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Psychologists and other social scientists since the early twentieth century have been concerned with learning and effective teaching. A century ago, education in the United States was a troubled institution. School curricula were seen as outdated and irrelevant, teachers were often ill-prepared, and students often displayed low levels of motivation. In light of these circumstances, social scientists began to investigate ways to improve the educational system. The move toward more progressive educational policies based on psychological research has continued to the present.
Early questions revolved around the nature of the classroom. That is, what were the relative merits of lectures, classroom discussions, and demonstrations and activities? When the move from prepared lectures to discussion took place, there was initial enthusiasm for discussions as fostering greater learning. Similarly, the introduction of demonstrations and activities engendered considerable enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the research on the different approaches has been inconclusive; students show an aptitude for learning across a wide variety of classroom formats.
Just as educators have tried to restructure classroom dynamics, they have engaged in a constant quest to adopt the latest technologies for their pedagogy. Teachers have made use of radio, television, and even the telephone for delivery of educational information. The adoption of the Internet in education continues the technological innovation. So far, however, different classroom formats and technologies have not led to systematic improvements in pedagogy. Each technology appears to have strengths, but widespread and generalized improvements in learning resist easy development.
One of the earliest, successful pedagogical innovations was the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) developed by the psychologist Fred Keller (1899-1996). This approach was based on behavioral theory and featured self-pacing geared toward mastery of a task. Keller proposed including lectures and demonstrations only as vehicles of motivation, not as information delivery systems. Even though the approach was thoroughly grounded in behaviorism, Keller stressed the importance of the personal and social aspects of the learning situation.
Empirical research has documented PSI as an effective pedagogical approach. However, teachers never adopted it universally, even at the height of its popularity. Nonetheless, this system still has adherents who use it successfully.
Theories in cognitive psychology prevalent in the early twenty-first century highlight the idea that the creation of cognitive schemas enhances learning. Further, the use of so-called deep processing (e.g., self-reflective thought, integration of ideas, writing to learn) appears to benefit learners. One little-known, but promising, phenomenon that was rediscovered and applied to educational research in the late 1980s, the testing effect, is explicable in cognitive theory results. The act of taking a test can itself foster better retention than actually studying the material. The advantage of testing accrues when learners must generate answers and process multiple concepts in essay-type items. In contrast, recognition tests, such as those featuring multiple-choice items, and repetitive studying do not reliably lead to as complete learning.
The apparent advantage of repetitive studying is evident for tests taken immediately after studying, but this spurious advantage disappears with delayed testing. Theorists speculate that the immediate reinforcement associated with repeated exposure to material to be learned leads to misplaced feelings of confidence and mastery on the part of students. Further, the difficulty associated with generating answers on tests creates in the learner the impression that learning is incomplete and insufficient, even as it actually benefits the person. Researchers have suggested that learning is enhanced when students have to overcome difficulties. The paradox is that when students encounter such difficulties, it facilitates memory for the material but results in the subjective feeling of lack of progress toward the learning goal.
The fundament that unifies the various types of active learning is the creation of a network of interrelated ideas. In the early twenty-first century, cognitive and learning theory takes it as an article of faith that a cognitive schema provides interconnections among related information, a structure that facilitates assimilation of new information and effective retrieval of already-learned material.
Psychologists and educators have adopted the principles of active learning as critical components of classes. Historically, demonstrations by a teacher that illustrated a particular phenomenon constituted the approach to active learning, even though it may have been only the teacher who was active. Engagement on the part of the students is the concept of active learning that prevails in the early twenty-first century, and it can take a variety of forms. Some common types of active learning include writing to learn, cooperative learning, interteaching, and just-in-time teaching.
