But Are They Really Learning?

My high school chemistry teacher once told me something I’ll never forget: Understanding is not the same thing as knowing. When you sit here and listen to me talk about chemistry, you may understand. It looks easy when I do it. But the real learning happens when you go and do those questions yourself.

There has recently been a lot of buzz about Khan Academy, especially in the world of math and science education. http://www.khanacademy.org/ For awhile, I sort of bought into the idea of “flipping the classroom” where students listen to the video lectures at home and do their homework in class. Then I listened to this podcast from two science teachers at the National Science Teachers’ Association. If you provide the best lectures possible, will students really learn better? http://laboutloud.com/2011/10/episode-66-but-are-they-really-learning/  They took a critical look at the idea of learning via video and discussed some interesting studies. There were two classes of college students: one class had a professor who had apparently very engaging lectures. His lectures were well rehearsed, had tons of entertaining demos and students thought they were learning lots. Another class had a less entertaining professor who lectured on the same subject matter. The two classes did not do significantly differently on the test. However, classes where the professor uses clickers or embedded questions to test their understanding throughout the lecture did do better. The argument was that video podcasts and lectures like Khan Academy work very well for highly motivated students, who are already good at learning. These students ask themselves “Do I understand what’s going on? What would happen in this scenario? How does this connect with what I already know?” They interact with the material in their heads, without a teacher forcing them to do so. But for the majority of students, this does not happen. It’s up to the teacher to provoke engagement, otherwise, the students become passive- perhaps understanding but never really learning. This idea has started to change the way I teach biology. I realized that constructivism does not always look like kids manipulating test tubes and blocks. It can be as simple as having a think-pair-share moment in every class. It can mean having students answer multiple choice questions through Mimio Vote technology so that they stop and think about what they are writing down. Or it can be challenging students to research their own notes off a template instead of just being provided with them every class.

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