How Hot Chocolate Gets You the Marshmallows You Really Wanted
For the past two and a half years, I have been witness to the learning process in action. Primarily, I have witnessed motor learning as I have watched my son learn to prop on elbows, roll over, rock on hands and knees, crawl, cruise, walk, run, climb, jump and scare his momma half to death. Motor learning is somewhat easy to see as you witness the trial and error that takes place and the refining of movement in order to get it just right. As a physical therapist, it has been one of the most fascinating process to observe as a parent. Intrinsic learning has been occurring as well, but much harder to see. You can hear it happening. If you have experienced life with a 2-year-old, then you are sure to hear the question, “Why?” on a regular basis. My son asks why after every statement. He asks it even when it is completely an inappropriate thing to ask…it is just his programmed response. I play a game with myself to see if I can answer his why question with such a complex answer that it leaves him speechless. This has happened a few times, not sure if he was in awe of what he learned or if he stopped listening half way through my explanation and moved onto another topic, but, none the less I won. 😆
Just the other day he asked for some marshmallows before dinner. I said no. He said, “Why?” I went on to explain to him how they would ruin his appetite for dinner which would prevent him from ingesting good healthy food that will help him grow big and strong. His response was, “Why?” So I followed that one up with, “Because I said so.” I proceeded to go about cooking dinner, but he did not. He then proceeded with a brilliant plan that I had no idea was coming. After a few minutes of play, he then asked me if he could have some hot chocolate to drink with dinner. I agreed to the hot chocolate and proceeded with helping him make it. We made it to the final step when he was mixing the mix with the warm water and then he said to me, “Now we just need the marshmallows…” He had played his momma like a fiddle. This 2 ½ year old little boy had learned how to execute a plan to get the marshmallows he so desperately wanted 10 minutes earlier. I had witnessed the intrinsic learning process and a plan of manipulation executed beautifully.
Last week I spoke about how educational research does not support learning styles as best learning practice for our students yet. (I like to follow that type of sentence with yet, because with more research we may see this change). Learning styles are much better categorized as learning preferences as they truly are just a technique that the learner prefers. What does the evidence say about best teaching practice to improve learning? Probably one of the best theories to read more about is the Cognitive Load Theory. This theory suggests that the brain has limited processing. In other words, it actually can only process one thing at a time. As we consume information via any or all of our senses, our brain temporarily holds it in working memory. Working memory has a finite capacity for information. The information in our working memory has to be processed and stored in long-term memory for later use. This is what we would categorize as the learning process.
Our job as educators is to maximize working memory and to facilitate the processing and storage to long term memory the best we can.
Based on the evidence, here are three ways we can help this process:
1. Generating explanations
Generating explanations refers to answering the question “why?” for any given topic. Learners ask themselves why after hearing about a new concept and then generate explanations based on their previous knowledge on why concepts are true or for how they may be related. This process creates a deeper connection to the information, as well as, a way to connect new information to old information already stored in long-term memory. According to Dunlosky et al, generating explanations is moderately effective in supported the process of information from working memory to long-term memory and to recall. We can facilitate this process by taking time to let our audience ask themselves and each other, "Why?". Lecturing or teaching a new topic is important to build knowledge, but that fills up the working memory. By taking time to stop to let the audience question why either on their own or within a group, we facilitate the processing of information from working memory to long-term. This facilitation then allows us more space in their working memory to fill up again with new information. It is kind of like filling up a dump truck with dirt. The "Why?" questions allows the dump truck to dump the dirt in a new place. The bed of the truck is now free for another load.
2. Interleaving content
Dunlosky et al’s research also suggests that learning is more durable when there is repeated exposure to material over time. As educators, most concepts are not singular in nature. Meaning most everything is connected and/or builds on itself. We can maximize the learning by interleaving concepts throughout our teaching. For example, one week I teach about the concepts of manual therapy. The next week we discuss the shoulder and all the various diagnoses associated with the shoulder. We then follow that up the next week with manual therapy of the shoulder. This is a process of interleaving concepts and distributing practice of the content. The students have to revisit what they learned previously and then apply it to a new concept, but with space in between each session. The research shows this actually strengthens the learning connections as it builds more synapses between long-term memory. It would also benefit the students to study in an interleaving fashion and avoid cramming. By distributing their content, they actually maximize their available cognitive load and support the processing of information to long-term memory.
3. Consistently testing
I’m pretty sure there isn’t a student who would sign up for repeated exam taking as a way to learn material. In fact, most of my DPT students are very much performance-goal oriented instead of learning-goal oriented. In other words, they are very type A personalities that care more about getting an A than having learned the material in a meaningful way. I don’t say that to offend DPT students, I was once one of them and had the exact same mentality. Who can fault them, with admission standards being what they are and the competitiveness of the field, they have to get the grade to get into the program. None the less once they get into the program, we need to help them flip the switch. One of those ways is by providing consistent testing. This can include low stakes quizzes all the way up the chain to high stakes exams. Some ideas would be to interleave open-ended questions throughout your lecture, start the class period with a low stakes Kahoot! Quiz, or plan on regular exam taking. The benefits of testing has been shown time and time again in the literature as one of the most effective methods of learning. Check out the resource article below by Butler to get more information about the benefits of testing.
After recovering from the shock that my 2 ½ year old already knows how to manipulate me, I really stopped and asked myself how did he figure that out? How did he know that he could ask for hot chocolate and get the marshmallows he wanted? I then recalled a few months earlier him asking me why I put marshmallows into hot chocolate…and it all made sense.
What ways do you stimulate the processing of information from working memory to long-term?
Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2013;14(1):4-58.
Butler AC. Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2010;36(5):1118-1133.
"The Learning Brain." The Great Courses. IEEE Spectrum. 2013;50(3):37-37.
Brown PC, Roediger (III) HL, McDaniel MA. Make It Stick. Harvard University Press; 2014.
Gooding HC, Mann K, Armstrong E. Twelve tips for applying the science of learning to health professions education. Med Teach. 2017;39(1):26-31.