In writing to learn, the main purpose is not communication; rather, it is learning. Writing about a topic enables a student to ruminate on the ideas and to synthesize information, thereby solidifying learning. When students engage in low-stakes writing, a teacher does not assess the content or the style. The focus is on the development of ideas. Subsequently, high-stakes writing can be a means of assessing the quality of the writing and the knowledge of ideas. In theory, writing to learn involves students’ evaluating ideas and information, which presumably helps them develop schemas and networks of interrelated ideas.
Cooperative learning involves the creation of a social setting to foster knowledge acquisition and retention. Educators have developed several different variations. The actual classroom process may differ significantly across the different types of cooperative learning. Empirical research has revealed a consistent, sometimes large, effect for cooperative learning compared to either competitive learning or individualistic learning. Investigators have documented the advantages of cooperative learning at all academic levels.
In cooperative learning, several students work together, taking responsibility not only for their own learning but also for that of the other group members. The critical components of cooperative learning include shared responsibility so that all members of the group learn, individual accountability for progress toward learning, face-to-face interaction, development of interpersonal skills, and self-monitoring by the group. Thus, cooperative learning relies on elements of cognitive theory and social psychological theory of group processes.
A development originating in the early 2000s that has its origins in Keller’s PSI approach and involves structure, active learning, and cooperation is called interteaching. Interteaching places the responsibility for learning largely on the student, rather than on the teacher disseminating information via a lecture. In this approach, the instructor provides questions to guide students in a focused activity, and students then review the material to be learned and discuss it with fellow students in small groups. Finally, the students can request that the teacher address questions they have regarding the material.
Interteaching, like its predecessors, may not introduce elements that do not already exist in the classroom. What it involves is a rearrangement of behaviors and a redistribution of time devoted to individual and group work, discussion, lecturing, and out-of-class preparation. Like the other types of active learning, interteaching draws on cognitive theory but relies on a significant element of behavioral theory in its application.
Just-in-time teaching (JiTT), whose conceptual basis developed in the 1960s but was made practical through computer technology in the 1990s, involves student learning combined with the use of the Internet. Students take responsibility for learning specified material and for recognizing what aspects of that material they do not understand. JiTT relies on students to begin learning the material before class. Then the student communicates uncertainties to the teacher shortly before class time so the teacher can use class time most effectively to address the weaknesses in student learning. Class can be oriented toward what students do not know. Ideally, JiTT also engenders a spirit of cooperation between the students and the teacher.
Psychologists are often on the forefront of adopting new teaching technologies. The Internet and presentation software have become staples of the contemporary classroom. Preliminary evidence suggests that computer-based teaching can lead to greater learning than standard lectures when multimedia presentations are constructed so that the different components of a presentation are pedagogically integrated. The presence of excessive sound and graphics can lead to cognitive overload and reduced learning.
Theorists have speculated that multimedia presentations can enhance learning because the presentations foster multiple dual coding, that is, a combination of visual and verbal learning. This approach can increase student motivation while helping students encode concepts.
Presentation software can produce increased learning, but it has received criticism as being essentially a static medium that reduces teacher creativity and flexibility in the classroom. Some educators have responded to this criticism by noting that the software itself is not the problem; rather, the use of the software can be problematic if it does not lead students to process the material deeply.
Historically, new technologies have emerged and have become widely used in the classroom. Initial research often supports the efficacy of the new approaches, but sometimes it is not clear whether the increased student achievement stems from the new technology or from the additional enthusiasm of the teacher for the innovation.
- Bjork, Robert A. 1994. Memory and Metamemory Considerations in the Training of Human Beings. In Metacognition: Knowing about Knowing, eds. Janet Metcalfe and Arthur P. Shimamura, 185–205. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Boyce, Thomas E., and Philip N. Hineline. 2002. Interteaching: A Strategy for Enhancing the User-Friendliness of Behavioral Arrangements in the College Classroom. Behavior Analyst 25 (2): 215–226.
- Novak, Gregor M., Evelyn T. Patterson, Andrew D. Gavrin, and Wolfgang Christian. 1999. Just-In-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ:Prentice Hall.
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