Ep 16. Applying cognitive science to education
with Daniel Willingham
This transcript was created with speech-to-text software. It was reviewed before posting, but may contain errors. Credit to Jazmin Boisclair.
Ep 16. Applying cognitive science to education with Dan Willingham
[00:00:00] Anna Stokke: Welcome to Chalk and Talk, a podcast about education and math. I'm Anna Stokke, a math professor and your host.
You are listening to episode 16 of Chalk and Talk. This was my first week of classes in my favourite time of year. Whether you're a teacher, a post-secondary instructor, or a parent, I hope you have a fantastic school year. I have an amazing back-to-school episode for you. I had the pleasure of talking to cognitive psychologist, Dr. Dan Willingham.
You may have heard of him. He wrote the bestselling book, Why Don't Students Like School? His most recent book is called Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy. We covered a lot of ground in this episode. Some of the discussion relates to high school or post-secondary students, but a lot of the conversation is applicable across all levels of teaching.
Dan says that memory is the residue of thought, so I asked him what that means and the implication for learning. We talked about how we can help students recognize and solve variations in math problems, And he offered advice for when students face setbacks.
We discussed some effective and ineffective study techniques, how to get students to use notes effectively and much more.
But first, I asked Dan to address the learning styles myth. That's right, learning styles don't exist. You'll want to stick around for this episode. After talking to Dan, I felt energized as we head into a new school year. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Now, without further ado, let's get started.
I am really excited because I have Dr. Dan Willingham joining me today from Virginia. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He is a renowned cognitive psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He studies human learning and the application of cognitive psychology to K to 12 and post-secondary education.
He's the author of nine books, including the bestseller Why Don't Students Like School? And the first one I read was, When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. His most recent book, which I just finished, is fantastic. It's called Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy, and we'll talk a lot about that book today.
He writes the “Ask the Cognitive Psychologist” column for American Educator magazine, and he frequently writes digestible articles for the public and teachers on cognitive science and learning. He's received numerous well-deserved honours, including the outstanding Public Communication of Education Research Award from the American Educational Research Association, and in 2017, he was appointed by President Obama to serve as a member of the National Board for Education Sciences.
I'm so delighted to have you here today, Dan. Welcome to my podcast.
[00:03:18] Dan Willingham: So much, delighted to be here.
[00:03:21] Anna Stokke: So let's jump right in. You are very knowledgeable and there are so many things that I want to talk to you about, but I thought the best thing to start with was a common myth, and that's the learning styles theory. I'll try to explain this and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but the basic idea is that people learn best according to their particular learning style, usually classified as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, which is movement.
And you have a great YouTube video on this that I've shown many times to education students, and they're always really shocked to hear that learning styles actually don't exist. In fact, in your book, you write that 90% of the public believe that the learning styles theory is true. So can you please tell the listeners about what the scientific evidence actually says about learning styles?
[00:04:12] Dan Willingham: Sure. And, by the way, that 90% figure is really surprising. No one had really looked into this until maybe 10 years or so ago. And there have been a number of surveys of the public and, and different sort of subpopulations of teachers and future teachers and so on. And this has been in South America, Central America, Western Europe, parts of Asia and North America.
And that 90% figure seems to hold everywhere. So it's really become something that seems like it's just common knowledge. I always point out, like when people ask me, “Why does everyone believe learning styles is scientifically supported if there's in fact not good scientific evidence for it?”
And I point out there's lots of things like that that just seem like common knowledge. For me, like “Dan is the Atomic Theory right?” Well, sure. It's got to be right. I mean, like you just hear about it all the time. It's got to be that that's accepted. I don't know what the experiments are and I think learning styles theory has become like that.
But in fact, this theory has been tested numerous times. And I, I think the reason people think it's right is that they're a little confused about what the definition is. So what they're thinking of is that people vary in their abilities and people certainly do vary in abilities.
So you pointed out a distinction between vision and audition and movement, and people vary in those, you know, some people do have a better visual memory or a better auditory memory. But that's not what the learning styles theory claims because a style, for it to be meaningful, should mean something different than ability.
Everybody, including all psychologists, accept that some people have better visual memory than other people. That's not surprising. So what does a style mean if it doesn't mean ability? Well, it's supposed to be just sort of like your preferred way of doing things. I think the best analogy is through sports.
So you can have two basketball players, for example, who are of equal ability, but have different styles of play on the court. One is a very aggressive player whereas the other is very conservative in their shot making. That's sort of what style is supposed to mean. It's supposed to be just like your preference of how to do things, not that you're better at doing them.
And testing whether or not the idea is right is straightforward. You just either encourage or prevent someone from engaging in their preferred style. So you have two groups of subjects, and to keep things simple, we'll just make it vision and hearing and you have a visual experience and an auditory experience that you can give subjects.
So some people might see a silent movie that tells a story and other people are listening to someone read a comparable story aloud. And then some of your subjects are supposedly visual learners. Some of them are auditory learners, so depending on which story they're experiencing, they're either getting something that is in tune with their learning style or something that is not in tune with their learning style.
And then you can test their benefit from the experience, either by their understanding of the story or their memory for the story a few days later. And what you expect is if you've honoured their learning style, they're going to perform better on the test, and that's what we don't see. And there are a number of learning style theories.
