Common Confusions About Teaching

Do you fall into one of these five traps?

Posted Sep 01, 2020

This post is a collaborative effort with Herb Bell, a cognitive psychologist whose research interests include training and skilled performance.

Whether in a children’s classroom, a military school, or a corporate training program, these five questionable ideas are widely held and put into practice—to the detriment of students and trainees. Most of these claims are more complicated than people realize, and some of them are flat-out wrong.

A number of you reading this post may hold some of these beliefs. If so, it is time to rethink them.

Claim #1: Accommodate learning styles. There is a widespread belief that each individual has a preferred learning style and learns better if instruction is tuned to that particular learning style. Boser (2019) found that 97% of the teachers and educators surveyed bought into this learning styles myth.

Most systematic reviews of the published research find little or no empirical evidence to support the belief that if you present instruction geared to a student’s learning style you improve their learning (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004; Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2009; Willingham, Hughes, & Dobolyi, 2015).

And that holds whether you emphasize a preferred sensory modality (visual, auditory, kinetic) or a personality type (e.g., sensing type individuals prefer concrete, practical facts while intuitive type individuals prefer exploring concepts, extrapolating data, and finding patterns).

There’s also no evidence for the idea that you should accommodate personality types as right-brained or left-brained. The right-brain/left-brain concept is simply hare-brained. Both sides of the brain operate cooperatively in verbal and spatial tasks. Boser found that 77% of the teachers surveyed bought into this right/left brain myth.

Claim #2: Try to speed up the learning curve. It’s not that simple. What matters is how well people perform the work after the training is completed, not how quickly they acquired the knowledge/skill in the classroom. When you add challenges and make the learning more difficult you slow down the learning curve but you often produce richer mental models and improve how much the person remembers and applies afterwards (McDaniel & Butler, 2011).

Claim #3: Use a building block approach: Start with simple concepts and build on those.

The problem here is that this tidy sequential approach doesn’t always get the job done. If the “job” is performing that particular task/procedure, then the building block tactic does work. However, if the “job” is to solve real-world problems, knowing which task/procedure to perform when, then the building block approach isn’t ideal. Research shows (Hall et al., 1994; Kornell & Bjork, 2008; Rohrer et al., 2015; Gopher et al., 1994) that non-sequential ordering results in better transfer although the initial learning may be slower (see Claim #2).

The building block approach usually teaches a skill independent of the broader context in which it will have to be applied. Textbook writers often compound the problem by presenting homework assignments blocked by the type of method, so students just follow the same pattern and don’t need to think through what method to use with each item.

Of course, students and trainees need some mastery of basic elements to start with. However, most training programs wait too long to introduce decision problems, so trainees think that all they have to do is learn the procedures.

Claim #4: Repetitions breed comprehension. Repetitions give us a sense of familiarity, and we may equate familiarity with understanding. For example, “I had to read the chapter three times but I finally feel that I really understand it.” This claim confuses familiarity with understanding—the re-reading fallacy. In a previous post, I explained why active and constructive learning counts for much more than repetitions.

Claim #5: Try to reduce class size. Yes, learning suffers when classes are too large. But instructor quality matters much more than class size. A highly skilled instructor with a large class will get better results than a poor instructor with a small class. Therefore, school districts and training programs would do better by getting higher quality instructors than by shrinking class size. An essay on the Opportunity Myth explained that highly skilled instructors can teach more effectively, provide more appropriate assignments, increase engagement, and raise expectations.

Once a claim takes hold, it is difficult to dislodge. The claims take hold because they are so convenient: It’s easier to focus on learning styles than to diagnose why individual students are struggling. Speeding up the learning curve lets you train in less time. Sequencing the training lets you deal with one topic at a time. Familiarity is a low-effort substitution for insight. Reducing class size is easier to manage than upskilling teachers. We believe that educators, trainers, and learners need to stop hamstringing themselves with popular ideas that turn out to be limited and even flawed.

References

Boser, U. (2019). What do teachers know about the science of learning? The Learning Agency, Washington, DC.

Coffield, F., Moseley. D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic review. Learning and Skills Research Center. London. https://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A13692

Gopher, D., Weil, M., & Bareket, T. (1994). Transfer of skill from a computer game trainer to flight. Human Factors, 36, 387-405.

Hall, K. G., Domingues, D. A., & Cavazos, R. (1994). Contextual Interference Effects with Skilled Baseball Players. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 78(3), 835–841. https://doi.org/10.1177/003151259407800331

N. Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: Is spacing the “enemy of induction”?. Psychological Science, 19(6), 585– 592. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02127.x

McDaniel, M. A., & Butler, A. C. (2011). A contextual framework for understanding when difficulties are desirable. In A. S. Benjamin. (Ed.).Successful remembering and successful forgetting: A festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 175-198). Psychology Press.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence: Learning styles. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105–119. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x

Rohrer, D., Dedrick, R. F., & Stershic, S. (2015). Interleaved practice improves mathematics learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 900–908. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000001

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., Dobolyi, D. G. (2015) The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of psychology, 42(3), 266-271. doi: 10.1177/0098628315589505