Knowledge, learning, and cognition, oh my: techniques for achieving better comprehension

It’s been a very long time since I wrote, but my experiments in teaching last year were pretty successful—my students took apart their texts pretty well, they definitely learned how to write better papers over the course of a couple quarters with me, and they really seemed to enjoy class.  My ego also survived multiple questionnaires, which were extremely helpful for understanding what techniques (the students thought) worked and what techniques did not.  More about what worked will come below.

But not only do I enjoy teaching, I enjoy learning about teaching.  This year, I didn’t get a job offer for autumn until it was too late to fit it in my schedule, and so to fill the pedagogical gap, I think I’ll start a new endeavor: I’ll read a book on pedagogy each month, and think about how to apply it to future classes.   (I may teach in winter or spring, so the application could be almost immediate!)

Today, I went to a seminar on course design, offered by the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  One of the most interesting things that came out of the seminar for me was unexpected and only tangentially related to the seminar’s focus on course design.  Last year, I read a book called Peer Instruction, by Eric Mazur, a physicist who discovered that, although his students tested well in his large intro courses, their retention and deep understanding of the material wasn’t strong.  He came up with a method whereby the students worked together in small groups to learn the material more comprehensively than by rote.  He found that this system was especially successful at getting them to understand the abstract concepts behind the particular examples and experiments he’d been showing them, which was key to their retention and ability to more generally apply principles of physics.

On a basic level, this conclusion makes sense.  Reading can offer one level of comprehension, writing about a topic can help to improve your comprehension, and then having to teach or explain it to someone else requires a whole new level of understanding—well, requires and/or provides.  One of the reasons I love teaching is that, each time I reread Marx or teach Hobbes again, new perspectives come to light and my own understanding deepens.

On a more specific level, I learned that there is some theory to back up my intuitive understanding of Mazur’s Peer Instruction.  Today, in the CTL’s seminar, we briefly went over Bloom’s taxonomy, and the information there gave me a new appreciation for the idea of getting your students to teach each other, and a new way to think about my own experiments in teaching.

Sidebar: Last year, as a result of reading Peer Instruction, I decided to split up my class on occasion, giving four or five small groups a set of 2 – 5 questions about the work.  Broadly speaking, there was often a “project” group that analyzed what the author was trying to do,  a “methodology” group that thought about in what ways the author tried to achieve his or her goals, and also groups that analyzed particular aspects of the author’s arguments.  The students responded very favorably to the small groups, both in discussions with me and on the questionnaires that I gave them—and on my teacher evaluations J  For one thing, the small groups broke up the monotony of an all-discussion-based course (it feels like heresy to write this, having graduated from a “Great Books” school with nothing but discussion courses, but still…).

For another thing, the small groups meant that the students had to explain their answers to my questions and teach each other about the texts.  I generally split them up according to where they sat in class, because that was faster, and I would usually give my questions on slips of paper to the person who seemed to be doing the least amount of talking in our larger discussions.  I found that this encouraged the quieter folks to talk more, and over time, everyone in my classes would talk.  Then, after giving 10 minutes or so for small group work, each group would report to the class their findings, and discussion broadened from there.  So in all, the benefits were: new activity in class; students taught each other both in small groups and after the return to the larger discussion; participation improved; AND I also saw what the students were grasping from the readings and assimilating.

Back to today’s lesson from Bloom’s taxonomy:  Bloom argued that there were different levels of knowledge: 1) factual (terms, specific details); 2) conceptual (categories, principles, theories, models); 3) procedural (methods of inquiry, algorithms, techniques, methods); and 4) metacognitive (awareness and knowledge of one’s own cognition).  There are also different levels of cognitive processing, namely: 1) remembering; 2) understanding; 3) application; 4) analysis; 5) evaluation; 6) creation. (Please note: there are multiple renderings of the taxonomy, I’m only parroting the one from my seminar today, but if you follow the Wikipedia link above, you can get a slightly different wording. The substance is the same.)

In one sense, learning about Bloom’s taxonomy in this very basic fashion provided me with a vocabulary to use when thinking about what happens when I ask the students to teach each other.  Not only do they need to have remembered elements of the text, they need to understand it, maybe apply it, and also to begin not just to analyze it, but to communicate that analysis to each other.

That last need, of communication, really drives the deeper understanding, because it’s hard to explain a difficult book without analysis, without thinking about (for example) what sort of benefits an author’s particular argument provides for his overall project.  I can tell you that authority in Hobbes’ Leviathan was absolute and arbitrary, but that’s just a fact.  If I want to tell you why authority in Hobbes’ Leviathan is absolute and arbitrary (and not take the cop-out of, well there was this horrible civil war and all…), then I need to analyze the argument and think about what effect having absolute arbitrary authority has on the sovereign.

One of my goals for my class last year was to get the students to figure out how to analyze the structure of an argument, to see where certain hinges or foundations were, which were crucial to the overall argument of the book.  And I really do think that their small group work helped achieve this goal: they learned to think not just about what, but about why.

Students so often (at least, at the U of C) want to immediately start picking works apart, that is, to evaluate (and usually damn) them, to jump straight to Bloom’s #5 cognitive process.  Seeing the elements of his taxonomy showed me why small group work was helpful in helping the students get to #4, the process of analysis.  Now, I also understand better just what is troubling about the tendency to jump right to critiquing our authors (besides the obvious hubris of the young minds), and I can better explain what the problem is when my students come in during the Autumn quarter and try to rip Marx to shreds, that they don’t yet have the tools to begin to do that until they’ve learned how to analyze the argument.

Overall, the seminar was quite useful in thinking about my own teaching experiences, Mazur’s Peer Instruction, and how I can formulate classes that will help to develop the higher cognitive processes in my students.

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  1. Pingback: Discussion leading: an art, regardless of whether you use it for science | Elizabeth G. A. Fagan

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