In the immensely popular education documentary "Waiting for Superman", the filmmakers use an animated graphic to illustrate the model of education in the United States. In it, students sitting at their desks have their heads literally split open like a cantaloupe, revealing an empty cavity waiting to be filled. A teacher shuffles around the classroom holding a serving spoon of knowledge, which she deposits into each waiting head. With this, the information transfer is complete and education has succeeded.
This scene is familiar to us. When we think of someone "learning", most of us picture a student at her desk listening attentively to the teacher, or studying his textbook in a quiet corner of the library. Through listening, reading and repetition the learner reinforces the course material in her mind, leading to better understanding and recall.
Yet there is evidence that students learn more when asked to retrieve and reconstruct knowledge, rather than passively receiving or even studying it.
In one study (Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping by Karpicke and Blunt), science students studied course material by reading alone, reading and creating a concept map, or reading and completing a free recall test. One week later, each group completed a short-answer test to assess their conceptual knowledge of the topic.
Though students who read the text predicted they would have the highest scores, the free recall group demonstrated the best learning, about 50% more than the concept mapping group. While we typically think of a test as a way to demonstrate learning, it seems the act of putting thoughts to paper actually enhances the learning itself.
Asking students to reconstruct knowledge may have learning benefits even when the student gives a wrong answer.
A study at U.C.L.A. found that people may actually internalize information more effectively when they make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve the information, compared to simply studying the material. Instead of pressuring students to remain error-free, teachers can enhance learning by encouraging students to generate an answer, even when it's wrong. A mistake can become a learning experience for the student.
For educators, this means build learning activities that require students to recall and organize their knowledge in a low-stakes assessment environment.
Idea Works is a software development company based in Columbia, MO that specializes in extracting meaning from textual data. Their flagship education product, SAGrader, is designed to enhance student learning by providing real-time feedback on their writing.
Colin Monaghan, a designer based in Seattle, WA, has been helping instructors incorporate more writing and feedback into their classes for the last four years.