Monthly Archives: February 2020

Is there a term for that? Does there need to be?


We have a LOT of terms in education-land. The great Stephen Chew wrote effectively about this (“Teaching and Learning: Lost in a Buzzword Wasteland“) , and I agree with him: we may have so many words for teaching and learning that it’s easy to get lost in the territory because the map is cluttered with terms.

So I have some mixed feelings about this wonderful blog post by Elham Arabi: “The Impact of Guided Discovery vs. Didactic Instruction on Learning.” I love the ideas Arabi discusses in the blog post: she’s describing fascinating research about the relationships between providing direct instruction and allowing students to explore problems on their own. This is an important topic, and the research is relevant to decisions teachers make in classrooms daily.

In the blog post, Arabi provides a careful summary of several studies about this topic, and then concludes “if you want your learners to apply what they have learned to different contexts, guided discovery may be a better approach. Results of these two studies showed that learners may become dependent on concept or problem without recognizing its applicability when they receive direct instruction. In such instances, didactic teaching may limit learners’ understanding of deep structure of a concept, whereas guided discovery may result in better learning retention and transfer.” This is a REALLY important idea: if we want students to be able to transfer what they learn (and we all do!), then we need to provide structured, supported opportunities so that students can figure things out on their own. They need enough “guides” (background knowledge and practice) so that they can make useful progress toward solutions, but not so much “direct instruction” that they are just following rote set of instructions without reflecting and understanding what they are doing. We need to hit the sweet spot, the butter zone between support and exploration.

That’s all important, and gets to part of the heart of effective teaching and learning, I think. Teachers are, and always will be, working to hit that sweet spot for students. It’s tricky, never-ending work. We try, we succeed sometimes, we fail other times, we make changes, and we tray again and again. The research Arabi describes can help us as we try and try again.

But I worry about getting lost in the buzzword wasteland. Arabi points out that “guided discovery should not be mistaken with discovery learning.” She goes on to describe what she means, but do these new terms on the map help us navigate this tricky territory? Do I need to go back through the research/writings I use when I think about what kinds of instruction to provide before letting students take a swing at their own answers to important questions? Do I need to worry about whether I’m reading about guided discovery, discovery learning, inquiry based learning, student centered learning, active learning, etc etc etc? I’m not sure the proliferation of labels in this area of research are helping us think more clearly. I think I agree with Stephen Chew when he says that we may need to “develop a comprehensive theory of how people learn” instead of focusing on fine distinctions between terms like “guided discovery” and “discovery learning.” Instead of worrying about which term is most appropriate, let’s focus on the underlying cognitive psychology that’s going on during teaching that encourages long-term transfer. The word may not be the thing – we’re all interested in real learning, not what the best words are to describe real learning.

An “Operator’s Manual for your Memory” for students

I’ve been thinking about the “best” way to help students use cognitive science (3 box model/cognitive load model) to make decisions about how they study. There’s great advice out there for students about how to study:

BUT in my (limited) experience so far, many students aren’t “convinced” by these kinds of organized presentations of research-based advice. What would convince them?

Here’s one thought (and I haven’t tried it yet): if students could make a their own personalized model of memory, could they use that customized model to make small changes in their behavior? I’ve been sharing a lesson plan called “Sketch Your Memory” with teachers and so far teachers say they find it useful, but I don’t know if students will respond to it.

I wonder if we help students get some background knowledge about the 3 box memory model/cognitive load theory, would it be helpful if they then go on to make their own graphic of the model? The graphic might include some of the basic terminology from the background knowledge, AND students customize their model with examples (maybe in a different color?) of actions they already take or could take to “enact” that part of the model.

Example: after a student fills in “deep processing” as a term related to encoding (in the encoding arrow between working and long term memory), they could fill in their plan for deep processing (“For every vocab term I have to learn, I’ll write in a quick example from my life that relates to the vocab word.”)

I’d love to hear your thoughts: would a personalized 3 box memory model like this help students motivate themselves to change their studying?

