Learning Matters: Remembering lessons learned

I've more than once heard this statement: "Today's students learn differently than we did." I'm inclined to disagree.

Yes, today's students have informational technology we didn't have and they use it with an ease and speed some of us lack and that industries and professions increasingly require. Technology is transforming how teachers can teach. And yes, today's students require a wider variety of instructional strategies because America is committed to all students learning at higher levels of proficiency than was expected in years past or than is expected anywhere else in the world.

American teachers must engage with students from a broad array of cultural and linguistic traditions. Their students have wide-ranging physical and developmental abilities. And all students are expected to show progress. Today's teachers must have bags of tricks to rival the magic bag Mary Poppins carried.

Yes, the demands of teaching have increased. Yet I will argue that learning itself hasn't changed. Human brains have not evolved in a generation. Our children's brains process information as ours did. But cognitive science has evolved, and students, teachers and parents would benefit from knowing what that science teaches us, even if it seems like plain old common sense.

Most of the little I know about cognitive science I learned several years ago in an adolescent psychology course offered by Cal State Northridge as part of its teacher credentialing program. The class focused on how our brains store, process and retrieve information.

The professor, Dr. Carolyn Jeffries, brilliantly demonstrated what prospective teachers needed to learn about learning. Her lectures, our reading and written assignments, and her tests all modeled teaching strategies shown by cognitive science research to be important for learning. I learned a lot in that class, but three points stand out as information today's students could really use.

Homework is important, because repetition and time help imprint information in memory. Previewing a lesson before the teacher delivers it and reviewing it shortly after, and then again later, is more effective than cramming before a test or trying to learn everything in class and calling it a day.

That's not to say that all homework is good homework. Jeffries gave good homework. She instructed our class to read applicable sections of the textbook before each lecture — ideally several days before and then again nearer to class. Her lectures augmented the text and for subsequent homework, we'd view online lectures and engage in follow-up discussions.

Note-taking really helps, especially the Cornell notes both I as a parent and our children came to love to hate because of the seemingly faddish and unexplained insistence on them. There's something about the visual effect of "chunking" information that serves memory well.

Sleep matters, just as our parents told us and as we told our children; not just some sleep, but eight or nine hours of sleep. Lessons learned move from short-term to long-term memory while we're dreaming — really dreaming, as in Rapid Eye Movement — not as in day-dreaming or interrupted sleep. If we don't get enough sleep, we don't learn as well. Cognitive science also supports later-start school days, but that's probably a subject for another column, as my fellow columnist Brian Crosby recently mentioned.

I raise these points because there are conflicting opinions about appropriate expectations for students outside school hours. I've heard some parents talk about the need for students to have time "to chill" after the stresses of the school day. Some find homework and sleep in conflict with amassing the volunteer hours our schools and college counselors encourage to boost college admission chances. Some, understandably frustrated with those assignments that seem more like busy-work than aids to learning, advocate dropping homework altogether.

I contacted Jeffries to confirm that the information I remembered from her class is accurate. She replied, "I would emphasize that the type, not the amount, of homework is important, that note taking is effective when learners make cognitive connections by summarizing newly learned information, and finally, that sleep is important for us all: students, parents, and teachers."

I'm hopeful that cognitive science and thoughtful lesson design like I experienced with Jeffries will increasingly come together for our students in ways that engage them in their own learning. Meanwhile, parents are wise to repeat their parents' admonitions: "Do your homework and get to bed." It's good advice in this century, just as it was in the last.


JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified Board of Eduation. 

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