November 28, 2011
Learning About Teaching and Memory
Now that I am done teaching for the semester, I'm turning to a few other items that need be completed, including an article that needs finishing, an exam that still needs one more essay to be written, and reassessing how I will teach some of next semester's materials. On this last front, I came across an interesting article in The Chronicle: Teaching and Human Memory, Part I. The article discusses the fact that many of us teach without knowing much about how students learn. I am certainly one of those people, even though I have been putting forth effort to learn more about how people learn. The article explains:
Michelle Miller is a professor and chair of the psychology department at Northern Arizona University. A researcher and teacher in the fields of language, memory, and cognitive psychology, she has devoted much of her career to thinking about the relationship between her research areas and her classes. She has worked on a course-redesign project on her campus to help improve retention and performance rates in large classes.
Miller's article in College Teaching opens with an explanation of why so few of us may count ourselves as even amateur enthusiasts for cognitive theory: The field remains a relatively young one and has evolved rapidly over the past several decades. If you did happen to pick up some ideas 10 or 15 years ago about learning and cognition in a how-to-teach seminar in graduate school, what you learned there might have been superseded or even overturned since then by new information and theories.
Equally troublesome, research findings at the edge of the field don't always translate easily into pedagogical practice. As Miller describes the dilemma, "a working understanding of memory processes is clearly useful for instructors, who work very hard to promote long-term retention of course material, and fortunately, there is no shortage of theoretical research detailing the inner workings of memory. On the other hand, when this theoretical research is translated into specific suggestions for pedagogical practice, it is too often misinterpreted, oversimplified, or substantially out of date."
The materials I have been reading certainly support his point. The information about how best to teach students varies widely and often conflicts. Certainly some of this is because different researchers have different views on what is important, but it can be hard to tell what is state of the art, what is a good (or lucky) guess, and what will work in a law school setting. Regardless, just thinking about these issues has value. It can help us consider our true goals and whether what we are doing in the classroom is toward that end.
For me, I have been focusing on the idea that I'm not only trying to teach information -- I'm trying to teach people to find information, then interpret it, understand it, and apply it where they need it. This is why I can't always just give the answer, even though I know that has some appeal. The point is not only knowing the rule -- it's knowing why the rule exists. It's knowing how the rule came about. It's knowing how to find a rule for another issue. That's what it means to be a lawyer. It's not just knowing the business judgment rule or that FERC has jurisdication over wholesale sales of electricity. It's knowing what that means for a client and how you can help your client avoid or mitigate trouble or pull together a deal.
I certainly haven't figured it all out, but thinking about it is making me better at what I do. I look forward to Part II of the article.
November 28, 2011 | Permalink
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