These theories have been around since at least the fifties. And there are a number of tests of them and there's just really no substantial support for them.
[00:07:51] Anna Stokke: It's really interesting. And we could say, “Well, who cares?” Right? But teachers actually do spend a lot of time on this sort of thing I think. So I think sometimes they feel that they have to have different approaches for students with different learning styles.
And if this theory isn't correct, that's a lot of wasted time. I also think that students sometimes they have it in their mind that they have to learn in a particular way. Students have even said that to me, “Well, I'm a visual learner and this way of teaching doesn't suit my learning style.”
So it is important that people actually realize that this theory isn't correct. Would you agree?
[00:08:30] Dan Willingham: I, I do, I mean, I, it's very hard to know how much, wasted energy is going into this. I was sort of chuckling when you said students come in and say, “Well, this isn't really, like, your teaching is not in tune with my learning style.” It feels to me like that's the time the theory is most often invoked is when, or frequently in K-12, it's parents also.
Like, “You're not teaching to my student’s - to my child's learning style.” I hear that a lot from teachers. I think the biggest thing is that teachers feel, more than teachers spending a huge amount of time, and this is just my impression that to my knowledge, there are no actual data on any of this. More than teachers spending a ton of time on it, there's a lot of guilt.
Because when you think about it, like again, there are lots of these different learning styles. Some say there are two styles, some say there are four styles. So like, if there are three styles then you're in some ways supposed to be doing every lesson plan three different ways.
You know, if you're not doing that and you think this is really a big deal, you feel terrible. To me the biggest thing is like, gosh, there's enough to worry about, if you're a teacher, like why not take off their plate anything we can and something that's not scientifically supported and is supposed to be scientifically supported, seems like a good candidate to go.
[00:09:40] Anna Stokke: So let's start talking about some of the things in your book. So, a theme in your book is that your brain wants to do certain things that aren't always best for learning, and we convince ourselves that what we're doing is working, even though maybe it isn't working as well as some other approach might.
But if we're aware of these things, we can outsmart our brains, right? One of the first principles you mentioned is that memory is the residue of thought. So what does that mean? Can you elaborate on that or give an example?
[00:10:15] Dan Willingham: I mean, there are a number of factors that contribute to whether or not you'll remember something later. One of the most important of those factors is what you are thinking about at the time you have the experience. And I especially highlight this and contrast in classroom contexts or when students are studying with sort of intention to learn that you're, you really want to learn.
And maybe it takes the outsized importance to me because I, I remember in graduate school, in the first course I took on human memory, learning that whether or not you want to remember something has pretty much no impact on whether or not you are eventually going to remember it. And as someone who had spent his whole life in school, I was just horrified by this.
Like, all that time and effort I spent really trying to remember stuff when I'm studying for tests. The emotion, the really wanting part didn't do anything. It's really the cognitive processes that you're engaging in, the type of thinking that you do that's going to determine whether or not you remember something.
So just to complete the thought, wanting to remember something can indirectly affect whether you remember something provided that the wanting prompts you to, you know, engage in cognitive thought that is helpful to memory. So the kind of thinking that's usually most helpful to memory is thinking about what things mean, thinking about how it relates to other content that you know something about and so on.
But again, back to where we started with your question, memory is, is the residue of thought is referring to this fact that whether or not you remember something is determined mostly, but not entirely by what you're thinking about when you experience it.
[00:12:06] Anna Stokke: I don't find it really easy to just remember a definition. There are some people that are really good at doing that. For me, I have to think of the example that illustrates the definition and then I can remember the definition after that. Is that sort of in line with that principle?
[00:12:24] Dan Willingham: Actually, I mean, I think it relates, it does relate to another aspect of this that I, that I talk about in Why Don't Students Like School? And probably in Outsmart Your Brain that when we're first learning new ideas, it's very hard to wrap your mind around conceptual things. We understand new ideas in the context of things that we already know something about. This is why when you first are in any class and you, you hear a definition, which very often is going to be conceptual, it's not tied to any particular example, you're in a physics class and you hear, the definition of a force, you know, your first question is, “Can you make that concrete for me?”, “Can you give me an example?”
Likewise, you know, in psychology, you give a definition of classical conditioning. Even if you precisely define the terms, it just doesn't make sense. And then you hear about Pavlov's dog and you're like, “Oh, okay, that, I can kind of understand that much better now.” And the reason that these examples or more broadly analogies work so well and why teachers use analogies so much is that you can't just pour new knowledge into someone's head.
The way people understand new ideas is in the context of things that they already understand. And so I think that may be what you're experiencing when you're, in your example of how you understand definitions.
[00:13:47] Anna Stokke: So one of the other principles you mentioned is that probing improves memory. Does retrieval practice fall into that category?
[00:13:56] Dan Willingham: Absolutely. Yeah.
[00:13:58] Anna Stokke: We've talked about retrieval practice on the podcast a few times, and there's something I want to ask you about retrieval practice. So you define retrieval practice or retrieval as the process of pulling something out of memory.
And I'd like to clear up what exactly this means in math because I think for subjects like history or maybe even geography, it's a little more clear, right? You know, maybe it means you're remembering a date or you're remembering an event or something like that.
