I've developed something of an obsession with the neuroscience of learning. I'm currently making my way through Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. I'm only a few chapters in, but I'm pretty sure this is going to be another "must read" for everyone I know.
One of the main points so far has been the dramatic difference between spaced repetition and testing on the one hand, and study techniques like rereading on the other. Despite their prevalence, the latter do almost nothing to help learning. Study after study, though, have found that low stakes testing, repeated periodically, increases short term as well as long term retention of content.
Pondering this dichotomy brought me to a realization: studying, as a word, should be banned from our collective vocabulary. In a previous post I criticized the flipped classroom for not doing enough to keep students continually engaged with content. Behind this criticism is my growing interest in the places, times, and terminology of learning. I've been mulling over these ideas for a while, but they've really been haunting me ever since I read through student feedback on an American Government course that I had converted to use the flipped classroom format. In response to the question "do you feel that your experiences in PLS 102 have made you better able to learn new content on your own? Please elaborate" I received this comment:
"The flippes sessions were a bit confusing. I liked the traditional because we could do our readin out of class and learned in class."
and this comment:
"No I don't believe so because I usually would prefer to not learn on my own and instead have someone step by step teach me."
What I find most painful about these comments is not the grammatical problems or the negative perspective on my teaching. Rather, it's the mindset lurking behind the use of the word "learn." These two certainly aren't the only ones who believe that "learning" is the stuff of the classroom. Class time equals learning time. Anything that happens outside that time isn't learning. What is it? Studying.
And that's why we need to ban the idea of studying. Beyond the fact that the most common forms of studying—rereading, cramming, and highlighting—appear to be almost useless, the very concept of studying is harmful to the learning process. Most students operate with a conception of learning based on a primary/secondary split. To use a baseball analogy—the classroom, both in terms of time and place, is like the diamond at game time. What happens under the lights and in front of the crowd is what determines success or failure. But between games? That's only "practice."
There are at least two problems with thinking about learning this way. First, as any good baseball coach would point out, the time between games isn't "only" practice. We might be psychologically biased in favor of game time, but one's performance during the game is heavily dependent upon how one practices and how one thinks about practice. A player who blows it off is unlikely to perform when the stakes are real.
Second, and most important for our case, I don't believe that learning can really be understood using this primary/secondary distinction. Cognitive and neuroscience have made clear that learning, to borrow from James Zull, is The Art of Changing the Brain. Understanding the process of memory formation is part and parcel of understanding the learning process. Neither memory nor learning, however, are "one shot and you're done" types of affairs. David Kolb has described learning as a never-ending cycle, with the learner moving through four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract hypothesis, and active testing. Zull meshes this cycle with neuroscience, showing how each stage corresponds to the operation of a particular region of the human brain.
The stages of this cycle and the corresponding neural activity bleed out of the confines of the classroom into the rest of the learner's life. Indeed, some of the most important work in the process happens when our attention isn't on learning itself. In The New Science of Learning, Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek summarize a wealth of research on the importance of a good night's sleep for forming long term memories and preparing for a new day's learning. On an even more mundane level, Lisa Davachi has noted that the best thing students could do after class might be to go for coffee with their friends so that their brains have time to process what they just absorbed.
When students read their textbook, summarize their notes, or test themselves on material, they're not studying. They're learning. The fact that they're not in a classroom doesn't change the biological and conceptual reality of what's happening. Calling it studying marginalizes its importance and encourages students to see it as secondary or even optional in the learning process. As a result, students subconsciously overemphasize the role of faculty and downplay their own responsibility for learning. This might be the traditional way to think about learning, but it's not what we need to move forward. All the instructional technology and flipped classrooms in the world won't help if beneath it all is a mindset that minimizes student engagement with content.
The antidote has two parts. First, we have to expose students to the literature on the science of learning. Students can't kick old habits if they don't understand just how bad they are. Second, we need to adopt instructional approaches that continually bring students into contact with content outside of class. I'm not suggesting that every waking hour be turned into a perpetual study hall. But I am convinced that the uneven landscape of learning, based on a primary/secondary distinction, has to be leveled. Once we've done this, I have a feeling we'll find that there's no place left for a word like studying.