Four Traps ...

... that hinder student learning.

June 8, 2015

Routine and inertia too often rule the way that departments and institutions devise their curricula; the same goes for the ways individual faculty members teach and assess student learning.

It’s still rare for a department or an individual instructor to reflect self-consciously upon their learning objectives, pedagogy, assessment techniques, and course sequencing or scheduling. In addition, time pressure, lack of reward (tenure based upon research and not teaching) or recognition (from other colleagues), or limited expertise can thwart even the noblest of intentions. 

As a result, even intensely dedicated instructors remain trapped in tired paradigms precisely because they seem natural and inevitable.

The most effective way to break free from these entrenched paradigms is to recognize that they aren’t inescapable.

Let’s look briefly at four traps that hinder student learning, some familiar, others less so, and suggest an alternative approach.

The Lecture Trap
Despite the move to MOOCs and blended instruction, lectures remain the primary way that instructors transfer information to students. Even those faculty members most invested in classroom discussion and active learning often punctuate their classes with mini-lectures. Lectures often seem like the most efficient way to convey large bodies of information (especially to large audiences).

To be sure, the transmission of knowledge, background, theory, and explanation are key elements in teaching. But as one wag put it, lecturing generally involves the transfer of information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the students without passing through the minds of either.

An emphasis on lectures reflects an instructor-centered rather than a learner-centered classroom. Information is transmitted uni-directionally rather than encouraging students to construct their own knowledge maps.

It is not so much that lectures are bad (or good), but that they are the default. There are, of course, many other ways to convey information and understanding that are more likely to engage and motivate students, whether through debate, role-paying, problem-solving, or individual or team-based projects. A good point of reference is Eric Mazur’s classic piece, “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer.”

The Memorization Trap
Memorization is an essential element in learning.  Certain foundational knowledge must be internalized: Vocabulary, grammar, formulas, rules, and essential factual information. Proficiency in problem solving generally depends on repetitive practice and facility with key concepts and theories. In addition, memorizing a poem or a literary passage is a way to make it a part of a person’s mental and emotional fabric. Memorization is also a key to originality, since creative thinking often builds upon or reacts against earlier modes of thought or expression.

But memorization – at least as memorization is often conceived -- can also inhibit learning. Regurgitating information or, worse yet, a professor’s statements, does not indicate evidence of higher-order cognitive skills. Memorizing facts in isolation or learning factoids devoid of larger significance is generally a waste of time. Imagine the classic kind of rote exercises of children in rows reciting math tables.

Rote memorization works well for a small number of items, but more active learning techniques work better for more extensive or complex information. Chunking or chaining information -- that is, dividing it into smaller units or identifying ways to link items together – is helpful.  So, too, is making notes from memory. Spaced practice – reviewing material over time rather than in a single intensive session -- is known to be far more effective than cramming. Reorganizing information – finding patterns or narratives -- is a proven method for cementing memory. That is why teaching the material oneself has proven to be particularly effective in helping an individual memorize information.

Each of these techniques can be integrated into the classroom. Instead of making memorization a wholly individual task, it can become a collaborative activity.

It is not surprising that in an age when a person can look up any and everything online, the value of memorization has been called into question—much as the value of handwriting in an age of omnipresent keyboards has been cast into doubt. K-12 schools do place less emphasis on teaching memorization skills.

Indeed, the ready availability of information on the Internet has had an impact both upon individual behavior and the teacher-student relationship. Researchers have identified the “Google Effect”—that individuals are less like to remember information that can be easily found through a search engine. Meanwhile, students with ready access to the Internet are apparently less likely to admire professors as founts of knowledge. 

Memorization skills remain valuable – and not simply for learning a foreign language. Information that is part of a person’s working memory provides the essential context for analysis or complex decision-making. But how we instill memorization skills and what information we regard as necessary to memorize no doubt will and should shift.

