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Education

Re-learning to study

Research rehabilitates learning by heart in education

DIANA TAVARESThe year-end anguish of most students and of those taking university entrance exams, who complain that the subjects “don’t stay in their minds” may result from choosing a relatively ineffective method of study. This is what some research conducted at Purdue University suggests. Published in the journal Science in late January, it rehabilitates the role of learning by heart in the process of learning.

“Learning is connected with retrieving information,” states Jeffrey Karpicke, research coordinator and a professor at the Psychological Sciences Department of the American institution.

In the experiment, divided into two stages, Karpicke and his assistant, Janell Blunt, brought together 200 students to study topics in previously chosen texts in several fields of science. The students were split into two groups according to the training method used.

One group used as its learning strategy the development of sophisticated conceptual maps: diagrams illustrating the relations between the ideas within a given text. The other group only resorted to memory exercises: after reading the same materials as the first group, they set them aside and tried to recall the explained concepts.

In the first stage of the research, both groups remembered roughly the same amount of information, according to Karpicke. The turning point came about one week later, when the two groups took tests to assess their knowledge and assimilation of the studied concepts. The students who had used the memory exercises to study performed 50% better on average than those who had used conceptual maps.

Karpicke highlights that in the second stage of the research, the students not only answered questions about specific concepts in the texts read one week earlier, but were also required to make connections between concepts and ideas that had not been explicitly mentioned in these texts. In both cases, the  group which had learned the material by heart performed better.

These surprising results inspired Karpicke to name his research, published in Science, as follows: “Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping.”

He is adamant about the evaluation of the results of the experiment he coordinated that was financed by the Undergraduate Education Division of the National Science Foundation of the United States: “The research showed that the practice of retrieving information as a method of study is crucial for learning.”

Surprise
Cristiane Gottschalk, a professor at the School of Education of the University of São Paulo (USP), says that the study’s conclusions did not surprise her. She recalls that studies in the field of language philosophy reached a similar conclusion back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

DIANA TAVARESAuthors such as Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) and Israel Scheffler (1923), she says, had already shown that “memorizing certain propositional types of knowledge is a condition for learning the rest. And this memorization, if well exercised, is what enables one to work with this information.”

The starting point of these two authors was the distinction voiced by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) between “knowing that” and “knowing how,” i.e., between normative knowledge – which is accepted – and descriptive knowledge – which is learnt.

Cristiane exemplifies these two formulations with one of mathematics’ most basic cognitive operations. “When a child memorizes that “two plus two equals four,” this child is putting into practice a normative function.” It will be by training and memorizing this and other sums that the child will become able to learn empirically, deducing, for instance, that two pairs of shoes means four shoes. This is a descriptive proposition, with meaning. “Thus,” she concludes, “memorizing certain types of content transcends mere repetition, because it is by practicing this information that “learning how” is internalized by the student, even if this is not explicitly transmitted.”

The results of Karpicke’s research lead us back to the old debate about learning strategies that first arose in the late nineteenth century. Until then, memory had played a crucial role in teaching Ancient times, through the Middle Ages and all the way into the Modern Age.

As a counterpoint to this view, the New School arose. It was heavily critical of what became known, thereafter, as “traditional teaching.” Here, according to New Schoolers, the student was submitted to the knowledge of an authoritarian teacher, which led to submissive, conformed students who where therefore inclined to perpetuate the status quo. This was connected with the rise of the romantic movement, according to which society undergoes constant transformation. On the other hand, the past, and therefore, memory, loses some of its importance.

“The watchword to counteract memorizing became the development of student creativity, so as to avoid the imposition of “petrified” knowledge,” states the USP professor.

During the course of the twentieth century, several derivations of the New School came into being, of which the most famous were the pedagogy of competencies and constructivism. In Brazil, to a greater or lesser extent, they were incorporated into the National Curriculum Parameters (1997) that laid down the rules for the public education system. For Cristiane, these overempahsized the notion that children should build their knowledge from their own experience – which is, indeed, unique.

Dermeval Saviani, a teaching expert and professor emeritus at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), created the expression “theory of the curve of the rod” to explain this phenomenon. If traditional teaching overemphasized memory and started treating it mechanically, “the New School curved the rod in the opposite direction, focusing mainly on imagination and creativity, as if these functions could be developed in pure form, spontaneously, without being based on prior perceptions and knowledge.”

DIANA TAVARESKarpicke himself, despite his study’s results, does not discard teaching based on the building of conceptual maps. However, he insists that it is necessary to “discover more effective and practical means of using retrieval in the learning process.”

The psychologist Rosely Sayão, who has many years of experience in counseling parents and educators as regards teaching children and adolescents, ponders that “perhaps it would be better if the teacher were to act and teach according to the method with which he or she feels more at ease – traditional or otherwise.”

Like the Purdue University professor, she does not discard other means of learning, but she is incisive: “Today, everyone is talking about constructivism, but the teacher doesn’t have the time to study it and to discover exactly what it means.”

Enem national exams and university entrance exams
Does this polarization between methods of teaching interfere with the design of the college entrance examinations and, above all, with the National Middle School Exam (Enem)? “Yes. The mistake of overvaluing “knowing how” to the detriment of “knowing that” is found in the current university entrance exams, particularly in those that mirror the Enem format,” assesses Cristiane.

Might studies such as Karpicke’s change the way these exams are designe? “I don’t think there will be any deep changes, because these exams have been undergoing reviews,” says Saviani. However, should such studies take place, “I hope that they do not bring about the return to mechanical forms of dealing with memory,” concludes Professor Saviani.

Might this type of pedagogical reorientation also affect the publishing industry, which releases, every year, a large variety of teaching “methods”? “Undoubtedly! Most of them, if not all, would have to be rewritten” What this Purdue University research does is to put back on the screen the crucial function of conventional knowledge for the learning process,” says Cristiane.

However, is there no risk that the “rod” might curve to the other side and form passive students” To the contrary, she says, “we will be providing the learning conditions needed for them to even criticize and modify what they have learnt.” As for Saviani, he thinks that the publishing industry would adapt quickly to the new directives. “Instead of the appeal of novelties, which is very common in the didactic books currently being published, the study in question might encourage the creation of texts with more substance.”

Karpicke’s investigations only studied scientific concepts as their raw material. However, might it be possible to extend his conclusions to other fields of knowledge, such as the humanities? Cristiane, whose undergraduate and master’s degrees are in applied mathematics, has no doubt that the answer to this is yes. “There’s a set of learning in each field of knowledge that is a “condition for sense” for other learning. And this is the case not only in the empirical sciences, but in all fields of knowledge.”

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