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Practice Makes for Mental Presence: Lehman’s New Faculty Seminars

Tuesday mornings are great morning at Lehman for new faculty: the chance to get together over coffee, cookies, and shared experiences has been further enlivened by our discussions of cognitive science approaches to teaching and learning. Although our group changes each week based on committee and research demands, each week we engage each other in energetic debates and laughter and come away refreshed and inspired.

This past week we circled back to review the first four of Dan Willingham’s principles. We made individual choices of the two principles that spoke most strongly to us and explained our selections and questions. Anne Marie Marshall, Assistant Professor in the Childhood Graduate Program, described her efforts to teach math educators to stimulate rather than stifle elementary school students’ interest in learning and applying mathematics as a corollary of the first principle that “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” Mariana Schmalstig, Faculty Development Assistant, spoke about the second principle (“factual knowledge must precede skill”) and her interest in the differences between procedural, factual, and conceptual knowledge.

Our conversation slid nicely from working effectively with abstract concepts and practical application into considering Willingham’s fifth principle: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.” We split into two teams for a forced debate over this principle (Are there mental tasks that require little practice for proficiency? How does extended practice affect working memory?).  Some tasks, we agreed, that translate into simple physical acts that can be automated, ask for much less practice than others that require complex coordination of concepts and actions.

Willingham argues that extended practice of mental tasks not only increases proficiency but also assists in the transfer of deep knowledge (covered in chapter 4’s discussion of learning abstract concepts), the enhancement of working memory (from chapters 1 and 2 about the nature and capacity of working memory), and in long-term retention. He cites longitudinal studies of people who have studied algebra: most participants lost most of their knowledge after several years had passed; however, those participants who had studied mathematics for several courses beyond algebra retained more of their algebraic knowledge because they had practiced their skills for a greater length of time.

Effective extended practice is not merely rote repetition, we discovered. What makes mental task practice work is a combination of automation (Willingham says “automization”), pacing, and integration with higher and lower level skills. When we automate our mental tasks, we make more room in working memory for problem-solving and new information. Pacing out our practice helps us to retain more long-term (students who cram for tests may have short-term success, but students who study day by day show more consistent progress). And of course, keeping skills relevant and fresh by including review as part of solving new and difficult problems reinforces the importance of learning the tasks as foundational knowledge.

Our discussion led us to an hour of sharing teaching challenges from two new faculty. Jennifer Poggiali, Assistant Professor of Library Science, described the research methods workshops she leads for multiple classes each term. She asked the group for feedback on how to keep the students’ interest and how to balance demonstration with practice. Once again, taking ten minutes to ask clarifying and probing questions helped us to understand her challenges and to offer feedback that ranged from preparatory exercises to small group activities within the workshop.

Glen Johnson, our new biostatistician and Associate Professor of Health Sciences, described his current challenge of teaching courses that include students at different levels of preparation and life experience. Our questions led us to suggest incorporating extra resources on Blackboard, conferencing early in the term with students, and setting up study groups during the first week of class. For both Poggiali and Johnson, our advice centered on “teach the way you want to teach, and let your instincts guide you towards what you need to change.”

Willingham’s book has clearly sparked deep thinking and connections for our group: we are looking forward to a mid-term review this next week and to more lively discussions!

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