More on Teaching and Learning

interleaveContinuing my research into Bjork’s “desirable difficulties”, I found some video interviews he did that summed up a lot of his lab’s research into learning. One thing they’ve studied is the effect of “interleaving,” which means alternating among a set of disparate things to learn rather than learning them in dedicated blocks, one-by-one.

So for instance, they had test subjects learn painting styles throughout the history of art by focusing on 6 works each from 12 major painters. One group looked at and discussed all 6 works from Painter A, then moved on to the 6 works from Painter B, and so on. This was the “blocked learning” group. The other group looked at 1 work from Painter A, then 1 work from Painter B, and so on through all 12 painters. Then another round of new works. This latter was the “interleaved learning” group.

When, at the end of the learning period, each group was given a new set of paintings, to identify from their styles the artist who made them, the second group did better on the test. The group that learned through interleaving better recognized signature styles than the first one did.

But here’s the key thing: when the test subjects were asked to rate the instruction they’d received and the amount they’d learned, the first group was more satisfied with their training and confident in their abilities than the second group was. In other words, the group that got interleaved instruction was more frustrated by the lessons and less confident in their performance, even though they had out-performed the blocked-learning group.

You can check all this out at Bjork’s learning lab’s page. The implications are not good if you’re in a pre-tenure or adjunct situation: proven tactics for enhancing long-term retention and recall can result in lowered student satisfaction, which means lower scores on semester’s-end teaching evals, which means a lesser chance of getting promotion or tenure or your job renewed for another year.

How, though, do we pull it off? That is, how can I use this information to more effectively teach my students how to be writers, while also not (a) getting even worse eval scores than I’ve already got,[1] and (b) screwing my students up royally? The challenge going forward will be to find the right kinds of difficulties to productively frustrate students. I think also the key is to be open about this stuff: talk to students like we’re equals in this termlong endeavor, not test subjects for me to manipulate toward comprehension.

Lesson here: don’t treat my students the way Facebook treats its users.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Last year’s graduate nonfiction workshop did not go well, for a variety of reasons, foremost among them that I’ve lost all faith in the usefulness of the workshop model. Then again, I got a total of 5 evals back, one of them from an unhappy student who seemed to want what I pedagogically couldn’t give: the right answers to making writing better.

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