What would Socrates say?

Recently, I read an essay about a Harvard professor of physics who had a rude awakening that lecturing by the teacher and memorizing by the student do not beget understanding,  thus the professor began asking questions ( Socrates would be proud of him) and having his students interact and problem solve.  Confucius spoke to the heart of this matter like a laser beam: “Learning without thought is labor lost, and thought without learning is perilous.”

Before I share the essay, “Do students understand the material or just memorize to forget?”, I would like to share some personal and professional thoughts regarding how we learn and understand.

The college is moving in the direction of pre/post assessments as part of what has come to be known as the “culture of evidence.”  I am aware that this process is being implemented by various instructors already. Assessment is a positive dimension of the learning experience.  This process affords the students the opportunity to assess their knowledge-base at the beginning of the semester; and it helps them highlight their strengths and weaknesses so as to establish a plan of action to address those areas that need updating and improvement relative to their knowledge-base. Thus, at the end of the semester, the students can complete a post assessment to assess positive gains.

However, I suggest that we should not focus primarily on product ( percentage increase or decrease) as much as on the  process – has the person assimilated this knowledge via self-evaluations, assessments, application of knowledge to life which manifests itself into a person of knowledge, passion, understanding, integrity, and character?  Otherwise, the students may remain relatively unaffected by the learning and understanding processes even though they have demonstrated by increase or decrease in their score that they have recalled the material by objective criteria.  The question is, have they assimilated the knowledge, processed it, digested it, and integrated it into their lives as lived in their families, society, and places of work? To emphasize this caution relative to the culture of evidence, the following is a reflection of one student who recently submitted her results after taking a pre-test assessment in thinking critically and creatively.  This student concludes her assessment with some very thought-provoking comments which are worthy of note  as to the lasting effectiveness of memorization and recall versus understanding and application, that is,  connecting learning to life, and to the positive change and transformation of our very person which comprises our character and ultimately our integrity or lack of it.  Does the culture of evidence focus on “filling a bucket or lighting a fire within?”

The student writes, “I was surprised at how incapable I was in explaining the responses to questions that I felt I did know, much less the answers I did not know.  I came across many terms and phrases that I know I have heard before from other classes but had no recollection of what they meant or how they could be applied.  I definitely have some brushing up to do, and I am hoping that a closer look when we get to each chapter will jog my memory.  I would say I completed the evaluation with about 40% accuracy.  It made me wonder if I even knew what I thought I knew as well as I thought I knew it.”

As Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder state in their book, “The Art of Socratic Questioning” they write: “Socratic questioning is disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of the matter, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we do not know, and to follow out logical implications of thought. The key to distinguishing Socratic questioning per se is that Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, and deep, and usually focuses on foundational concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems as explored in a variety of methodologies in the classroom.”

In the world of education there are many curricula and methodologies that we use in working with our students.  One would hope that the Socratic Dialogue is primary, essential, and fundamental to the teaching and learning processes of education; and that this method is like a golden thread that weaves its way through the tapestry of all of the methodologies crafted in the classroom and beyond.

  Do Your Students Understand the Material, or Just Memorize and Forget?

By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

Have you ever heard of Eric Mazur? If you teach physics and are into that discipline’s pedagogical literature, in all likelihood you have. But Mazur, who teaches physics at Harvard, is someone all of us should know. The reference at the end of this post contains a succinct and compelling introduction to his work.

Mazur started out teaching like most of us—he lectured, pretty much all the time, until he discovered a problem. His students had learned Newton’s third law of motion—or at least they could recite it (as all physics students can). He decided to test their understanding of it with a conceptual problem involving a collision between a heavy truck and a light car. To his surprise, his students couldn’t answer the problem or they struggled mightily, not only with this but virtually any conceptual problem he gave them.

It seems the students were memorizing the material but not understanding it, and so Mazur decided to change his instructional approach. He replaced teaching by telling with teaching by questioning. He now structures class time around short conceptual questions. He starts with the question which students must first answer individually, then they report their answers and discuss them with each other, explaining, defending, and questioning their answers. Mazur (and teaching assistants) circle the classroom asking questions and otherwise guiding student discussions. He might offer a brief presentation but students are the ones solving the problems.

Interestingly, Mazur started using this method of teaching long before it was trendy. In fact, when people discuss the reform of science education, Mazur is frequently mentioned as one of the first who found a better way. And it is a better way, as documented by multiple studies conducted by Mazur and his colleagues and by other college faculty who use the approach or variations of it. Mazur writes, “Data obtained in my class and in classes of colleagues worldwide, in a wide range of academic settings and a wide range of disciplines, show that learning gains nearly triple with an approach that focuses on the student and interactive learning… Most important, students not only perform better on a variety of conceptual assessments, but also improve their traditional problem-solving skills.” (p. 51) His article includes references to this research.

Mazur admits in the article that he lectured on for some time, ignoring signs that there was a problem. Of course, the problem was not with the lectures. His student ratings (which no doubt asked whether he was organized, offered clear explanations, responded to questions and treated students with respect) were high. He lectured well, but students didn’t learn well from listening. When faced with a problem that needed understanding, what they memorized didn’t help them find their way to a solution.

Unfortunately, this continues to be a problem for many students and in many classes. If you don’t think it’s a problem with students in your classes (and it may not be), then dare to do what Mazur did: test your students’ conceptual understanding. See if they can apply what they’ve been taught and if their exam scores document that they’ve learned.

And if they can’t, you can start by blaming the students (although that’s not as easy if you teach at an institution like Harvard). Students are ultimately responsible for what and how they learn. But teachers influence that process in highly significant ways. When I took an undergraduate nonmajors chemistry course with 20 beginning students (part of a learning communities program) in which I was designated the “master learner,” I resolved not to memorize content but to truly understand it. I wanted to be a good model. But the content came so fast. It was all new and very different from anything I’d learned before. I didn’t have time to figure everything out and so started writing down things I didn’t understand on note cards. By the time the first exam rolled around, I had way more note cards than I could get through, even if I pulled an all nighter. So I memorized like mad and did just fine on the exam. Needless to say, I didn’t have much luck persuading the students that we may have done alright on the exam, but we hadn’t really learned the material. They were fine with memorizing and forgetting.

Reference: Mazur, E. Farewell, Lecture? Science, 323 (2 January, 2009), 50-51.

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