Reading Aloud: When Should Students Read Along With You?

(source: )

Last week at work I ended up in conversations with a colleague and couple curriculum specialists, and those conversations helped us figure out that we didn’t know the answer to what seems like kind of a basic question that involves cognitive psychology and reading comprehension. I decided to send the question to some cognitive psych folks (from the CogSciSci group), and the responses were fascinating.

Here’s the question we asked:

Question: which of the following scenarios would dual coding/working memory/cognitive load theory predict might be more useful?

  • Scenario A: students listen to audio of their teacher reading a passage WHILE the students look at the passage, then answer reading comprehension questions about the passage (students process the audio and printed text in their working memories at the same time)
  • Scenario B: students listen to audio of their teacher reading a passage THEN they look at the passage on their own, then answer reading comprehension questions about the passage (students process the audio in their working memories and then the text)

This seems like kind of a basic issue, right? If a teacher is going to read out loud to students, should the students have a copy of that text and read along with the teacher, or should the students listen first and then try to read the passage?

The cognitive psychologists we consulted surprised us: they immediately replied and they all agreed that cognitive load theory predicts that Scenario B is most likely to work the best. A couple quotes from their responses:

“Scenario A would run the risk of the Redundancy Effect (both sources of info using phonological loop).”

“Scenario B is better from a purely CLT perspective. Its also better as the students get two exposures to the content instead of one. In the real world there might be reasons that A is preferred like time constraints or the importance of linking the words spoken to their written words, like pronunciation”

And one of our cognitive psych friends referenced this thorough and fascinating blog post from David Didau: “The Problem with ‘Reading Along'” (bonus: this blog post manages to reference a 4th century bishop AND farting!)

I love that cognitive psych (specifically Cognitive Load Theory – CLT) can point us in the right direction about many of these “basic” questions about pedagogical choices. When we’re reading out loud, we should think about what our goals are (reading comprehension, or linking spoken works to written words), and use CLT to figure out whether students should read along with us or listen first and then read it on their own.

Semantic memory, Episodic memory, and Teaching

I stumbled across this wonderful article by Claire Sealy at just the right time. I’ve been thinking about semantic vs. episodic encoding and how it might fit into some conversations with teachers.

Some of my favorite parts of the article:

“All of which leads to us making the entirely reasonable hypothesis that if we want students to remember what we teach them, then we need to … involve something specially selected because it’s exciting and possibly unusual. Memorable events, in this view, should form the template for creating memorable lessons.”

I remember this exact feeling as a young teacher. The “teacher as hero” movies (Mr. Holland’s opus, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poet’s Society, etc.) taught many of us that the best teachers inspire students through drama and passion. Setting up exceptional experiences for students is one of the most satisfying parts of teaching, and I love crafting a dramatic experience for students (and it can definitely help with motivation and “hooking” students). But Sealy goes on to explain some limitations of these dramatic “memorable lessons.”

“The two forms of memory are known as episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory is the memory of the ‘episodes’ of our life—our autobiographical memory. This takes no effort on our part, it simply happens…Those memories just happen automatically. But there is a downside. Episodic memory is “easy come, easy go.” … A Semantic memory, on the other hand, involves much harder work. We have to expend effort to create semantic memories. This is the kind of memory we use when we consciously study something because we want to remember it. Unlike episodic memory, it does not just happen. The upside, however, is that the effort involved results in a long lasting memory.”

This important difference between Semantic and Episodic memory is something every teacher (and administrator, and instructional coach, and curriculum/instruction director, and assessment developer, etc.) should know and use in their work. If our goal is long-lasting learning – knowledge and skills that students will be able to use in different contexts in the future – then we need to set up learning experiences that help students semantically encode rather than just episodically encode. In some ways “long-term transfer” is the holy grail of our work: we want students to be able to generalize the knowledge and skills they learn and apply them to answer important questions in their lives. That requires semantic memory, not just episodic memory. When I need to figure out how to best think about the relationships between achievement data from local schools and statewide data, it doesn’t do me any good to remember the fantastic, funny story my stats teacher told me. I need to be able to recall the meaning of group comparisons and determine what kinds of analyses are appropriate.

