Wednesday, December 9, 2020

A great new article that provides a cognitive science based framework for teaching

I have a feeling my co-blogger Scott is going to love this one (it's right up his alley). It's a new article I stumbled across called "The Cognitive Challenges of Effective Teaching" by Professors Stephen L. Chew (Stamford) and William J. Cerbin (U. Wisc.) that pulls together an extensive body of cognitive science research into a nine point framework to guide and inform classroom teaching. It's a really great, one stop primer for any teacher (new or experienced) who's interested in research-based strategies for improving their teaching. I included the abstract below, but essentially the article asserts that there are nine "cognitive challenges" that all teachers face when it comes to helping students learn, identifies each one, provides a practical example to illustrate it, discusses a strategy for dealing with it, and then provides recommendations for further readings for those inclined to take a deeper dive. 

More specifically, the nine "cognitive challenges" identified by the authors include:

  • Student mental mindset
  • Metacognition and self-regulation
  • Student fear and mistrust
  • Insufficient prior knowledge
  • [Student] Misconceptions
  • Ineffective learning strategies
  • Transfer of learning
  • Constraints of selective attention
  • Constraints of mental effort and working memory

Among the several ways I found this article especially helpful and practical, was the use of concrete examples that illustrate each "challenge" and how to address them. For instance, on the topic of "misconceptions," the authors note that a challenge many teachers face is to disabuse students of the beliefs that stand in the way of their own learning. The example they use is the student who comes to see the professor after class to complain that "you explain everything using words. I'm more of a visual learner . . . . You need to use more pictures and diagrams in your lectures so people like me can learn better." The authors discuss how these misconceptions about learning styles negatively affect student learning and suggest a practical strategy for addressing it.

I was also struck by the section discussing the significance of student "fear and mistrust" of the professor, how that can be a significant impediment to learning, and strategies for dealing with it. Given that many 1L students complain that their professors are "hiding the ball," (I don't think we are; instead it's the nature of the subject matter and the pedagogy we employ to teach them how to dissect cases), it's got to be one of the biggest "cognitive challenges" we face as legal educators. Yet off the top of my head, I don't recall much law school scholarship on the importance of establishing classroom trust with students (dealing with "fear," yes; but "trust" not so much). Nonetheless, I suspect most of us intuitively understand the significance of fear and mistrust and employ strategies for addressing them.

I was also heartened to read the section on "knowledge transfer" which the authors describe as perhaps the most daunting of the nine "cognitive challenge" we face and the one where we're likely to have the least success.  Earlier this semester I was lamenting how discouraged I felt as a teacher after a bright idea I had for improving student knowledge transfer on what should have been a straightforward matter fell completely flat. It made me doubt my career choice and the very purpose of my professional life. But after reading Professors Chew and Cerbin describe knowledge transfer as "the Great White Whale" of classroom pedagogy, I'm able to step back from the ledge and accept that perhaps my life's work hasn't been a total waste after all.

Anyway, here's the abstract:

The authors describe a research-based conceptual framework of how students learn that can guide the design, implementation, and troubleshooting of teaching practice. The framework consists of nine interacting cognitive challenges that teachers need to address to enhance student learning. These challenges include student mental mindset, metacognition and self-regulation, student fear and mistrust, prior knowledge, misconceptions, ineffective learning strategies, transfer of learning, constraints of selective attention, and the constraints of mental effort and working memory. The challenges are described with recommendations on how to address each one. What is effective for one situation may not be effective in others, and no single teaching method will always be optimal for all teachers, students, topics, and educational contexts. The teacher’s task is to manage this complex interaction successfully.

You can download the article here. I suggest that you do.


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