and my more motivated students learn the entire chapter’s terms by the end of the first week. This has helped my class to engage with key concepts and to apply what we are learning on a deeper level. I have also found, both with KOs and flashcards that it improves how I use class time in the margins. If we finish a lesson early and there are a few minutes left, I can have students practice their flashcards or review their KO which helps reinforce what we are learning. Before I would ask if there were any questions or would ramble about what we were learning. Both can be useful and helpful, but they are not the best ways to spend class time.

I am sure that I will refine my methods in the future, but I am quite happy with how integrating KOs and flashcards has been so far.

Why Are Flashcards So Effective?

There are two types of flashcards, physical and digital. As for which type is better, there is evidence that goes both ways. However, a recent study (Dizon and Tang, 2017) found that both are essentially equally effective if students have been taught how to use them. For teachers, I think we are fine to use whatever type works better for our context. Don’t stress about which form to use, just make sure you teach your students how to use them.

Flashcards are effective because they force students to use the study strategy of retrieval practice. When applying retrieval practice to a flashcard, students read the cue (question) and then they must retrieve, from memory, the information (answer). Then students look at the other side of the card and get feedback on whether they were correct or not. Each time a student retrieves the information correctly, they are reconstructing the memory of that fact/concept. This reconstruction makes it easier for students to recall the relevant fact/concept in the future.

The formatting of flashcards also lends itself to spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is exactly what it sounds like, spacing the repetition of the material out. The meaning and impact of spaced repetition becomes more clear when contrasted with cramming, its opposite. Cramming can be somewhat effective at improving student performance, but it doesn’t help much for actual learning as most of what a student crams will be forgotten shortly after the test (Bjork, 2012). Spaced repetition helps with both test performance and actual learning.

Now for some hard data. Flashcards have been shown to improve student performance on tests. A study found that students who used flashcards to study for every test in an “Intro To Psyc” class much better than those who did not use flashcards (Golding, Wasarhaley, & Fletcher, 2012). Another reason that teachers should use flashcards is that subject-specific vocabulary is the strongest predictor of student performance on content-based assessments (Espin and Deno, 1995). A study done by Nate Kornell looked at flashcards and test scores found that for 90% of students, spacing out their practice was more effective than cramming (Kornell, 2011). The same Kornell study found that students who used a spaced repetition flashcard strategy scored over 30% higher than students who used a massing flashcard strategy. In this case, the massing strategy involved using a small deck of flashcards on specific topics (lessons), whereas the spaced repetition strategy used a large set of flashcards that included information for the whole chapter. This provides evidence that flashcards are more effective when they utilize the interleaving study strategy.

As teachers, we care about test performance (It is important!) but actual learning (putting information into long-term memory) matters more. I believe that the above information gives strong evidence for utilizing retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and interleaving as study/teaching strategies. I also think that flashcards can be a way to integrate these study strategies into a simple, effective, and student-friendly form.

 

Dual Coding

The theory for Dual Coding was developed in the 1960’s by Allan Paivio. The theory states that people learn via separate systems but related systems (verbal and non-verbal). For example, your brain stores the image for pie in a different place than it stores the word pie. But the systems can work together, that is why you will visualize a pie when someone is talking about pies. And seeing an image of pie will often cause you to think of the word pie.

In order to utilize the dual coding strategy in your classroom, you need to use both verbal and nonverbal (visual) materials together. This is helpful because it gives your and your students’ brains two pathways to remember the information, one visual (with the image) and one “verbal” (with the written words).

In science, a great way to incorporate dual coding is to use diagrams. Diagrams contain both a written and a visual component. Giving your students multiple pathways to remembering, while also being streamlined. They are streamlined because they only hold the most relevant information. You can do this by having diagrams be part of your class notes.

This will allow students to have guided practice in making and organizing diagrams. Then, you can model how to read and interpret the diagram. After students are comfortable with making and reading basic diagrams you can have students use the diagrams to answer extension questions. This will have your students practicing the elaboration learning strategy along with the dual coding learning strategy, which should compound their effectiveness.

I have applied this strategy in my 5th grade science courses. We are studying the water cycle and climate (2 units that lend themselves perfectly to dual coding). I have had them create diagrams explaining the water cycle, transpiration, rainshadow, low pressure systems, and high pressure systems. Then we have added information that shows how to increase the rates of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, transpiration, and sublimation. The goal, by adding these details are to help students see how each step is affected by its environment, and to give greater understanding in how each step works.

I have also had students use their diagrams to write a paragraph explain the process of the water cycle or rain shadow. The goal here, is that they understand the diagrams enough to express what they show.

How do you use dual coding in your classroom?

 

Sources

 

http://www.chegg.com/homework-help/definitions/dual-coding-theory-13

 

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/9/1-1

Concrete Examples

 

The basic idea of concrete examples is simple enough. You take a new concept that is complex for a student and you relate it to something that is simple for that student. For example, if you are teaching about soil conservation you would need to communicate a variety of complex vocabulary to students such as humus, topsoil, erosion, contour plowing, etc. In order for all of these abstract concepts and terms to make sense, it helps for students to relate them to what they already know.

You can compare the humus and topsoil to plant food because students understand the concept of food already. As you do this, it is important to then relate how the plants ‘eat’ their food. As you do this you can talk about how the plant roots help to hold the soil in place, like how a paper clip helps to hold papers together. From here, you can talk about how contour plowing slows erosion by plowing with the curves of the land. You can then go back to your paper clip example and put more paper clips along the edges of the paper. Your students will see that instead of being close in only one part, the paper will be close everywhere because there are many paper clips spread out along the papers’ edges all working together to hold it tight.

Paper clips holding paper together is the concrete example, while contour plowing helping reduce erosion is the abstract example. By explicitly linking the concrete example to the abstract one, you can help your students know and understand complex concepts.

However, this is not enough. It is also important to practice concreteness fading in your classroom. Concreteness fading is exactly what it sounds like. You begin to use more abstract examples over time.

For our above example, the concrete example is how a paper clip can hold a packet of paper together and a group of paper clips can hold a packet of paper together more effectively, similar to how contour plowing helps hold the soil in place. In order to start the concrete fading the teacher can use the same or a similar example, but this time there is no physical example, just a drawing. Then, after that, the teacher can simply refer to how contour plowing can reduce erosion.

This is, of course, a vast simplification of the process. But the pattern is essentially true. It is helpful to start with a concrete example that is already understood by your students. Then make it slightly more abstract. And move towards only having the abstract concept, because the abstract concept is often the goal of the lesson.

 

Sources

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/8/25-1

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2018/2/1-1