Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On students' misjudging how much they are learning

Perhaps the most counterintuitive result from the experiments described in Pam Belluck, "To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test," N.Y. Times, Jan. 20, 2011, was the gap between students' perception of their own learning and reality. Apparently the students who did closed-book recall essays were the least confident about how much they had learned, when in fact they had learned more than their fellow students who used other methods of learning.

Why? The article quotes a psychologist, Nate Kornell, who says that "The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you're not learning."

If this is what's going on, it should be encouraging to students who feel they are struggling. If that struggle is not too intense -- there must be levels of anxiety that are simply disabling -- it may be just what they need in order to learn.

At the same time, this finding offers at least some reason to believe that professors should not be misled by students' own responses to learning exercises. That students say they learn from a technique such as concept mapping may reflect only that this process is more comfortable and less unsettling for them.

But skepticism about students' evaluations of their learning experiences has its own pitfalls. A teacher faced with negative evaluations would like them to be wrong. That students misjudge their own learning (assuming that they do make this mistake in real life as well as in this experiment) doesn't necessarily mean they misjudge their teachers. We may all be better judges of others than of ourselves.

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