So now when we come to math, we have things like recalling times tables, like automatically I know that six times seven is 42, or I can recall the quadratic formula, but there are a whole bunch of other things in math. For example, it might be to solve 2x+3=5. I know that the first thing I do is I subtract three from both sides, et cetera.
So in that case, I'm recalling a strategy. So those things, also, those sort of recalling strategies or how to solve problems, those would also fall into the retrieval practice category. Is that correct?
[00:15:04] Dan Willingham: Yeah, I think they could, I mean, certainly this, these are examples of retrieval from memory and they're, and what you said, we can actually distinguish between two different types of things that you would be retrieving. One would be a general way of approaching problems. So, actually, let me talk about that one second.
The first would be you recognize, “Oh, this is that type of problem and I know, I have sort of in my head a set of steps that is suitable for solving this type of problem” and recognizing, “Oh, this is that type of problem.” That's actually fairly tricky, you know, compared to remembering three times five equals 15.
First of all, it can be a fuzzy set, but even if it's not a fuzzy set, it can have different surface structures. So you can have a problem that is at root the same problem mathematically. It has sort of different, what we would call surface features. In one case, the problem looks like it's something to do with kids marching around a soccer field, playing band instruments.
And in another case, it's to do with cells growing in a Petri dish, right? So, I mean, this is very familiar to every teacher of mathematics, word problems kids find confusing because they know the principle and they don't recognize they know the principle. So that's one type of retrieval is getting to the point where you reliably see, “Oh, this is that type of problem.”
You see sort of the underlying structure of the problem. The other is what I started with, which is, you don't recognize this is that type of problem, but you're, it doesn't mean you're lost, right? You don't say, you don't just say like, “Oh, well, I don't know a formula for this problem, therefore I can't solve it.”
You've got a bag of tricks that you try, different things that you know might make this problem more manageable and start moving you towards a solution. So yes, both of those would be instances of retrieval from memory.
[00:17:08] Anna Stokke: And we'll come back to this a bit and I just wanted to talk a little more about something you said there. And this is actually a really difficult thing with teaching mathematics. So you give students a bunch of problems to do and then if you vary the problem a little bit, the student often doesn't know what to do.
And to the teacher it seems obvious. You know, like I have all these techniques in my brain and I can tell that this is just a variation of that problem, not a big deal. So for example, it might be, to sort of keep it simple, it might be something like, students know how to find the area of a circle when they're given the radius and they know that the radius is half the diameter.
But then you give them a problem where you ask them to find the area of a circle and now you've given them the diameter and they're not able to see that they can put these things together.
[00:18:02] Dan Willingham: “We never did this”, “This is unfair.”
[00:18:03] Anna Stokke: Yeah, exactly. So you'll hear students say that, that “You didn't do anything like that in class,” right?
Whereas to me, no, this is just almost exactly like what I've been doing in class. So what's going on with that sort of thing?
[00:18:18] Dan Willingham: This may or may not make any mathematicians and, and, and teachers feel better, but I mean every field has this problem because every field you're trying to teach students things that are abstractions. So if you're an English teacher, you're trying to teach them what irony is and how to spot irony in a in a play or, or a work of prose.
And it's got the same problem is that, you know, it's, it's obvious to us because we know the category, but it can take on different forms. And again, this probably won't be super reassuring, but I can tell everybody in your audience what you're asking them to do is really difficult. I think of learning new concepts as sort of happening in stages.
The first step of understanding is it makes sense when someone else explains it and I can follow along and feel like, yeah, that hangs together. The second step is I can explain it to someone else. The third step is I can start to spot new examples of it. And that's what we're working with here. The first thing I'll say is that the obvious way this happens is you see lots of examples of it, and we sort of know this, that even if you don't explicitly do anything, my example in the book I think is rate, time, distance problems.
You know, I give the example, I think of my daughter when she was in fourth grade. In real time I was having a conversation with her about going to Florida and it was clear that rate, time, distance made no sense to her at all. I knew she had learned this in school. I knew she was successful in solving these problems because my wife, her mother was her teacher.
And so I was very aware of what was happening in the classroom, but couldn't do it at all. But of course, adults, you know, have no problem with rate, time, distance problems. And that's because we've done a lot of them. So the, the next question is, is there anything you can do that's a little faster If you don't want to wait eight or 10 years, or however it is for experience?
The best answer we have is problem comparison. So if you give students several different versions of a problem where they need to calculate the area of a circle and ask the students, not just to work the problems, but to compare the problems. This is a variation. Think about what you do when you compare.
You're finding the elements that the problems have in common, and if they've got different sort of cover stories, all they have in common is that they require the same, you know, they've got the same underlying mathematics. So memory being the residue of thought, you're really highlighting for them and getting them to think about the relevant mathematics.
And so problem comparison seems to help some.
[00:21:06] Anna Stokke: That's very helpful. And seeing lots of problems, I've been teaching for 20 years or something like that. And what I can say is just after seeing lots of different types of problems and doing more and more problems, eventually somehow this works.
[00:21:22] Dan Willingham: Exactly. You just see it, yeah.
[00:21:25] Anna Stokke: I wouldn't say things like throwing students into problem-solving situations without guidance is that helpful though. Like a lot of people think that that is the solution to just put students in situations where they don't have any tools, because then eventually they'll figure out how to get their way out of these situations.
