- Beyond the school gate
- Improving student learning
- Let's teach maths and science
- What's real in a virtual world?
- Careers and transition
- Curriculum for the 21st century
- Early childhood education & care
- Teachers and Teaching
Teachers and Teaching
What is happening in my classroom?
Audrey Sewell-Smith explains that for meaningful learning to occur in the classroom, rather than rote learning, misconceptions need to be addressed.
I s passing a test or exam proof that our students have learnt the information they are being tested on? Epistemological theory and research suggests that learning can be of two types: rote and meaningful. Does it matter which way our students learn, or is the end result—pass or fail—all that matters? Is our student pass rate what we tend to measure our effectiveness as teachers against?
In the learning process, new information must be actively ‘fitted’ or constructed together with a learner’s previously constructed knowledge if new learning that is meaningful or ‘makes sense’ is to occur. This is the basis of Constructivism, where learning is described as an active process requiring mental effort. A learner’s prior knowledge then has a significant effect on whether or not learning will occur. If the prior knowledge is correct and other learning conditions are favourable, learning is optimal. If the prior knowledge conflicts with the new knowledge (where the old knowledge is incorrect, or a misconception) then new, meaningful learning is less likely.
This well-researched psychological phenomenon becomes activated where new information that conflicts with old pre-existing ideas is introduced. This ‘disbelief’ mechanism works against relearning, protecting our prior learning so that we are not constantly in a state of ‘disequilibrium’ or conflict when faced with new information, and applies to all relearning situations. For example, it has been found to apply to learning a new golf or tennis swing, or to workplace practices and driver retraining. It has been found that in sport remediation, up to 2000 repetitions are required before the learner feels comfortable with newly learned patterns.
Another example is of a driver forced to drive on ‘the wrong side of the road’ as when travelling overseas. Psychological research has shown that all learners experience this resistance to relearning to varying degrees, and that ‘Proactive Inhibition is responsible for the recurrent appearance of…misconceptions despite intensive intervention programs’ (Lyndon, 2001).
In a classroom, this same mechanism is acting in the minds of learners. Where a conflict exists between what one knows and what is being taught, proactive inhibition is experienced by the learner. Symptoms in students are confusion, frustration, disbelief, difficulty in concentration and increased socialising with other students as a way of reducing the stress resulting from the conflict. As if this wasn’t enough, the psychological result of such conflict is another phenomenon called accelerated forgetting, where the new information is ‘forgotten’ at a rate much faster than normal. Thus the natural mental process of proactive inhibition leads to accelerated forgetting of conflicting ideas. The implication for teachers is that any attempt to teach a new correct idea over the top of a misconception results in accelerated forgetting of the new idea. Letting go of pre-existing knowledge is therefore an unlikely event where misconceptions are not addressed by the teacher or where not enough time is allowed for students to construct new understandings.
What teachers are dealing with is students unlearning so that relearning can occur. Much conceptual construction requires initial modification of misconceptions. This is unlikely to occur with traditional teaching strategies, where teachers fail to address the misconceptions and simply teach ‘over the top of them’. Many misconceptions are highly resistant to eradication and will never be overcome. Misconceptions therefore present a serious challenge to teachers.
‘But isn’t passing the exam proof of learning?’
The ‘evidence’ of students passing is often enough to convince teachers that learning is occurring as a result of their teaching and that any misconceptions are being overcome as a natural course to allow this to happen. However, passing a test is one thing: understanding the information is something else altogether. If there is no understanding then the learning is not meaningful. Where new information is learned without the learner actively and meaningfully fitting together or integrating new information with previously learned knowledge, then the learning can only be by rote. Ausubel (2000) describes rote learning as ‘…(the process) where new knowledge is arbitrarily and non-substantively incorporated into cognitive structure’.
Thus where misconceptions exist in the mind of a learner they act as barriers to new learning, with various brain mechanisms existing to prevent meaningful learning from occurring. Teacher lack of awareness of student misconceptions, combined with an uncertainty about how to deal with them and/or time constraints associated with the teaching of a far too often ‘jam-packed’ syllabus, will mean that often the misconceptions are not addressed. In this situation the only way a student can pass a test is to rote learn.
Rote and meaningful learning—a continuum
Due to the range of cognitive structures existing in the minds of learners, different motivational levels and effort made to construct new meanings, learning is rarely highly meaningful or completely by rote but rather somewhere along a continuum.
International research shows that much of the learning occurring in schools is at the rote end of the spectrum. Too often emphasis in the formal schooling situation has been placed on tests encouraging precise recall and memorisation of answers. Poor evaluation practice coupled with teacher practice of rewarding quick, verbatim answers encourages and reinforces a predominance of rote mode learning.
Rote learning is not restricted to students of lesser ability. After 40 years of research in New York, Novak (2000) reported that ‘Most Cornell University students achieve their high grade point averages by rote learning’. Di Sessa (2001) reinforces this research, reporting that ‘bright students essentially “play the school game”, and achieve little in building powerful knowledge structures.’ His study reported that among a group of bright and motivated undergraduates ‘although they did very well in high school physics and got high marks, almost none felt they really understood the material’.
The disadvantages of rote learning
Many teachers believe there is a definite place for rote learning in the curriculum, such as when learning the times tables. However, one problem with this method is that knowledge learned this way can rarely be applied in a different situation or context as might be required in solving a problem. Knowing one’s times table by rote is fine if the objective is to pass a tables test, but being able to transfer that knowledge to solve a mathematical problem requires understanding.
One other shortcoming is that what is learnt by rote is usually short lived—it very quickly becomes irretrievable from long-term memory. This is why it is difficult to remember information ‘crammed’ for a test soon after the test is over. Quick learning allows little time for constructing meaning and it is common for students to ‘forget’ such learning very rapidly. On the occasion where it is recalled, transfer to another context is unlikely.
When knowledge is well understood it becomes well organised in the structures of the brain. This makes retrieval much easier and hence also allows for efficient transfer of the information to other contexts.
Experienced teachers will recognise evidence of rote learning on test papers where students tend to do well with multiple choice and short answer questions in which they can apply rote learnt phrases to earn marks. Extended answer questions that require understandings of concepts to be demonstrated, however, are often done poorly.
What’s wrong with rote learning?
‘As long as the students pass, does it matter?’ Teachers cannot be happy with rote learning. After all, we all teach for understanding to occur—the purpose of using analogies and well thought out progressions in our content delivery and classroom strategies is so that students will grasp the concepts meaningfully.
Faced with the evidence that rote learning will occur in our classrooms if we do not address students’ misconceptions, this is something we cannot ignore. To allow meaningful learning to occur, the curricula must be ‘trimmed back’ to allow the time required for conceptual understandings to be properly developed.
Ausubel, D P (2000). The Acquisition and Retention of Knowledge, Kluwer, Dordrecht.
Di Sessa, A A (2001). Changing Minds: Computers, learning and literacy, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Lyndon, E H (2001). ‘Conceptual Mediation: A New theory and New Method of Conceptual Change’, University of Adelaide, Adelaide (unpublished doctoral thesis).
The author owns the copyright in this article. For information related to the reuse of this work in any form please contact the publisher email@example.com