This one, fairly simple understanding – that the goal of our lessons should be to help students semantically encode rather than episodically encode – should influence the choices we make as teachers.

“Forming semantic memories requires work and practice. Unlike episodic memories, they don’t just happen. If you want to remember something, you need to think about it, not just experience it. The cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that ‘memory is the residue of thought.’ The more you have thought about something, the more likely it is that you will remember it. So teachers have to make sure that lessons give students the opportunity to think the things we actually want them to remember, rather than some extraneous other thing… This is where “fun” lessons can unintentionally prevent learning happening. If the medium chosen to deliver the lesson is too obtrusive, it is that the students will think about, rather than whatever it is we actually want them to learn”

I took a swing at summarizing what I think is the most important implication of cognitive load theory for teachers, and I tried to do it in one sentence: “What students do in their working memory determines what they will remember and recall later.” I’m sure there are limitations to that short summary, but I think it’s true in some important ways. Thinking about lessons through the lens of semantic/episodic memory should help remind us that our goal is to get students doing SEMANTIC thinking in their working memory, rather than episodic encoding. If what we’re doing doesn’t help students encode the meaning/utility/applications/etc. of the topic at hand, we’re probably engaging in a “Grecian Urn” project. They may be having fun and they may remember the story, but they aren’t thinking about what it all means and it won’t transfer to future thinking.

“It is also possible to overstate the separateness of episodic and semantic memory. There is a degree of overlap between the two. They are not water-tight compartments. For example, in one experiment, people were asked to list kitchen utensils. First, participants drew on the contents of their semantic memory, but when that ran out they turned to thinking specifically about their own kitchens and remembering what was there. They augmented their recall from semantic memory with context-specific episodic memories.”

I appreciate that Sealy acknowledges the “overlap.” I think there is (or can be) opportunities for teachers to use episodic encoding as a bridge to help students understanding meaning (semantic encoding). Sealy’s example highlights this, and many great teachers use the power of stories to help students think about meaning and application. But we have to make sure we leave time for that connection: it is very tempting to spend all our time on the fun, engaging story and believe that students glean meaning from that activity or story. They probably won’t unless we deliberately create ways for them to think about the meaning of what they heard or were doing, and practice applying those meanings.

It is not a simple binary choice between always only doing one or the other. Nor is it the case that episodic memory is in some way “bad” or inferior. It’s just different. The deliberate building of semantic memory is much more likely to result in long lasting, flexible and transferable memory than putting most of your energies into the episodic basket, so should form the bulk of what we spend our time on.”

This is where Sealy ends her article, and this may be the most important punchline. As teachers we’re not choosing between good and bad, semantic and episodic, etc. We know that our goal is for students to encode knowledge and skills that they can apply in future situations, which means that they need tasks that encourage them to do thinking in their working memories that encourage semantic encoding. And stories, activities, and simulations that students will remember help hook students and motivate them to engage in the deep processing they need to do in order to semantically encode.

UPDATE: this video from Jared Cooney Horvath is worth watching. The way he talks about the relationship between episodic and semantic memory (around 1:10) is new to me and fascinating. “Do Schools Really Kill Creativity? (2020 Research)”

UPDATE (Dec. 2020): this post – “TWO NEW WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT MEMORY” by @learningandtheb and @AndrewWatsonTTB helps me think about this idea – “that the goal of our lessons should be to help students semantically encode rather than episodically encode” – in a different way. Andrew points out that “episodic memories gradually turn into semantic memories: general knowledge of abstract facts.” So my thinking may have been a bit off in this blog post: as teachers, we don’t want to AVOID teacher moves that encourage episodic encoding. It may be a better idea (and more realistic) to think about what teacher moves we can make that might help students turn episodic memories into semantic memories (as Andrew says: “we want our students to semanticize most of their learning.”)