Quizzes Improve Online Learning

14 Apr

Students-Online-Learning-SystemSteven Novella makes a perceptive comment about college education: students don’t like sitting in lecture halls forced to listen to a professor. Students like online learning, but there are some drawbacks to listening to a podcast or watching a video on your smartphone or tablet, at least from the perspective of the educator who has to evaluate students within a certain period of time. According to two psychologists, there’s a simple solution for teachers, to match online education and conventional methods: quizzing (via SGU #404).

By interspersing online lectures with short tests, student mind-wandering decreased by half, note-taking tripled, and overall retention of the material improved, according to Daniel Schacter, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology, and Karl Szpunar, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology. Their findings are described in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“What we hope this research does is show that we can use very strong, experimentally sound techniques to describe what works in online education and what doesn’t,” said Szpunar. “The question, basically, is how do we optimize students’ time when they’re at home, trying to learn from online lectures? How do we help them most efficiently extract the information they need?

“Some students I’ve talked to say that it takes them as long as four hours to get through an hourlong, online lecture because they’re trying to combat all the distractions around them,” he continued. “If we give students an incentive to pay attention to what they’re doing, it’s going to save them time. This is one way to do that.”

Dr. Novella also made another interesting comment, that he doesn’t think a wandering attention span or distraction isn’t a bad thing, if the goal is comprehension or applying the lesson. But again, teachers need test data, and therein lies the problem. It’s not just about “learning”. Universities and employers need data for credentialing. Testing at best interferes with learning, so the goal should minimize the “official” mission’s impact, to maximize the long term benefits.

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