Monday, March 25, 2019

Too Much Theory?

Researchers using advanced technology discover more about how we learn all the time, and non-stop communication disseminates the information almost immediately.  ASP conferences are rich with presentations of new understandings of how to study.  The new research and the ability for all of us to access it invites integration to our programs and communication to our students.  Is it possible to over rely on new theories to our students’ detriment?

I wrote a blog post last year within the first couple months of contributing discussing how I conveyed learning theories to my students and my thoughts on how the communication would help them learn.  The feedback from students and my experience teaching the course a few times demonstrated to me the message may not be sinking in.

Understanding and communicating learning theory to our students shouldn’t be detrimental, but I encourage everyone to use moderation.  Just like most things in life (carbs, chocolate, Netflix, Facebook), too much can cause problems, except the chocolate of course.  I more than doubled my understanding of how we learn in the last couple years, and I probably overshared the information to students.  I thought students wanted to understand why I recommended certain actions, so I assigned articles about the different concepts.  The response was almost universal disdain, which was a little surprising.  To be fair, a few articles were extremely long, but most of them were only a few pages.

I experienced a phenomenon we already knew, and I should have approached the solution slightly different.  In general, people believe they know how to study and learn.  Students believe if they were successful in the past, what he/she did was correct.  Trying to tell law students in their first semester prior to grades coming out that what they did in the past to achieve A’s wouldn’t work did not cause students to follow my advice.  Providing the research to back up my recommendations only frustrated students because they didn’t want additional reading because they already believed they knew the best way to study for them.

If students are resisting, then is communicating the information a waste of time or even detrimental?  I believe the answer is still a clear no.  My class probably moved too far away from the practical into the justification and theory discussion.  Students want what will help them now.  Study techniques won’t impact grades tomorrow, but we can integrate interleaving, spaced repetition, testing effect, self-regulated learning, and any other research without over-emphasizing the theory behind the recommendation.  We can also integrate activities into our classes using those theories without explicitly justifying the activity.  Our approach will make the difference.

In academic support and education in general, many discussions revolve around outcomes.  What do we want our students to know or do when they leave the classroom?  I would argue we want our students to use proper study habits based on the theories throughout law school, not just understand the concepts.  Demonstrating how to study and walking students through the process will most likely produce that outcome more than students merely understanding the why behind the study technique.  When students start to question recommendations, then we can refer students to resources or provide supplemental material.  I found a handful of really short youtube videos that explain concepts much better than long articles.  Even those are still too much if students don’t need the additional information.  We can also focus on fewer techniques.  Instead of trying to make our students perfect learners, we can strive to make them better learners.  Small incremental changes for them can have a lasting impact.

Students in our classrooms are faced with information overload.  They have access to more information than ever before, and they encounter new legal information daily.  Adding to the deluge of information may not be our best approach.  Practical application is what I plan to strive for going forward.

(Steven Foster)

Program Evaluation, Teaching Tips | Permalink


Post a comment