Psychology Hacks to Become a Better Teacher (or Student!)

November 16, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski


At some point in our lives, we all act as
teachers. Maybe you’re trying to make sure your BFF
doesn’t fail algebra, or helping your kid with their social studies homework. Or maybe you’re a teacher-teacher who wrestles
with classes of students every day, and if you are, let me just say thank you for doing
that, because teachers rock, and society would crumble without you. Regardless of who or why you’re teaching,
though, the goal is ultimately for your student or students to retain the information you’re
trying to pass on. And you might think you know how to make that
happen. But it turns out that a lot of classic teaching
wisdom isn’t backed by science. Like, you might have heard you should be super
enthusiastic. But while enthusiastic teaching seems to improve
course evaluations — including ratings of the textbook, weirdly enough — it doesn’t
seem to do much for students’ grades. Or, maybe you’ve been told you have to tailor
you lessons to fit your pupil’s quote “learning style”. Well, turns out there isn’t really any evidence
that that’s important, either. But psychologists have been studying teaching
for decades, and all that research has stumbled on a few tried-and-true methods to improve
teaching. Some of them might surprise you. Like, that cramming is bad. And quizzes are good. So today, we’re going to be talking about
three ways you can use psychology to be a better teacher — or even a better student. [♪INTRO] One of the most well-supported tricks to up
information retention is to use a technique called the spacing effect, or spaced practice. The idea is that if you have an hour to study,
you’ll do better if you can split up that hour up — like 30 minutes on two different
days. And you might even want to space those days
weeks apart! There have been hundreds of studies on the
spacing effect — we’ve known about it since the 1880s. But, one early example published in 1925 showed
it by having students try to memorize the ephebic oath — something every antient Greek
citizen knew, but no one in the study had heard before. Half the participants were read the oath 6
times in a row — the other half heard it 3 times each on two separate days which were
three days apart. When they were tested immediately after the
readings, it seemed like having the study sessions all massed together improved people’s
memory a little bit. But on a test 4 weeks later, the group who
studied with a 3 day gap in between did much better. This seems to be a general trend, too — if
you want to remember information for longer, space your studying out with bigger gaps. One study published in the Journal of Experimental
Psychology: General in 2011 recruited 335 students and assigned them to practice learning
material according to one of 5 schedules. The shortest was to try to get everything
done in about 10 days — the longest took about 38 days to study, with practicing scheduled
about a week apart. And though everyone who spaced out their practice
did better than a control group, those who spread out their study the most did the best
on a test given 4 months after their final study session. This effect seems to work across all kinds
of things you can learn from memorizing facts, to motor skills, to classroom material. It even seems like rats, bees, and fruit flies
learn this way! But it’s not entirely clear why it works. One idea is that whenever you learn something
new, you tend to think about it a few times later on for no particular reason. Memory researchers call this “autonomous reactivation.” When you space out your practice, you get
more of this autonomous reactivation — which for your brain, is just more practice. There’s also the possibility that if you space
out practice, you might be studying the material in multiple contexts — like, you’re hearing
about it at home instead of a classroom, or even just learning different things around
it. That means you’ll have more associations with
the memory you have of the content, and that gives you a better chance of retrieving it
at the right time. Another explanation is that when you learn
something, you stimulate dendritic spines on neurons in a part of your brain called
the hippocampus. These spines reach out to connect to other
neurons, and when you stimulate them, you get more connections that last longer, which
improves your memory. And the hippocampus is one of the primary
brain regions involved in memory, so the connections there matter a lot. The thing is, these neurons need a bit of
time to recover before they can fire again t he same way. That bit of time is called a refractory period. And basically, when you study the same material
right away, your brain keeps stimulating the neurons during that period — and that isn’t
as good for maintaining the connections with other neurons as stimulating them after they’ve
had a chance to reset entirely. But research on neurons in a hippocampus is
hard to do on humans — so those ideas are mostly drawn from research on rats and flies. Even if we don’t know exactly why spacing
works, your students — who probably aren’t rats or flies — can benefit from it. Like, you can try spending more time in class
reviewing older material. Devote a bit of time each day to covering
material that was first introduced yesterday — or a week ago. There’s some evidence this really works in
classrooms, too. One teaching method called “direct instruction”
focuses 90% of every class day on practicing older material. And it was found to improve kids’ achievement
test scores — particularly, in a poor school district with historically low reading scores. If you’re a student, this can help you too. The lesson is basically: don’t cram. I know! Cramming for exams is just how. its. done. I did it a lot, and it helped me when I needed
it too, but it did not help me retain that information in a long term. So, if you’ve got a test coming up in 3 weeks,
you’ll probably do better to spread your study time out and do a little each week then
to try to fit it all into the night before. And when you’re doing that spread-out studying,
you might try spending a good chunk of it quizzing yourself. That’s because of what’s called the “testing
effect” — or retrieval-based learning. Imagine you’ve got 2 hours to devote to studying
something, and you’re trying to decide how to split that up. You can either spend the whole time reading
through your notes and textbook — or, take half of the time and use it to quiz yourself
on what you studied the first half. Research shows you’re probably better off
if you actually spend less time studying — and more time testing yourself. Which isn’t fun, because that’s the part
that’s more stressful. But that’s right! Tests and quizzes are a good thing. And they don’t just determine what you know
— they actually help you learn. Though this is another effect we’ve known
about for a while, a clear example of it was published in Psychological Science in 2006. Researchers recruited 120 students and had
them all try to memorize two short passages. One passage they memorized by studying in
two 7 minute chunks. The other passage, they were told to study
for the first 7 minutes — and then they were tested on what they could recall from
it for 7 more minutes. Then they got a final test on both passages. If they were asked to recall the passages
