Moving Beyond Memorization: Students Understanding Content and Concepts

Mark Mitchell

Mark Mitchell

— Mark L. Mitchell

For years, one student question bothered me: “How can I do better on the tests?”

Many times, it bothered me because the student and I both knew very well what the answer was: “Study more and study without looking at Facebook and your cell phone.”

Other times, it bothered me because the answer clearly wasn’t to spend more time in uninterrupted study, but I had only vague ideas about what to do instead. How could I tell students how to learn? I had no training in teaching people how to learn—and I couldn’t tell students how I learned any more than I could tell students how I perform other automatic tasks like driving, reading, or tying my shoes.

So, for years, when students would express frustration at not being able to learn, I would nod sympathetically and encourage them to visit the tutoring center.

Fortunately, due to recent advances in my field (psychology), I now know four simple principles that students should keep in mind as they study:

1. Illusion of knowing. The illusion of knowing makes students believe they don’t need to study and causes them to confuse a feeling of familiarity (“I understood it when you explained it in class” or “I read over my notes a hundred times”) with actually knowing and understanding the material (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

2. Testing effect. One way to fight the illusion of knowing is for students to test their understanding of the material (Brown et al., 2014). The power of testing is hard to overstate:  Just taking a test (even without any feedback) beats anything else students do, including creating concept maps (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011; Oakley, 2014).

3. Spacing effect. The most effective testing is done repeatedly, in short bursts, and spread out over a long period of time (Brown et al., 2014; Oakley, 2014).

4. Interleaving. When testing themselves, students learn best when they mix up (interleave) the order and type of questions (Brown et al., 2014; Oakley, 2014). If students test themselves over Chapter 1 material, then over Chapter 2, and so on, they may be in trouble when—as may happen on exams and is almost certain to happen in real life—the order in which information is needed does not match the order in which the text presents the information.

Brown et al. (2014) give the following example of the power and unintuitive nature of interleaving. College baseball players were given extra batting practice. Some were given 15 fastballs, followed by 15 curve balls, followed by 15 change-ups. The rest were given the pitches in a random order. Batters who got the pitches in the systematic order believed that the batting practice helped; however, batters who got the pitches in a random order (the interleaved group) were the ones who actually profited most: They were the ones whose batting average, in actual games, improved.

What study technique is popular with students and can incorporate these four principles? Flashcards. Flashcards are well-suited for helping students test themselves repeatedly over material and for mixing up the order in which questions are asked.

But not all students who use flashcards remember, understand, and apply concepts accurately. Instead, many students fail to master the key concepts because they make one of the following five mistakes.

Figure 1. Revision of Bloom's taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

Figure 1. Revision of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

1. Ineffectively reviewing flashcards. Students may fail to memorize the concept because they (a) read their flashcards rather than testing themselves over their cards, (b) waited until the night before the test to start using their flashcards, (c) stopped testing themselves over a concept once they thought they knew that concept (not realizing that memories fade), (d) failed to mix up the order in which they went through the flashcards, or (e) cheated by giving themselves credit for wrong and incomplete answers.

In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956), these students have failed to reach even the lowest level of knowledge: memorization. You can detect this problem by asking these students to tell you about the concept. They won’t be able to give you the term’s definition—and they may even stumble over pronouncing the term.

2. Rote memorizing. They memorized definitions by rote, but did not understand what they memorized. Consequently, unless they are asked to parrot back the definition, they show almost no evidence of learning.

In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom et al., 1956), their knowledge is at the lowest level: memorization. You can detect this problem by asking your students to paraphrase the definition or to use the term in a sentence.

3. Failing to identify examples. They memorized definitions and understood those definitions, but did not relate the term to an example.

In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom et al., 1956), they have not yet learned to apply the information. You can detect this problem by asking your students to provide an example.

4. Misunderstanding the concept. They may have misunderstood the definition or they may have had trouble realizing which of the many features of an example are related to the concept. Like the boy who “learned” that all word problems involving apples were addition problems, students have difficulty abstracting the right lessons from examples (Atkinson, Derry, Renkl, & Wortham, 2000).

In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom et al., 1956), they have failed to understand the concept. However, unlike the rote memorizer, they may not know that they have failed to understand. You can detect this problem by asking them to explain what the concept means.

5. Limited understanding of the concept. They thought they completely understood the term when, in fact, they (like the young child who excitedly shouts “doggie” while pointing at a horse) have an oversimplified view of the concept. This limited view could result from understanding only one aspect of the concept’s definition or from knowing only a single example of the concept.

In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom et al., 1956), these students have some understanding of the concept and are sometimes able to apply it, but they also misunderstand it and sometimes misapply it. Such students miss distinctions that teachers believe are critical. They would perform poorly on multiple-choice questions that require them to make subtle distinctions among related concepts—and they probably would regard such questions as “picky” or “tricky.” You can detect this problem by asking your students to tell you the difference between two concepts or by giving them an example and asking them to tell you what concept your example illustrates.

Figure 2. An example of a definition flashcard, taken from the flashcard tutorial. Students should (a) break down the definition into its central parts, (b) identify unknown vocabulary in the card, (c) create a set of cards with a large number of terms and some similar terms, and (d) test themselves with a shuffled deck.

Figure 2. An example of a definition flashcard, taken from the flashcard tutorial. Students should (a) break down the definition into its central parts, (b) identify unknown vocabulary in the card, (c) create a set of cards with a large number of terms and some similar terms, and (d) test themselves with a shuffled deck.

What if we helped students avoid these five errors? We could show students how to use flashcards to check their understanding of concepts, differentiate between related concepts, and apply concepts.

To do this, Janina Jolley and I developed a set of Powerpoint tutorials® (you and your students can download those tutorials at http://jolley-mitchell.com/flashcards.htm). Students can complete the tutorials on their own and then turn in a printout of the “Results” page—a page that tells both how much time they spent on the tutorial and how they performed on a quiz of effective flashcard use.

Limitations

In some cases, the advice we give in the tutorial (e.g., for remembering what is on the flashcards) is based on solid science. In other cases, the science has been silent, and so we have made our best guesses. In those cases, I think our process is similar to what all of you have done. When covering a difficult concept, you have reflected on the problems you and past students have had with the concept, identified what was helpful in learning, and then used your conclusions to guide you in developing strategies for teaching that concept. We have done the same thing, except that rather than focusing on helping students learn specific concepts, we have focused on the general process of learning concepts.

Overall, we think that our tutorials identify a number of strategies for using flashcards effectively, but we believe it can be even more effective. Please share your insights and reactions with us so that, together, we get it right. Thanks!

References

Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives: New York, NY: Longman.

Atkinson, R. K., Derry, S. J., Renkl, A., & Wortham, D. (2000). Learning from examples: Instructional principles from the worked examples research. Review of Educational Research, 70, 181-214.

Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York, NY: David McKay.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014).  Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772-775.

Oakley, B. (2014). A mind for numbers. New York, NY: Tarcher-Penguin.


Mark L. Mitchell is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. He has written several books including Research design explained (now in its 8th edition), Writing for psychology (in its 4th edition), and Lifespan development: A topical approach.

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4 Responses to Moving Beyond Memorization: Students Understanding Content and Concepts

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