[00:21:45] Dan Willingham: I think that puts way too much hope and trust in students' self-image because you're assuming students are going to hang in there until they figure it out, as opposed to just giving up. In psychology, a very broad principle across both teaching and parenting is you want high expectations because that communicates when you're, when you show the student, “I'm expecting a lot of you,” that shows that you are confident that they're capable of good things.
If you set low expectations, obviously you are, you're saying, “Look, I really don't think you're very good at this.” So you want high expectations and confidence that the student can meet them, but then you also want support. You want the student to rest assured. Yeah, like, “You set a really ambitious target for what I'm supposed to achieve, but you're going to be here and you're going to provide help if I need help, and you're going to provide instruction if I need instruction.”
So that second component I think is very important.
[00:22:49] Anna Stokke: So let's come back to the principle of probing improves memory. And so you mentioned that most students actually like to read and highlight when they're studying, and that that's not as effective as retrieval practice. I like to relate everything to math. So to relate this to math, a lot of students, so we give them problems to work on, but we're usually expected to give them solutions as well.
And so they have solutions. And when students do the problems and they, they look at, “Oh, I don't know how to solve this problem.” So they read the solution and then they're done. That's it. So they think when they've read the solutions, they know how to do the problem.
In fact, a few weeks ago I was talking to a group of teachers, and one of the teachers pointed out that when she gives her students practice tests with solutions, the students will literally just read the solutions. And they think they've studied for the test, but then when they get to the test, they can't actually do the problems.
So why doesn't this method of reading or reading and highlighting work and why do students think it works?
[00:23:54] Dan Willingham: It's a great example of failure on the part of students and some of the instructors. To make this distinction between the different types of knowing that I was describing a few minutes ago, students feel like they've studied because they're saying, “I see the problem, I see the answer, I see how you got the answer from the problem.”
So in other words, they're saying “When someone else explains, I understand, therefore I'm good.” Right? But that doesn't mean they are going to be able to understand themselves, in other words, that they're going to be able to provide the solution. That's the problem.
And again, that's just harder. I see the same thing, though I'm not a math teacher, you know, in concepts, and I most commonly see it when a student comes to my office because they're upset. They feel like “I really knew the content. I didn't do well on the exam.”
When they say that to me, I say, “Okay, so there were three theories of working memory that we talked about. And you feel like you knew that?” “Yes, I absolutely knew that.” “Okay. So why don't you tell me what the three?” And the student will start confidently and they'll very quickly run out of steam and they'll say, “Well, I know it. I just can't explain it.”
And what the student is thinking is, “When I first read in the textbook about those three theories, it made no sense to me at all. But then I went to class and you explained it and then I went back to the textbook and I read it again. That helped. I talked with some other students, that helped. Now, when I read about the three theories, it makes perfect sense to me.”
So that's their criterion of studying is “When it's explained to me or when I read it, it makes sense.” And you, the instructor, your criterion is, “You have to be able to explain it yourself.”
[00:25:45] Anna Stokke: Are there ways that we can convince our students that retrieval practice is more effective than reading?
[00:22:49] Dan Willingham: You ask a great question because it doesn't feel like it's effective. It doesn't feel like it's working. So this is one of the things that's so insidious about that type of study. It feels in the moments like it's working really well. In Outsmart Your Brain I give the analogy of doing push ups on your knees. If you want to be able to do a lot of pushups, you might talk yourself into doing pushups on your knees.
You just say like, “This is great. Like, I can do so many pushups so quickly.” But of course, challenge is what brings more strength. So you need to do push ups the regular way, and the same thing happens in your example, sort of reading over the problems with the answers given.
You feel like “This is going great,” but you're essentially doing push ups on your knees. So how do you convince students? There are lots of things that Are a little hard to believe, but I say like, tell them anyway. I mean, so in this case, I would tell students why this is a good idea.
They may or may not believe you, but certainly you should tell them and you can try a classroom demonstration. The difference between retrieval practice and studying something usually depends on the conditions. It's usually maybe a 10 or 15% bump. So in terms of studying, like you know, it really matters. Variability being what it is, you usually want classroom demonstrations to be absolute killers, like, kind of can't miss.
So rather than do demonstrations, I usually show students experimental results so that they get the idea, “This is really a thing.” And then I tell them, “Look, here's why it's going to feel harder, but here's the exercise analogy, it should feel harder” and so forth. That's the best advice I can give. But yeah, it's not always easy to get them to do this.
[00:27:42] Anna Stokke: Another thing I've found, and I've observed this over many years, so I have tutorials we call them labs, but they're really just tutorials. And the students work on problems during the tutorials. And if I didn't say anything to them, they wouldn't look at their notes at all.
Even though there are lots of things in their notes that would help them to do the problems, and then they think they're stuck. They don't know how to do the problem. And they'll say, “I don't know. I don't know where to start.” Why wouldn't they just help themselves look at their notes and try to help themselves solve the problem?
[00:28:16] Dan Willingham: So it sounds like they do not know how to use their notes in ways that are going to help the problem. They don't know how to draw that connection. So that sounds like something that would be a good candidate for modelling in class to say, “Okay, today we're going to start by looking back at what we did last time, here's a sample of what your notes might look like.”
I, if I were doing this, I would actually get someone's notes and then say, “Here's the kind of problem that you have. Now let's flip through the notes. How would you…” you know, I would, I would show 'em.
