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Why Students Don’t Like School, and What Adaptive Learning Can Do About It (Part 2)

Posted in Adaptive Learning on September 29, 2011 by

Miss Part I of the series? Check it out here.

I recently read Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.

As I was reading Willingham’s investigation, I noticed that most of the real reasons Willingham argues that students don’t like school can be eliminated or reduced through continuous adaptive learning technology. In my first post of this series, I discussed how adaptive learning can improve school by fully engaging students, providing instantaneous or near-instantaneous feedback, establishing a knowledge and hinting scaffold that can guide students in the right direction, and ensuring that each student receives work pitched at just the right level.

Here are some more ways that adaptive learning can eliminate or reduce the reasons that students find school distasteful:

1. Lack of self-awareness about learning patterns.

Many students who dislike school feel overwhelmed by the work and do not know where to begin or how to approach the problems they are given. As a result they feel uncomfortable, internalize the idea that school is not for them, fail to seek help, and fall behind.

This feeling of being overwhelmed is caused by what Willingham calls an overload on “working memory” (the capacity to perform cognitive work using stored factual and procedural knowledge as well as information from the environment). This overload is often caused by the presence of one or more of the following: “Multistep instructions, lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic more than two or three steps long, and the application of a just-learned concept or new material.”

There are several ways that adaptive learning can increase the amount of space in “working memory” and ensure that students don’t feel overwhelmed by the complexity of problems they encounter. As I mentioned in the first post in this series, continuous adaptive learning can provide “factual and procedural knowledge” scaffolding and “chunking hints” that guide a student toward the solution while still allowing him to make the discovery for himself.

The benefits afforded by this approach are intertwined by nature; a “scaffold of factual and procedural knowledge” can improve a student’s “chunking” capacity, or ability to break problems down into multiple steps, which can increase both a student’s rate of learning and the overall exposure to knowledge a student receives. These increases can in turn reduce discomfort, aid in “chunking” ability, improve student performance (which generally improves student confidence), and thereby generate a never-ending positive cyclical effect on a student’s relationship with school. In other words, success breeds more success.

All these transformations and moments of insights will also yield greater self-awareness, the invisible ingredient in successful long-term learning. After all, the ultimate goal for school is that students learn how to teach themselves, how to encounter problems in life or on the job and break them down into steps, process the information, deliver solutions, measure results, and iterate. The processes taught in school should thus become so ingrained and automatic that students know exactly what to do when they encounter certain situations. And if they don’t know what to do, they should know what to do to make themselves know what to do–whether that involves defining the problem further, asking the proper questions, or conducting research and evaluating sources.

What adaptive learning can do about it. While developing greater self-awareness is a natural byproduct of learning, adaptive learning can stimulate and speed up the process by inserting “reinforcement” moments into cognitive work–moments that prompt a student to reflect on the problem-solving process, underscore the concept behind the solution, or describe the structure of some body of information. Even if a student happens to correctly guess the answer to a question, he will not be able to complete the lesson without proving his grasp of the underlying concept. This of course increases the chance he will experience repeat success with a similar problem. Any online learning program can achieve these aims in a basic way, but a continuously adaptive system can bring reinforcement to a new level by evaluating how well such moments are working and by providing reflective moments (and even longer exercises) tailored for each learner’s idiosyncratic style.

2. Social Anxiety.

School is quite obviously more than the sum of its parts (homework, testing, grades, etc), in large part because of the opportunity it provides for students to develop an awareness of themselves in relation to others. Unfortunately this social component can sometimes detract from learning instead of enhancing it. Many students are quiet in class for reasons that are more complex than meets the eye; they may not know how to process information delivered to them or orient themselves within the material. They may have preconceived notions about the subject or not understand obscure vocabulary or jargon. They may not have picked up basic skills along the way and may be self-conscious as a result. Whatever the reason, the posturing or mere presence of other students can severely heighten the discomfort and result in total student shutdown.

Anyone who has ever been lost in a class environment knows that it takes a significant amount of grounding or traction in a subject area to even pinpoint a question to ask that might yield a productive response. Thus, those who ask questions are usually the ones who know the most, are the most confident and need help the least.

What can adaptive learning do in this respect? It can provide the appropriate factual and procedural knowledge, so that students feel grounded enough in the material that they can pinpoint the questions they need to ask. For example, imagine a student who is lost in a class session about metamorphic rock: everyone else mentions “sedimentary” and “igneous” rocks and the student can’t figure out what sedimentary and igneous rocks are and what they have to do with metamorphic rocks to begin with. The student can figure out from a scaffolding system (which can be anything from a sophisticated search engine to an online system tailored to individual thinking patterns) that metamorphic rocks are sedimentary or igneous rocks transformed by extreme heat and pressure, and get up to speed with the rest of the class–which is already on to discussing how the foliation on a particular metamorphic rock reflects the pressure and heat it was subjected to. Of course some productive discomfort is necessary in the classroom; but, if designed well, an adaptive learning system will reduce unproductive discomfort and proliferate the opportunity for productive discomfort.

Adaptive learning can identify social possibilities that build student confidence and make students more likely to participate in large discussions. By aggregating and analyzing data, an adaptive system can create situations in which students assist and mentor each other online. Depending on the aim of the class, teachers can use data regarding performance, learning style, and preferences, to create cohorts of students who complement each other academically. In an English class, for instance, you might be able to create mini workshops of 4 people each, with each workshop composed of an “organization” master, a “style” master, a “grammar” master and a “clarity of purpose” master. Teachers can also create opportunities for peer evaluation that allow students to grapple further with the material at hand (it’s an age-old principle that you don’t truly learn something until you teach it yourself). Using data culled from assessment and surveys following these activities, teachers can then determine the efficacy of these strategies.

3. Need for appropriate pacing.

When observing classrooms, it is always fascinating to chart the wax and wane of student energy and focus. One second, everyone is riveted; the next, everyone is distracted by a bee or a lawnmower, and momentum is lost entirely. The amount of debate surrounding something like block scheduling points to the underlying difference in student needs. Some students function better if they’re working on one project for an extended period and have ample opportunity for reflection, while others need a constant change-up or enjoy a rapid succession of drills.

Adaptive learning can help us out in several ways here. As described in the previous post, any continuous adaptive learning system is built on opportunities for students to “show what they know.” Such opportunities, in addition to engaging students more fully, also break up instruction and order activities in a natural way, ensuring that precious class or study time is not wasted.

An advanced system can also help educators discover the precise way that lectures, assessments, activities, and peer evaluation opportunities should be combined to produce maximum learning benefits for each individual student. One student, for example, might learn best in the sciences if she absorbs a lecture, is tested on it immediately, and then engages in group work. In English class, by contrast, that student might see the most gains if she engages in an activity, absorbs some instruction, then reinforces her understanding by evaluating someone else’s paper. Or for that student, the adaptive system might determine that it’s not the kind of classroom activity that matters but rather the kind of cognitive work she is doing. Maybe she needs rigorously analytical work (think logic games) before introspective creative work. Maybe her ideal “learning day” consists of math drills, nonfiction reading, then creative writing.

The data generated by an adaptive system can also help determine the ideal amount of time each student should spend doing each type of activity. The system might discover, for example, that one student functions best if he learns in 20 minute spurts for 3 hours at a time with approximately 5 very short breaks thrown in, while another student works best in 1 hour segments with two 10-minute breaks built in.

In summary, adaptive learning can help educators serve up academic material in a way that is tailored to each student’s unique learning style.

Stay tuned for more reasons why students don’t like school — and how adaptive learning can help!