5 minutes later, just rereading the material for that extra 7 minutes did give them a slight
edge — they remembered about 81% of the passage, as compared to 75% of the passage
they were read for 7 minutes and were quizzed on for 7 minutes. But 2 days or a week after the study sessions,
having a pre-test improved their scores compared to the one they just studied — by about
14% at both of those time points. What’s also cool is that the effect isn’t
limited to what’s on the tests. A study in Science in 2011 found that students
instructed to self-quiz not only had better scores on a test of the material, they also
did better on things that required them to make inferences from that material. The students also did better than a group
who was told to study by creating a concept map of the material — a diagram that shows
connections between ideas and how they’re related. Which is interesting, because it tells us
a little bit about why retrieval practice works. One idea is that this works because of “elaborative
retrieval.” Basically, when people make a point of trying
to remember things, they bring related ideas up in their mind along the way. The more connections they build with related
ideas, the more likely they are to remember what they need when the time is right. That would suggest that if people are told
to do that specifically — like, by making a concept map — they should see the same
improvement. But making that map wasn’t as effective
as just trying to remember as much as possible — even though it was better than more studying. So another idea is that testing works because
of “episodic context”, which basically means that when you try to remember, you remember
the context of when you learned it — and then you update that memory with the new context. Having two different contexts then makes it
more likely you’ll remember it. This was shown in a study that manipulated
the pretest in an odd way — participants who were trying to memorize a list of words
were given a pretest with word fragments they could fill in. Some participants were told to fill these
in with a word from their list — but others were told to just think of the first word
that came to them. And on the pretest, both groups used the words
they were supposed to remember about 70% of the time. But then, in a final post-test, those who
put effort into trying to remember whether the word was on the original list — as in,
the original context — did better than those who didn’t. Even though they both remembered about the
same amount of words in the pre-test! So it seems like something about pushing yourself
to remember things as you first learned them is part of the process of keeping that memory
for longer. So if you want your students to remember things,
test them. A lot. But, you don’t want to completely stress
out your students. So you might wanna try giving low-stakes quizzes
throughout the class rather than one big, at the end of a unit test, for example. And if you’re studying at home, you can remember
to test yourself on what you’re learning. If you’ve ever had a teacher ever recommend
that you make yourself a set of flashcards — with a question on the front and the answer
on the back — this is why! It works! If you don’t believe us that quizzes are great,
you’re not alone. Several of these studies also asked the students
which study method they thought worked best. Most of them were more likely to pick either
repeated study or concept mapping, but then most of them would go on to do better with
just retrieval practice. Now, if you really want to take your teaching
to the next level, you might try… letting the students teach themselves. This is what educational psychologists call
“active learning.” And it involves a variety of different things,
from class feedback systems like clickers, to more involved exercises like small group
problem solving. A recent meta-analysis of 225 studies that
tested active learning found that across several different fields including chemistry, biology,
math, physics, and psychology, using some kind of active learning winds up improving
students grades and lowering class failure rates. Students in traditional lecture classes had
a 34% chance of failing, compared to only 22% with some kind of active learning. And it wasn’t just because those classes graded
differently — the effect held even for traditional exams. One of the more-involved examples of active
learning is called “problem-based learning.” Which is exactly what it sounds like: you
present a problem for students to solve at the start, and then basically go hands-off
and let them figure it out. For example, you could give medical students
a mystery case about a patient with a unique set of symptoms to motivate learning about
the anatomy and organ systems associated with those symptoms. And some research shows that this kind of
group can improve student achievement — as long as you get some things right. You need to be sure that students are actually
collaborating, for example, and you need to provide some instructions for how to go about
solving the problems. Also, active learning seems to work best if
class sizes are small — like under 50 students. And some research suggests that really novice
students might benefit from having a more structured learning environment rather than
the freedom to solve problems on their own. But when it does work right, the reason seems
clear: it’s much easier to fall asleep in a lecture class. And I’m kind of only joking about that — psychologists
really do think that when you’re required to come up with an answer yourself, you can’t
daydream as much. You need to focus your attention more. And that helps you remember the material better. The fact that problem-based learning works
best in small groups of students also suggests that the social element is probably important,
too. But it could also work so well because students
like it. In several problem based learning and collaborative
instruction studies, students report enjoying the classes more. That can improve their motivation to spend
more time studying. And the more time students put into homework
and studying, the better their grade. In fact, the amount of time spent studying
makes such a difference that all the other research we’ve talked about so far has had
to control for it. Basically, you have to look how much people
are studying, or else, it throws all the data off. So yes, it turns out one of the best ways
to be a better student is to study more. But, if you’ve got a set amount of time to
teach something, spacing it out into several smaller chunks rather than one big one will
help ensure your student remembers what they’re being taught. You should devote a good portion of the study
time to having them try remembering the right answer, not just going over things over and
over again. And your students will be better off if you
ditch the lectures when you can and try some self-directed learning. The good news is that all of these techniques
are fairly easy to implement, with a little advance planning. And now that you know the evidence behind
them and why they work, you can be confident that that planning time will pay off — for
both you and for your students. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych! And thank you especially to our President
of Space, SR Foxley. You’re the best, SR! Your continued support helps us make these
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