[00:28:48] Anna Stokke: And that is what I do.
[00:28:50] Dan Willingham: When you say, "Here's how to use it.” Do they say, “Well, I don't believe you. That's not useful.” or like what happens?
[00:28:56] Anna Stokke: They pull out the notes, but I'm there, right? So they know that I expect them to do this. So they pull out the notes and then they start looking through the problems and usually they can actually figure out how to do the problem after that. So everybody feels better.
So I just find this sort of thing kind of interesting, that's how they're studying. So I do think we need to tell them how to use their notes. I think it's really important.
[00:29:17] Dan Willingham: But you would think like there, you know, you were talking about feedback, like the feedback is “You can't solve the problem,” right? So like, why don't you look at your notes?
[00:29:25] Anna Stokke: I think a lot of times students think that math is like that, maybe they think they're not good at math and so it's natural that they'll see a problem in front of them and they won't know how to solve the problem.
So I think that is part of it. And that brings me to another question. A lot of people think that intelligence is predetermined. Especially in math. I think that people tend to think there are people who can do math and people who can't do math. What do you think about that?
[00:29:54] Dan Willingham: So I think those are two separate questions that I would give overlapping answers to but not identical answers to. So there's no doubt that genetics has an impact on intelligence. There's tons and tons of data that indicates that's true. Exactly how much of, first of all, how to measure your smarts is somewhat controversial.
Standard IQ tests have predictive validity for certain types of tasks that most people would say, “Yeah, those tasks look like things that we would say smart people would do well at them.” Right. So for those of your listeners who are not used to thinking about test validation, I mean, you give an IQ test, how do you know that you're really measuring something that we would want to call intelligence?
And this is what psychologists call measuring the validity of the measure. And so one of the ways you do it is you take tasks like. doing well in school or doing well in jobs that seem intellectually demanding. And so we would expect you know, if the test is a good test, then people who score well should do well in school.
And people who score poorly should do poorly in school. Right? And so without getting tangled up in “What exactly does IQ mean?” And like all of the cultural aspects, all of it, doesn't mean any of that is invalid. But, you know, there are restricted senses in which you can talk about IQ that I think makes sense.
And so when I talk about intelligence, that's what I'm talking about. And that's generally what psychologists mean when they talk about intelligence. So intelligence in that sense. There is a genetic component. How big the genetic component is is controversial. I think most psychologists thought it was bigger probably about 20 years ago, and increasingly the evidence indicates it's more slender.
You know, the high would've been, there were people who would've claimed, you know, 75% of intelligence is genetic or in some way or heritable. That was maybe 25 years ago. I think there are very few people who would make that claim now, and there are many more people who would say, “Nah, it's maybe 25%” or something like that.
No one thinks that you can't improve your intelligence by learning stuff. So what we call intelligence, you absolutely can get smarter by broadening your exposure to things, learning more stuff. And if you just look at an intelligence test, the, you know, the gold standard intelligence test has a lot of stuff on your ability to think through problems. It’s based in no small part on your exposure to that kind of content.
Now math is a little different. Once again, it's heritable and there's a genetic component to it, and we certainly feel that some people just sort of seem to take to math like a duck to water and other people really don't. People also clearly take this much farther than they should in terms of thinking of themselves as not a math person.
Like it's just completely hopeless for them. I actually wrote an article about 10 years ago or something that basically claimed everybody with a very, very small set of exceptions, who, have, what is the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia, where it's going to be very, very difficult for that subgroup.
But there you're talking about like 3%, 5% of people. Everybody else can learn high school maths or through calculus they can get there. And it will vary. I mean, like, of course it's going to be harder for some than for others, but everybody can get there. Math's a little different though because it is so sequential and the foundation is not good for a lot of people.
And when I say foundation, I'm talking about the stuff you learn in Pre-K and in kindergarten. Learning, having a sense of numerosity, linear numerosity, understanding the number line, understanding equality. The big problem in the way a lot of kids are taught math is that you can sort of stumble along and solve problems without that foundational understanding.
Because we were talking earlier in our discussion about recognizing problem types. So you can recognize a certain number of problem types and know how to come up with correct answers without really deep understanding at all. And usually you hit a wall at algebra. Suddenly there's not one type of problem, one solution.
You're really, that's the first time most American kids are asked to problem solve. Like you have this toolbox that you can apply and you know, here's the problem, figure out which tools are appropriate, and that's when most American kids get lost. You know, this is when people start to conclude, “I'm not a math person.”
It's like, actually you got bad instruction early on. You were able to make up for it, but then it came back to haunt you probably in about eighth grade. You can still do it. But yes, unfortunately you were missing that foundation and so it's going to be a little harder for you.
[00:35:12] Anna Stokke: And I think a lot of times people really underestimate that cumulative nature of math because I don't think we have the same problem in all other subjects. You mentioned algebra. So you have to solve an algebra problem. If you have difficulty with fractions, you're not going to be able to solve your algebra problem.
And then fractions, well, if you're not able to add and subtract or you don't know your times tables and things like that, fractions are going to be a problem. We can trace a calculus problem all the way back to elementary school, all along that thread, students do have to get good instruction and they have to be fluent with all the concepts to do well.
