What does it mean to learn better?

This is a guest post submitted by Emily Russell.  

As a physics graduate student, it’s not often I walk into a lecture hall to be handed a clicker, but Edward “Joe” Redish practices what he teaches.  Redish is a physics professor at the University of Maryland, and for over 20 years has been one of the leading lights of the growing field of physics education research.  On Monday, September 30, the Department of Physics

Joe Redish Teaching at the University of Maryland.  Photo by Emily Hanford

Joe Redish Teaching at the University of Maryland. Photo by Emily Hanford

hosted Professor Redish to give the department colloquium, titled “How should we think about how our students think?”  While his examples were drawn from physics, the real substance of his talk was very much cross-disciplinary, and through interactive clicker questions and compelling examples, he engaged his broad audience in considering an important question in education research: what does it mean to learn better?

The most compelling point Redish made – the one which merited two stars next to it in my notebook – is that as instructors, we come into our own classrooms with “folk models of learning” instead of a coherent framework, even as we bemoan the fact that our students come in with incorrect “folk models” of our subject.  Our students think they already “know how things work” – and in fact, much of what they already know is right – yet as we dig more deeply into their prior knowledge, we find inconsistencies, which we hope to resolve by teaching them to think within the framework of our field.  In the same vein, as instructors we assume that we pretty much know how learning works.  Yet in reality, we do not have a coherent approach to teaching and learning to catch our inconsistencies – as Redish says, we do not have a framework – meaning that we may not be teaching as well as we think we are.

Redish did not claim to have a complete framework for teaching, but he proceeded to offer some critical aspects of such a framework.  One of the keywords he kept returning to was the concept of framing.  Framing is an “unconscious choice of what to pay attention to” in answering a question or solving a problem, and is informed by a complex and subtle combination of culture, prior experience, perceptions, expectations, and interpretations.  Many wrong answers can be a result of framing errors, rather than incorrect knowledge or conceptual errors in a student’s mental model.   Redish showed videos of a physics lab to demonstrate an example in which students framed an easy-sounding question at the beginning of lab in terms of “answer-making,” thinking that they were expected to come up with a quick and simple answer.  On the surface the answer they gave seemed obvious, but it turned out to be incorrect, and it would have been easy to conclude that the students had no conceptual idea of what was going on.  Yet twenty minutes later, in the midst of carrying out the experiment, the students had re-framed their approach in terms of “sense-making,” and demonstrated that in fact they had a correct mental model – they had just not been applying it when they were answering the initial question.

Proper framing can be encouraged by explicitly discussing epistemology – knowledge about knowledge – alongside the subject matter, pointing out to students common framing mistakes such as “one-step thinking,” in which students assume they should be able to recall a simple answer without considering the context and implications.  Students who are asked to discuss not only the answer to a question, but their thought processes – why they tried a certain approach or what they think is going on – gradually become more able to identify and avoid these framing mistakes.

Redish’s final take-away message was that student responses are dynamically constructed, based not only on their knowledge and mental models, but also on their perceptions and expectations of the task.  A good instructor must not only help her students to acquire knowledge, but must also actively and explicitly help them to organize their knowledge and to build a coherent understanding, one which allows them to frame and access that knowledge appropriately.  We must ask ourselves, what really do we want our students to learn?  Is it just the mechanics of the subject matter, or is it the deeper thinking and framing associated with it?  And are we actually teaching them that thinking and framing?

For further reading, check out Redish’s blog, The Unabashed Academic; the lecture he gave on winning the AAPT’s Oersted Medal; and his book on Teaching Physics (all of which, like his talk, have a great deal for teachers of other disciplines as well).

About the author: Emily is a Departmental Teaching Fellow for the Physics department.  Departmental Teaching Fellows focus on enhancing teaching in their disciplines by consulting with their peers within departments, advising individual instructors, and creating training programs, workshops, seminars, and other teaching-related projects.

2 thoughts on “What does it mean to learn better?

  1. Great article. I’m currently taking an Intro to Online Learning at UCSD (San Diego) as part of a Certificate Program, and was fascinated by the idea of “proper framing”, a coherent approach to teaching, and “what does it mean to learn/teach better?” Thanks for posting.

  2. It is good to know that there are instructors out there who are so deeply engaged into how they actually teach students and how they can improve. And it is not only from professor’s perspective, but from student’s as well.

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