If you haven’t seen it already, you should read over this very interesting article in the NY Times last week summarizing research on learning styles for students (your students might be well served to read it as well). The article discusses recent research on what makes for good study habits.
It turns out some things that might seem like good ways of studying don’t actually help much. We already knew that cramming doesn’t work so well, but even sitting down and immersing yourself in learning one topic is not a great idea. Neither is having some special quiet study spot that you always go to study. And neither is always trying to learn in your own “learning style” or finding teachers who match your preferred “teacher style”. In study after study, it seems variety makes for better learning. Switching between topics in a study session, studying in different locations, learning using different modalities, studying spread over days rather than all at once – according to the research cited in this article, all those greatly increase learning and retention.
I’ve been thinking about these results in terms of our interactive ecology chapters and my own in person teaching. Our chapters do well with including variety. They constantly mix text, interpretation of figures, simulated experiments, animations, calculations, test questions, and other teaching elements. This variety should, according to those studies, powerfully increase student learning. On the other hand, in order to fit all of that, we generally cover each sub-topic for only a few pages, and then move on to the next. The studies seem to indicate that if we were able to mix different sub-topics together, so that students re-visit each one several times, that would be better for them. Of course there is a length problem, but I’m going to start thinking about revisiting topics more as we continue designing and refining our chapters.
That same lesson likely applies to in-person teaching as well. Each of us has our own unique style for teaching. The NY Times article cites studies which find no consistent effect of different presentation styles (nor different student learning styles) on learning. But although each presentation style may be just as effective as the next, a small extrapolation from the article hints that even within one style, mixing different modes of presenting materials should increase learning. This made me think again about an idea for classroom design that I was already really enthusiastic about, where students are arranged in groups of 3, nine to a table, with tables spread around a room. In these “studio” classes, professors give short lectures, interspersed with students doing experiments and problem solving. Pioneered in physics, they are also entering biology departments.
Intuitively the studio classroom setup and teaching style has always struck me as a great idea, and both the physics and biology communities have data that studio classes are effective, but I haven’t seen really convincing ideas on why. The research discussed in this NY Times article gives a deeper understanding of why these classrooms are effective. Such a class design means the students are almost automatically getting taught in a variety of modes within each class session. And variety seems to be the spice of good learning.