And I agree with what you're saying. I think oftentimes they struggle and then they think they're stupid and that they're bad at math when that's not actually the problem. It's just the foundational material that they're actually struggling with. And the other thing is you have to work hard.
You have to go to class, you have to do your problems, do lots and lots of practice because practice is also really, really important in math. And on that topic, what are some characteristics of students who do really well in school?
[00:36:21] Dan Willingham: I think persistence is the main thing. I think it's students who keep after it and persistence means just, as you said, it means showing up and showing up having done whatever preparatory work you are asked to do. Showing up with an attitude of “This is going to, this is probably going to be challenging, this is going to be hard, but I'm here for it and I'm going to do my best. And if I have trouble, I'm going to ask for help.”
And then after you've been in class, you do whatever you were asked to do. And once again, if you're struggling with that, if you don't really understand how to do it, your instructor keeps telling you these notes are going to be really helpful on the problem set, and you don't understand why, or you don't understand how you'll ask for more information.
It sounds so simple, but it's not totally simple because it does require sort of self possession. It requires planning, and persistence itself is hard.
[00:37:24] Anna Stokke: And you have a lot of advice for students in your book. A lot of it is really great for post-secondary students in particular, or high school students, like independent learners. And, it would be helpful, for the instructors of those students. So, for example, you have a lot of advice about notes, taking notes and reorganizing notes and that sort of thing.
So a lot of times, instructors post their notes. So should students still take their own notes in class or should they just rely on the posted notes?
[00:37:59] Dan Willingham: I think it varies a little bit, and I invite instructors to think about the function of notes. And actually there are surveys of students as young as middle school. If you ask them why, why would anyone take notes? They give very good answers. There are basically two reasons.
One is that the process of taking notes is itself good for memory. It focuses you, it helps ensure that you're paying attention. Memory is the residue of thought. It's helping you winnow down what's really the core idea here. And so you're thinking about the most important ideas. The second function of notes is that it serves as a memory prompt, or cue or hint later.
Like you look at your written notes and it sort of takes you back to the understanding you had in class. Those two functions actually play off one another a little bit in note taking. Because on the one hand you ask like, should students take their own notes? Well, the memory function, clearly they should.
Writing stuff down helps. So you want students taking their own notes, but on the other hand, students' notes tend not to be complete. So as memory hints later, they don't have hints for everything. because they miss something like half of what the instructor thinks they're supposed to get. And so your notes are obviously going to be much more complete.
They're going to be better organized, the student's going to have a better view of the lecture. So you would think, well, ideally what should happen is I want students to take notes and then they get my notes afterwards. But we all know what's going to happen. Like if students know your notes are coming they're not going to take very careful notes.
And especially probably the students who most need to take good notes aren't really going to take notes. So that's not really an answer of what to do. It's an answer of like, here's some factors to think about if you're an instructor. I encourage people to sort of think accordingly about what do you, what's the nature of the content that you teach and what are the nature of your students?
So do you want the memory boost? How good do you think your students are taking notes? How incomplete do you think their notes are? Those are the kinds of factors that I would think about.
[00:40:15] Anna Stokke: I actually didn't use to post notes ever because I wanted to make sure that students came to class and took notes. But then after, after COVID I didn't want students to feel that they had to go to class when they were sick and maybe they'd be too afraid to ask someone else for the notes.
But certainly I have colleagues who are adamant that you must not post your notes because you want the students in class to.
[00:40:39] Dan Willingham: Have you asked students sort of at the end of the semester, “Hey, you know, this is a new policy for me. What do you think?” Like, you make, you know, and it's anonymous, so.
You know, for example, I went to a no devices policy a few years ago, and I made a habit of asking my students about that, and they were, they were very candid. I was very impressed by how they talked about that. And, you know, the upshot was really, I really didn't like it, but I get it.
And the other thing, I mean, you, if you separate the questions, “What did you think about it?” And then, “Should I do that next year?” There often will, in my experience anyway, I don't know of any data on this generally, my students are, you know, the question, “Should I do this for future students?” Does get them much more in the mode of “Is this a good thing for learning in general?”
[00:41:32] Anna Stokke: That's a good way to phrase it. Should we do this in the future for future students? That it's not about them. We should talk a bit about distractions and, I mean, you're in class you really need to concentrate on what your teacher or your professor is saying.
And there are all sorts of things that cause distractions. And you mentioned one already, that's devices. You have a device ban in your own classes. I do as well. But we'll see things like a bring-your-own-device school with kids sitting there with cell phones all the time. What do you think about that?
[00:42:08] Dan Willingham: I do think it's a mistake. And I've been in classrooms that work this way. If there's something that you want your students to do that requires a device, like it makes perfect sense to me to say, “Okay, everyone, get out your laptop or tablet, now you're going to do this and we're all working on this,” or whatever.
And then once that's done, you put it away. I just think it's unrealistic to suppose that or really to ask students to be that well self-regulated. Most adults I know are not that well self-regulated. I mean, you go to a faculty meeting, people are, you know, people have their phone out.
People are, you know, shopping for shoes, and so I think students, if anything, have a much tougher time with that. And I'll say at the secondary level when you're in high school, it's in middle school. I really encourage building leaders to set a policy. Don't ask teachers to do a classroom by classroom.
