My turn: Repetition that deepens learning

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2008

High school writers Cameron Brocket and Zoey Wilson (Empire, March 7) express frustration with the repetition in their learning while acknowledging teacher support for it. I'd like to explain how to resolve the conflict so that students feel stimulated and challenged instead of bored, and teachers can deepen learning.

The problem lies in the design of instruction in U.S. schools.

It's built around the expectation that students can't really master learning but can only become familiar with it. Familiarity occurs with presentation of a section and brief involvement with it. A teacher explains (or students read or "have an experience"), a few questions are answered or problems worked, a test is scheduled and taken, and then the class goes on to something else. A month later, what's left is enough familiarity that students say "We already had that," but varying proportions know most, little, or none of it.

A health teacher in another city once showed me a test he'd accidentally administered that he'd already given two weeks before. None of his students even recognized that they'd taken it already. This is the low end of what instruction designed for familiarization produces. A study of 12,000 high school students (reported in Scientific American, October 1982, "Teaching Real Science") found that 40 percent of those who had never taken a high school biology course got the same scores as half of those who had taken the course, leading the writer to conclude that students learn "almost nothing" from high school biology courses.

While teachers seem to have no choice but to repeat essential knowledge, learning is deepened not just by any repetition but only by a very special kind of it. Learning deepens only in the output phase of an inner model. To learn any skill (including facility with a body of knowledge), there's an indispensable sequence. First, input: A model of the knowledge is presented to the mind. Second, output: The person draws on the model to express it, apply it, or put it to work. This is "practice makes perfect." Your ski coach explains a technique to you for 10 minutes, and you go off and apply it for an hour. Your basketball coach explains a play for two minutes, and then you run the play for 15 minutes.

Everywhere you see skill development, you find a little input followed by a lot of output. Teachers learn a course by teaching it. They get an inner model and then express it, express it, express it.

Repetition of the output does not just follow the inner model slavishly, however. Successful people who get the most from their practice are always rethinking their internal design of it. They already have a model, but as they add new angles, they constantly reintegrate everything. They typically aren't more intelligent than others but just practice thousands of hours more than others do.

Classrooms can easily structure for this. A teacher presents (or students read, etc.) for 10 minutes, and students spend the rest of the period practicing explaining it to each other.

Do the math: If they distill that 10 minutes worth down to just a single minute per hour that they master and save, they end up the year with 900 minutes or 15 hours of mastered knowledge. The critical point is a design that concludes every hour with an increase of mastered knowledge - a point simply not reflected in current classroom design.

A reasonable goal for a year's work is to say to students, "In June you'll be responsible for being able to give 15 one-hour talks without help or notes that cover the entire year's curriculum, so let's get started." The goal is achievable if we realize that first, familiarized learning means that most learn little or nothing; second, presenting the same knowledge over and over bores students and doesn't deepen learning; and third, accumulating mastered knowledge is easy once you get a system going.

To Zoey and Cameron and others who feel the same, I suggest that an educational revolution is waiting. Perhaps a few students who don't want to be bored and would rather take pride in a body of mastered knowledge can strike the spark.

• John Jensen is a Juneau psychologist, former Juneau Assembly member and author. He can be reached at

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