What do you want from your students: Information Retention vs. Skills Acquisition?

As an educator, it is important that I ask myself what I want students to ‘take away’ from any lesson or assignment. Once I decide what I want them to accomplish it is far easier to design a lesson, activity, or project for them to complete. In addition, how to mark becomes clearer, as I know what I want to assess.

I will be the first to admit that my lessons don’t always go as planned. Neither do my marking rubrics for created assignments. It is an unfortunate consequence of teaching, that I consistently 1) TRY 2) FAIL 3) ADJUST 4) FAIL AGAIN. This cycle seems to repeat itself, over and over until finally all the kinks have been worked out.

Looking back on one of the first assignments I created as a student teacher, I now see it was completely useless. First, the rubric I created did not award marks for what I wanted students to learn. Instead this rubric took away marks for unimportant technicalities and did not effectively evaluate the work students had done. Second, I did NOT give students enough information, guidance, or instructions to be successful. I ended up reducing the amount of marks the assignment was worth to the point of completion marks. It was a complete waste of time for both me and the students.

However, I did learn an important lesson. ALWAYS work backwards when creating content. Figure out what you want students to understand or be able to do, then work on how you can ACCURATELY assess them.  I now ask myself if every lesson, assignment, project, and test I give my students is a good representation of the knowledge or skills they have gained and/or a way to show me their understanding.

Earlier this week I read two articles that took an opposing view of what works in a classroom. In the first article by Dr. Barron and Dr. Darling-Hammond,they discuss the importance of inquiry and problem-based learning in their article Teaching for Meaningful Learning. They argue that students ‘LEARN’ when they are involved in the process and are given the tools to discover the answer. Rather than a teacher telling students the correct answer and students regurgitating the information on the next assignment or test. Whereas, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2010) argue that minimally guided instruction (such as problem-based learning) negatively impacts a student’s ability to retain information. They further discuss that teachers often assume students have enough background knowledge and resources to help them solve the problem. Students then use working memory to participate in the minimally guided activity, but do not convert the information learned into long term memory. Therefore, students are unable to recall what they had learned from the lesson.

Here’s the thing. I don’t disagree with either article, but I also don’t agree with them. And here’s why. My classroom has 25 (ish) students, who are completely unique in their interests, abilities, and desire to learn. I, as a teacher, will never be able to teach the exact same as any other teacher. My job has too much variability to say one method fits all.

This is my proposed solution: Base your method of instruction on what you want students to get out of your lesson. If you want students to learn the “soft skills” such as communication, teamwork, and critical thinking then inquiry or problem-based learning could be the best method. This style of teaching allows students to collaborate with their peers and address a problem with the resources they are given. If you want students to learn new information or facts than a lesson with more guidance and teacher instruction could be the best method.

Students need both methods to become well-rounded learners. They need the information and resources to feel successful in the class, but also need the autonomy to explore, and problem solve. No matter which method you choose for your classroom, I highly (and humbly) recommend that you ensure you have an accurate representation of your students learning. Be able to accurately assess each student for the learning and progress they have made in your class.

For myself, I love when my students have the opportunity to ‘figure it out.’ In my opinion, there is no better expression on a student’s face than the moment they understand what you are teaching them. That being said, I have been caught more than once, using an activity that didn’t help them learn what I had planned to teach them.

So now go, inspired and ready to fail. Enter your classrooms with new ideas and an enthusiasm to try out something new.

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