I think it's very unfair to teachers that want to have a no devices policy because then all their students know you know, my other schoolmates have their phones out. They're all snapping one another and so on. And that's the fear of missing out is really, really powerful at that age.
[00:43:26] Anna Stokke: I think this is going to, there, we're going to see a shift because I think it's becoming very clear that they’re really negatively impacting, not just learning, but mental health, right? There are quite a few studies on this I think now.
[00:43:39] Dan Willingham: There's certainly a lot of concern, yeah.
[00:43:41] Anna Stokke: Another distraction that you talked about, and there are quite a few, there's procrastination, which is a big one, and I talked about that in, in another episode with Barb Oakley. But multitasking, and I guess that's the same idea, you know, cell phones, if you have your cell phone in front of you before you know it, you're multitasking or you're watching a video while you're doing your homework or Netflix.
But you mentioned that actually data shows that students don't think that multitasking comes with a cost. Actually, it does come with a cost, right?
[00:44:13] Dan Willingham: It does, yeah, absolutely. It's literally impossible to do two things at once. Even things that feel highly automated, very small effects, but just having the radio on in your car does make it a little more likely that you're going to get in a traffic accident.
Now we all want to listen to our radios and so we sort of live with that as a nation. I don't know that what I just said is widely known. I'm sure that people in the insurance industry know about this. So this is just a sort of an extreme example of the extent to which even something, so you're doing two tasks that are highly automated, listening to music, which seems like it would have no demand, whatever.
And then driving, which is something you, you know, most of us have been doing for years and still there's a cost. So yes, there's always a cost. Yes, people do underestimate it. When you get into a laboratory situation, you give people two tasks to do at once, they do recognize like, “yeah, I'm not doing this as well now.”
And you ask them, so you know, how much worse are you doing it, like in terms of the task, like what do you think your accuracy is now? And they, and they consistently underestimate how much the cost is. But students, yeah, especially with media, multitasking, they think the cost is zero. They think having background music on or having a video on, they consistently think there's just no cost at all.
Now, music actually, they could be right, and this varies because music has two effects simultaneously. It distracts like everything else does, but music also energizes you. This is why people listen to music when they're working out. And so depending on what the task is and whether, you know what your state is going into it, if you need energizing, it could be that there is a net neutral effect or even possibly a net positive effect of having some music on when you're doing a task.
But it probably interferes most of the time. It probably interferes rather than helps.
[00:46:30] Anna Stokke: And you have this lovely video on TikTok that I just saw last week about setbacks as we are going into a new school year and you had some great advice for students for when they face setbacks such as, doing poorly on a test. When students do poorly on a test, a couple of things happen. So the first thing is they react really emotionally. They get really upset. And then the second thing is they start having catastrophic thinking. They think, “I don't belong here.”
[00:47:05] Dan Willingham: Yeah.
[00:47:05] Anna Stokke: They think, “I don't belong in school.” Would you mind sharing some of that with us?
[00:47:10] Dan Willingham: “This is evidence,” right? “That I don't belong here.” I mean, I think a large part of the advice is recognize that this doesn't make sense. On TikTok, of course, you have to be sort of 90 seconds. One of the things that when I have a little bit longer to talk with students about this I point out, especially if you're in higher education, the admissions people really don't make mistakes.
They don't let people in here who can't do the work. You absolutely can do the work. Doesn't mean it's easy for you. And you may know people who have an easier time, but you absolutely can do it. So don't conclude that you don't belong here and obviously, pouring a lot of emotion into it is draining.
And this is something that is in the past. And so instead what you want to think about is, “What happened? Let me do some sort of analysis about what went wrong.” Like “I was trying to pass this math quiz. Here's what I did. Something about that didn't work? So are my notes not very good? Did I not spend enough time with this? Did I try to study with someone who was not a good study partner?”
Usually when you reflect on it that way, you kind of know what happened. And if you're uncertain, go talk to your instructor. Talk it through with them, because they'll probably be able to help you think that through.
[00:48:34] Anna Stokke: One of the things that it made me realize when we give students feedback for tests or when we give them the solutions, sometimes they actually don't even look at it. And one of the reasons is because it makes them feel bad.
I think we have to keep that in mind and find ways to make sure that students actually do get the feedback and take it seriously.
[00:48:57] Dan Willingham: One of the things I tell my students to sort of, you know, validate that feeling is like you, you never really get over that nobody wants, nobody enjoys getting negative feedback and bad news, and this is. Very commonly understood among academics when you start publishing papers is that you get these reviews from referees and people can't stand to read them.
Frequently we will have spent two years working on this paper. We submit it, and then we wait, you know, three or four months, and we're, every day we're like, so excited, check our mail, and then you just get knocked on the head. It feels horrible. And one of the, you know, skills that you have to learn one way or another as an academic is “How do I make use of this negative feedback and set those feelings aside and try and benefit from this?” It's not easy.
[00:49:50] Anna Stokke: I love the conclusion in your book about learning and fun, and you mentioned that a lot of people may think that students are more likely to learn and find things interesting if they choose what they want to learn.
But actually we may find a subject really boring at first and then end up finding it fun. Would you mind elaborating on that a bit?
