Monthly Archives: March 2014

Research About How We Learn Does Not Match How We Teach

There is some very interesting research in cognitive psychology that has been mostly ignored in education. Some of this research has been replicated many times over the last 100 years! However, some of the research doesn’t seem to make intuitive sense to teachers and, quite honestly, it is difficult to wrap your head around how you could design your curriculum to fit the research. But, not impossible.

Massed vs. Distributed Learning

For more than 100 years psychologists have observed this phenomenon over and over and it is exciting because it doesn’t intuitively make sense. The finding is that if you want people to learn something new and then retain the information longer, they do better when they learn something distributed over time rather than learn it all at once. For example, I decide to teach a bunch of people something new and then have them practice it 20 times with feedback after each practice question. One group is going to do all 20 practice questions in one sitting (massed) and one group is going to do 10 practice questions in one sitting and then wait a week to do the next 10 practice questions (distributed). I test each group after their last practice session. Both groups will fare about the same. But, when I test both groups 4 weeks later, the distributed practice group will have retained significantly more (like 30% more) than the massed practice group.


Interleaving is the practice of learning more than one concept at a time. It goes along with distributed learning. Let’s suppose you need to learn ABC and D. You could learn and practice them in either of these two ways:
Blocked learning: AAABBBCCCDDD
Blocked learning ends to happen when we use a “unit” model of learning. Interleaving is more like the workshop approach. What research shows is that significantly more learning is retained with interleaving than with blocked learning. Although testing immediately after an AAA study period shows better results than testing immediately after the first ABCD study period, testing at the end of the entire study period shows greater retention of the concepts that were taught using interleaving. Not only that, but when the concepts taught are similar in nature, such as how to solve similar but different types of math problems, students who studied using interleaving make fewer errors in mixing up the different kinds of problems, probably because they had to learn to differentiate between ideas as they learned.


General logic might make us think that if you want to learn something really, really well, you should practice it lots and lots. This is called overlearning. Suppose you teach a group of people something new and after 5 practice trials they’ve demonstrated that they’ve got it. Common sense would dictate that if they then practice the new learning 20 times they will consolidate and really get it. However, studies show that not to be true. If you test two groups—one that used overlearning (extra practice after demonstration of understanding) and one that just demonstrated understanding after the 5 practice trials, they perform exactly the same on the test.

If we think about how we have traditionally designed curriculum, we tend to design it in opposition to the research. We teach new concepts one at a time, have students practice it over and over again, and then don’t address it again until the following year. Then, we bemoan the fact that last year’s teacher didn’t teach the kids anything!

What if we designed curriculum to be recursive or cyclical throughout a year? How could you return to topics many times throughout the year so that students had multiple opportunities to master the most important concepts? Which concepts in your subject area are the big ones? Which concepts are inter-related and would be best taught simultaneously in order to take advantage of interleaving?

More next week….

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Proactive Teaching vs Reactive Teaching

You plan the lesson. You have the ideas. You can see how it is going to go in your head. And then it doesn’t. Somehow the students don’t respond the way you have anticipated and you have to react, quickly. The more experienced you are, the easier this gets. You make small adjustments as you go along. You quick think of a better strategy. You have the kids get out their silent reading or do jumping jacks while you regroup. The reactive nature of teaching is part of the teaching profession.

However, there are some areas of our teaching practice which are sometimes reactive which could actually be proactive. You learned early in your career that you could react to students not having a pencil, needing to go to the washroom 6 times a class, or not having their homework done OR you could have proactive procedures and routines in place.

Small group instruction is another place where you can be proactive instead of reactive. Often during work time students require help, reassurance or feedback. Often a long line of students develops at the teacher’s desk. Kids are self-identifying that they need help and you, the teacher, are reacting to their plea. While those kids who ask for the help usually get it, this reactive process has several drawbacks:

– While students are in line, they are not working
– You might not get to the end of the line
– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The student who wants to ask if he can sharpen his pencil gets in the line when it is really long.

A better, but still reactive method for helping students and providing feedback, is to invite students who are struggling to the guided learning table. As spots become available you can add more students. In this way, you are working with more students at a time, have avoided the line-up problem and can still pay attention to the rest of the class. However….

– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The problems facing you at the guided learning table can be diverse
– Students who are waiting may spend most of their time watching for a spot to open up instead of continuing to work

A proactive response to providing students with help and feedback is to actively plan for your guided instruction/feedback during the work period. Based on your observations of students the previous day or a glance at their work, you have already decided that group X needs some support on concept Y and group A needs support with concept B. Once the class is settled in, you pull your groups in anticipation of their needs. Like with any method, there are problems you will face:

1. I think I will be seeing the same groups of kids all the time and not everyone. Remember that fair is not equal and some kids don’t need your help as often. Be ok with seeing your neediest students more often.

2. What about the kids I am not working with who are having a problem? Create structures in your class so kids know what to do when they are stuck. Who are the student “experts” in your class? Do they have permission to put it aside and go onto to something else? Plus, even though you are working with the small group, your sightline will be towards the class and if someone is really struggling, you could probably deal with it quickly. If you are seeing two groups, set a few minutes in between groups to check in. Don’t start your group for the first 5 minutes of work time to make sure everyone is on track. If your group is working, get up and check in with the class and then come back to the table.

3. Won’t the kids I see a lot feel centred-out? Maybe, especially in the later years. So, mix up your groups so that they are homogeneous by skill (all need to work on punctuation) but not by ability (some need help with periods; someone else is learning the semi-colon). Or, start the work period by seeing a higher level group and then call over a group you see more frequently. It won’t be as noticeable then.

4. Even though I am working with a small group, other kids interrupt me at the guided learning table. You make the rules in your class. It is ok to say that you don’t get interrupted at that table unless it is an emergency. But, make sure that all your routines and procedures for dealing with problems are taken care of.

You won’t be able to be proactive all of the time. The nature of teaching is that it is reactive. However, do think about those places in your practice where you can be proactive. A proactive plan for conferencing, providing descriptive feedback and small group instruction will enhance your ability to close achievement gaps and reach all of your students.

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