Does revision always mean reduction?

saucepan for reductionism post

‘Which one was Canning Miss?’

‘He was the Tory Prime Minister in 1827.’

‘Oh.’ [Frowns].

‘He’s the one who had the duel with Castlereagh – the one who completely missed.’

‘Oh yeah! Him! He was the liberal one who the old fashioned ones didn’t like, wasn’t he? The bloke who liked Catholics?’

My Year 12 students are revising for a mock exam. There is a lot to remember in 1783-1832 and Tom is struggling. I would once have been tempted to give Tom a crib sheet on Canning. This would probably have led me to creating summaries of all the Prime Ministers from Pitt to Gray,  in which I would have boiled down what we had learnt this year into 5-10 key points about each key individual.

Yet now I know better, thanks to Brown, Roediger and McCaniel. They are the authors of a book about called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, and I have blogged about this excellent book before (HERE ). Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive learning, the premise behind this book is that learning should be effortful if it is to be effective. The book has helped me to recognise the two main pitfalls of my ‘boiling down’ approach to supporting pupils with revision:

  1. I would have done all of the effort of synthesis for them.  In re-reading  textbook chapters, the AQA Scheme of Work and my teaching resources, I would have spent a great deal of time reviewing my notes, and consolidating my own understanding of what are the most important points to remember for each Prime Minister. The benefits for the students, I thought, would be that they would have some handouts that would make them feel secure, and which would lessen their workload in terms of identifying  the key points to note about each Prime Minister. Underlining and highlighting my pre-prepared notes would have only have given them an “illusion of mastery”, however; the gains would have faded quickly. By allowing the pupils to give up the struggle of learning, any information they might have learnt from my crib sheets would be much less likely to stick. “Grappling with the impediments that make learning challenging”, argue Brown et. al., “leads both to more complex mastery and to better retention of what was learned”. Why can’t the students themselves re-read their notes, the AQA Scheme of Work inserted into their folders, and their handouts?
  2. By stripping down each Prime Minister’s character, policies, actions, achievements, mistakes, misfortunes, alliances (and so forth) into half a side of A4, the opportunities for pupils to create their own ‘mental models’ of the world in which these past Prime Ministers inhabited were much reduced. The opportunity for creating ‘multiple layers of meaning’ decrease as soon as I take out some of the ‘extraneous’ detail. It is this detail – a duel (Canning), a personal bankruptcy (Pitt), an iron nickname (Wellington) – that has the potential to strengthen memory.

A key finding from the authors’ research into cognitive psychology is that reflection is an excellent tool to improve learning.

Reflection can involve several cognitive activities…that lead to stronger learning. These include retrieval (recalling recently learned knowledge to mind), elaboration (for example, connecting new knowledge to what you already know), and generation (for example, rephrasing key ideas in your own words or visualising and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time).

“Elaboration”, according to the authors of Make It Stick, “improves your mastery of new material and multiplies the mental cues available to you for later recall and application of it.” A particularly powerful form is to think of a metaphor or visual image for the material studied. Creating a summary sheet using graphics to illustrate interrelationships, structures and concepts, is an example of effective elaboration; additional layers of meaning in the material studied can be discovered and displayed.

I could create the ‘bare bones’ of a reflection sheet for every Prime Minister in which I present graphics to stimulate pupils’ memories of different aspects of each Prime Minister’s time in office. Yet I decided to create only one (see my example: Pitt Graphic Summary). This was a leap of faith, in two ways. First, it was a leap outside of the model that I held in my head about what effective learning entails. My belief that making students’ lives easier would lead to better learning outcomes was so ingrained, that it took an effort of will to stop at the one sheet. Second, it was a leap of faith in terms of trusting the students to continue making reflection sheets. Should I do it anyway, as a little help from me might be better than them not helping themselves at all? Yet this was to allow my fear of poor results to get in the way of preparing my students for effective lifelong learning. This is why ‘being transparent’ about the need for learning to be effortful is so important: “be up front about some of the frustrations and difficulties…and explain why it’s worth persisting.”

In summary, ‘elaboration’ may seem, at first glance, to be counter-intuitive as a way of revising material: surely we need to be taking away any extraneous detail, rather than adding it. Yet elaboration multiplies the mental clues available for the recall and application of the material studied. The duel between Castlereagh and Canning is not important information by itself. Yet if it helps Tom to make the connection between Canning and a pro-liberal stance, in contrast to the reactionary position of Castlereagh, then it is well worth him learning it.

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