[00:50:12] Dan Willingham: There's a graphic in the book that, I sort of depict a lot of what I've discussed in the book as sort of this virtuous cycle that the more you know about something, the easier it is to understand new content about it. And the more you understand the content, the more you remember it, and the more you remember it, the more you feel well-prepared for exams.
And it just sort of goes on and on. Like the more you get into this, the better things go. And so I point out that a lot of times people feel like the way you enter this virtuous cycle is through one part of it, which is, “I'm interested in this because if I'm interested then I'll read. And if I read then I'll understand. If I understand, then I'll remember” and so on.
But what I point out is like, it is a cycle. You can enter anywhere and end up getting interested in something. And I think most of us have had that experience in school where there's a topic and you think like, “Oh, this sounds like it's going to be terrible.” You may not love it, but once you understand it, you're like, “Okay, you know what? I actually kind of get it. Even if I don't love this, I can kind of see what other people get out of this and why they find this interesting.”
And so, yeah, that part of the book is both to acknowledge, because I did feel weird writing the book, the whole book is about stuff you have to do for school and so I was sort of writing it with an undertone. I didn't say this explicitly, but you could easily interpret it as, “All right guys, like we have to get through this somehow.” Right?
I don't think of school that way. And I don't think of life that way, so I wanted, part of it was just wanting to say like, look, that's not, that's not how I think. But part of it too is to point out that learning I think does lead to enjoyment and interest. And so it's a nice way to go through life, in my opinion.
Just trying to learn new things and expose yourself to new things.
[00:52:08] Anna Stokke: And that's something to keep in mind at all levels, with children too, that we can make them enjoy subjects and once you've learned something and you've worked at it, it can be very enjoyable,
[00:52:20] Dan Willingham: I think that especially for parents modelling this, not just as it relates to school, like, “Oh, but you know, look, I know you don't want to do your math, but math is really fun.” That's important too.
But also showing that that's the way you live your life all the time. Because we all know there's what we say to our children and then there's what we show our children, what we model. And so going through your daily life with curiosity and showing that you think learning new things is fun and exciting, that's what's really going to get your child to adopt those same attitudes.
[00:52:58] Anna Stokke: Very well said. A final question. So I teach at the university level. And I have to admit, I didn't hear much about cognitive science and how it relates to teaching and learning .And, you know, I have attended quite a few conferences on teaching at the post-secondary level. And then when I talked to teachers or education students, I find that they also don't know that much about cognitive science and the way it can be applied in the classroom.
This is really unfortunate because cognitive science tells us so much that can help us to be better teachers and our students to be better learners. So why do you think that most educators aren't familiar with the research on how students learn and what can be done about it?
[00:53:50] Dan Willingham: That's a great question. And I, I don't know the answer. I don't, at least in the States and in Canada, I don't know that there are good data on what teachers and teacher candidates actually know about cognitive science. There was one study of American teachers that was conducted by a group called Deans for Impact, maybe three or four years ago.
And it was fairly focused, but it did indicate that, yeah, there's a problem as, as you implied. But I do, I always like to acknowledge, when it's tempting to make a generalization, but we don't really have the data to know. That said, you know, why do programs choose to teach future teachers what they teach them?
I have no idea. You know, I don't, I don't live in that world and so it's very hard for me to analyze. I mean, I will say as much as I'm protesting, you know, there are no data, the conviction that there was a problem is what prompted me to change the direction of my career. I mean, I used to be a basic researcher in the neuroscience of memory and did that work until the early two thousands, and by happenstance gave a talk to about 500 teachers where I talked about sort of the ABCs of learning and attention, the kind of stuff that you know, if you take your very first course in cognitive psychology with me at the University of Virginia, this is the kind of stuff that I talk about.
And teachers didn't know it and thought it was interesting and relevant to their classrooms. And I was, candidly dumbfounded that they didn't know it. And that was what persuaded me. Someone needs to communicate this stuff to them in ways that's understandable and applicable to classrooms. And so that's what I started doing in the early two thousands.
[00:55:45] Anna Stokke: Well, I'm glad you did. I mean, I think it's not even just that they don't know about it. I think sometimes they're told the opposite. So for instance, the learning styles theory. I think actually a lot of teachers are taught that in Ed school.
[00:56:00] Dan Willingham: I think that happens, yeah.
[00:56:02] Anna Stokke: Anyway, I'm very pleased that you did change the course of your career because you're really good at explaining things to teachers and explaining things to the public in a very understandable and applicable way. And I do want to mention that there are a lot of other things in the book that we didn't talk about that people will find useful.
Like, how to take lecture notes and how to read difficult books, how to study for tests, including multiple-choice tests and exams and that sort of thing. So I really do recommend your book. I think it's fantastic. I will want all my students to read it for sure. I want to thank you so much for the work you do to bridge the gap between research and cognitive science and education practice.
It's really important work. It impacts a lot of teachers and students. And thank you so much for joining me today. It was just a huge honour.
[00:56:52] Dan Willingham: Real pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
[00:56:54] Anna Stokke: I hope you enjoyed today's episode of Chalk and Talk. Please go ahead and follow on your favourite podcast app so you can get new episodes delivered as they become available. You can follow me on Twitter for notifications or check out my website annastokke.com for more information. This podcast received funding through a University of Winnipeg Knowledge Mobilization and Community Impact grant funded through the Anthony Swaity Knowledge Impact Fund.