How to encourage a culture of real learning in 3 easy steps

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

Over 20 years ago when studying for my A Levels I was able to write 2000 word essays on feminism in French. I could write at length about the symbols and metaphors in Christopher Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's Othello. I did well in my exams but if I am honest, today, I could just about get away with ordering a cheese sandwich in a French cafe and I can just about remember the characters' names in the aforementioned mentioned plays.

I recently stumbled across some old exam questions that I answered as a first year undergraduate and wonder who wrote the answers as I certainly would struggle to replicate them now. It made me consider the reason for this: was it because of the fallibility of memory or because I didn't ever have true mastery of the material?

I looked back at my study strategies over the years and realised that I had become reliant on re-reading and copying out my notes which I then memorised. I think back to the maniacal highlighting that was ever present in my pristine folders and wonder if this was simply a charade of learning rather than real lifelong learning that I had committed to my long term memory.

On reflection I can accept that I had thrown all of my eggs into my short term acquisition of knowledge. It got me through year one as an undergraduate but then things became tougher for me to sustain this approach and garner the same results.

I could no longer mistake fluency for mastery.

A few weeks ago I came across an article which found that research undertaken among college students found that when their tutors disclosed information about the ways that they had experienced adversity and overcome it, they gained credibility and respect from their students. The qualitative research found that when tutors shared stories about how they had experienced specific academic obstacles which they subsequently overcame, their students felt more connected and trusted their tutor to a greater degree. I felt inspired to do this, so without oversharing and veering on the precipice of inappropriateness, I shared my experience with one of my senior classes.

Any whiff of shared personal stories can usually get a teenager's attention, so I relayed my experiences as a prolific highlighter and crammer. They looked disappointed at first at the absence of any salacious personal details. Nevertheless, I persevered. I told them that cramming or 'massed practice' as it is also known, results in transitory learning as opposed to real mastery. Massed practice can result in self deception as one feels that the material is becoming more and more familiar...and on one level it is, however this is not real learning. I told them highlighting is rarely effective and can be akin to colouring in in the extreme.

We discussed cramming and established that for some of these 16 year olds, cramming had proved to be an effective study strategy. I asked them if they found that this approach works if the exam questions they expect to appear in an exam paper did in fact appear and if they had memorised sufficiently the set answers. Most nodded.

I asked them how effective they thought cramming would be now that they were facing more demanding exams in terms of time, content and skills. I told the class that applying knowledge and understanding to a question that has not been seen before requires mastery of a topic and that mastery can only be achieved through deep understanding of material. Memorising can only get you so far, I said. Perhaps just this far? They looked concerned.

I asked them to consider how tricky it was to apply memorised content to unexpected questions or situations in an expected context. Some still were unwavering in their firm adherence to the yellow highlighter and cramming strategies. They determined that they would be fine. I asked them to tell me something that they had memorised via cramming or massed practice. Anything...anything at all....I said that it had only been 4 months since their most recent exams. Only a handful could give me some half-baked facts about something or other that they had half remembered. We determined that bulk-memorised material is difficult to commit to long term memory. I felt smug that I had proved my point and yet still one dissenting voice asked why it mattered as he had achieved all A grades in the exams for which he had crammed in revision just days before each examination. I really felt the chasm between one of the true purposes of education and/or learning - 'the ability to retain skills and knowledge over the long term and to be able to transfer them to new contexts' (David Didau) and the requirement and expectation to pass examinations.

So now I find myself trying to equip my pupils with the most effective study strategies that will enable long term mastery not short term memorisation and exam success but not for the sake of exam success. How can I wean them off highlighting which feels active but doesn't reflect real learning?

These are the three messages that I am focusing on relaying in my classes in this academic session to encourage a culture of mastery in the subjects that I teach:

1. Do not opt for the path of least resistance.

Real learning is challenging and this is desirable. I tell my pupils not to opt for the easiest path to success - the short cut - the one that looks like learning and understanding and even mastery- highlighting and beautifully written notes, but instead aim to focus on self-testing, finding connections, analysing and asking 'why' not just 'what'.

Once pupils shed the masquerade of mastery they realise that the harder way brings greater long term results.

2. Be patient

The challenge for teachers is not so much showing and modelling different strategies for mastery but contending with a generation that is so used to the immediacy of information and not used to delayed gratification. This is why I believe that teaching study skills is necessary from a young age rather than just before GCSE or other examinations. It is too late then to contend with the volume of information that needs to be learned to pass up to 10 subjects.

The real temptation in this scenario is memorisation...and panic memorisation at that .

In Make it Stick, the authors discuss a concept known as elaboration as the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in one's own words and connecting it with what one already knows. The authors claim that there is no limit to how much you can learn using elaboration.

The authors also claim that people who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organise them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in achieving complex mastery.

3. Embrace errors and then self-correct

Making mistakes and correcting them builds the bridges to advanced learning. This not only builds resilience but helps to strengthen neural pathways which should in turn assist the retrieval of information in the long-term.

This is clearly not an exhaustive list, but we have to begin somewhere as classroom teachers to build a culture of mastery. If those of us at the chalk-face expect and accept surface level 'learning' then that is the learning environment that we will create in our classrooms. Teachers are under pressure to cover the required content and skills however I believe that embedding a culture of achievable mastery, a culture of high expectations, and a culture of imperfection and perseverance, teachers can hope to help to create a generation of life-long learners with an inbuilt capacity to learn and master.

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