The High Stakes Testing Trap
The standard way to assess student knowledge is the high-stakes, in-class examination, which generally consists of factual or computational questions or easy-to-grade essay questions covering a fixed body of information. In many European universities and U.S. law schools an entire grade for a course is determined by one final exam.

It would be difficult to conceive of an assessment approach more likely to discourage higher-order thinking skills – or to encourage aspects of college life that faculty often condemn, such as disengagement punctuated by cramming.

Worse yet, too many examination questions test recall, the lowest rung on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Some, of course, test application. But far fewer test higher- level skills, involving analysis, synthesis, or evaluation, precisely because these cognitive skills are more difficult to assess and grade.

It is not especially difficult to devise questions, including multiple-choice questions, that do test higher-order thinking skills. There are, for example:

  • Diagnostic questions:  How would you interpret or explain this?
  • Challenge questions: Why do you believe that?  What’s your evidence?
  • Role Playing questions:  What would you do in ______’s shoes?
  • Evaluation questions:  How do you evaluate so-and-so’s actions?
  • Prediction questions:  What do you predict would be the consequence of this? What inferences can we make?
  • Generalizing questions: Are there any generalizations that we can formulate?

The Coverage Trap
Howard Gardner, the educational and developmental psychologist, calls coverage “the greatest enemy of understanding.” Coverage can inhibit learning by causing cognitive overload. A fixation upon content knowledge can produce students unable to apply knowledge and skills. In addition, a focus on coverage can serve as a substitute for actual teaching: For ensuring that students understand key concepts and develop the proficiencies demanded by a particular field of study.

In my own discipline, history, the curse of coverage often cuts against an essential skill: The ability to think historically. Historical thinking entails the ability to think diachronically, dynamically, and longitudinally – to understand that all aspects of life – words, cultural categories, and entities -- have a history, and that choices made in the past constrain future options. Another key component of historical thinking is “contextual thinking”: Only by understanding diverse facets of an earlier era – its social structure, power relations, and values – can we evaluate actions or decisions and understand what options seemed plausible. In addition, historical thinking entails understanding the relative role of three elements in driving historical change: The contingent – that is, the role of chance, accident, and individual behavior; the ideological – the set of values and commitments of particular groups; and the structural – the situational factors and ongoing processes that influence individuals irrespective of their predilections. 

Overcoming the Four Traps
The above might scenarios might seem obvious or familiar. But that’s precisely why they are such traps. They are clearly visible and known about across a campus, but rarely are they avoided.

Thus, how might we best overcome these four traps? A big part of the answer, I am convinced, lies in reflexive teaching. When we design a course, whether as an individual instructors or as a collaborator with colleagues, we need to identify clear, meaningful learning goals; ask how we can best help our students develop cognitively and interpersonally; and devise conscious strategies to help them achieve the knowledge and array of proficiencies that they will need in their future careers.

Reflexive teaching also requires us to ask when and why students fail to grasp concepts or skills that we consider essential. Data is essential: It can allow us to identify pinch points, bottlenecks, and areas of confusion or misunderstanding. Reflexive teaching requires the instructor to take responsibility when students stumble, and to recognize that true teaching is not simply transmission of knowledge but helping students achieve conceptual understanding and enduring mastery of essential skills and knowledge.

Creating a MOOC or other kind of online course, in fact, is a good way to focus on reflexive teaching, as it is an opportunity for faculty to slow down and deconstruct a course. Blended teaching, with or without technology and online components is yet another way. And yet a third way may be the use of an innovative or non-traditional classroom or setting (think of Science & Cooking which has its very own food safe lab. It cannot be taught in a conventional way.

That may not always be possible (due to time or resource constraints), and that is when institutions and institutional leaders must step up to provide support or to use a carrot-and-stick model to reward this style of teaching.

One final way may be to have students vote with their feet or their keyboard or mouse. The idea is not to transform teaching into a popularity contest, but to ask and engage with students in order to figuring out what forms of learning they find most helpful, engaging, and interesting. This not only gets students into the game, but gives faculty a reason to be reflexive.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.

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