Assuming: Enemy of the effective classroom

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Assuming: Enemy of the effective classroom
Date27th Jun 2022AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesTeaching

This piece was initially published on Blake's Effortful Educator blog here. 

One of the main goals I have in my classroom is to create an environment/instruction that is as efficient and effective as possible for learning and remembering information. I’ve spent many years reading and writing about this topic; what learning strategies cast the largest net in the classroom for learning and how the classroom environment may positively or negatively impact learning. Over the years, as I’ve tweaked certain procedures in my classroom and changed the amount of material on the walls, I’ve noticed another seldom talked about topic that seems to stealthily run rampant in the classroom…assumption. It is everywhere and I’m not sure of a single instance where it is beneficial for learning. Allow me to tease out a few areas, both from the student and teacher’s point of view, where assumption negatively impacts the classroom.

Teachers

Assumption of engagement

What a buzzword…engagement. What is it? How do we see it in the classroom? How can teachers know if their students are engaged in a lesson? How can administrators reliably and validly observe and comment on the level of engagement in the classroom? There are loads of questions that surround this term and, in trying to answer them, I see a lot of assuming. “The students were reading the text, so they were engaged.” “The students were active and engaged.” Many times, physical engagement within the classroom is confused for cognitive engagement. Physical engagement (being up and about the room) is not necessary for learning, but cognitive engagement (thinking about, thinking with, applying information) is. Without cognitive engagement with the material, there is no learning. Engagement is what the brain attends to

So, how do we know if our students are engaged? An honest assessment. That assessment may look like a matching quiz, or a summative test, or some larger project, or maybe just a discussion where students must utilize learned material. If they cannot use the material correctly on any form of assessment, the student might not have been engaged appropriately with the information. I say maybe, because even if we do engage with material, there is still a possibility of forgetting…and that should be expected…everyone forgets

So, don’t assume students are engaged. Ultimately, you’ll know if they were engaged if they are able to utilize the material at a later time. 

Assumption of Learning

Assumption of engagement actually leads us to our next assumption in the classroom…assumption of learning. This was one of the most glaring areas of assumption in my classroom. Here are a few sentences that I have thought many times before that are less than ideal for learning in the classroom:

“I taught it and the students didn’t have any questions, so they must’ve understood it.”

“It made sense to me, so it must make sense to them.”

“I went over the material like three times, so they must have it now.”

Yikes…a lot of assuming in those sentences. At least in my situation, these all reflect the curse of knowledge. Simply put, this curse lends voice to the belief that “I know it and I taught it, so they should know it”. But don’t forget, for many students, they are experiencing this information for the first time. How much of it did you retain after your first read through or attempt? Probably not enough to feel confident in an assessment the next day and certainly not enough to be responsible for teaching it to a classroom of students. Our assumption about student learning is extremely detrimental to an efficient classroom. 

So, how can we be certain our students have learned what we’ve taught? Assessment…again. To be perfectly clear, assessment is a staple of the efficient and effective classroom. It is a measure for yourself and your students of how much has been retained. For the teacher, it may indicate what needs to be retaught (and, therefore, mitigating the curse of knowledge) and takes the guesswork (i.e. assuming) out of where to go next with respect to instruction. I’ve written a lot more on different forms of assessment here

Students

Assumption of Learning

Well, teachers aren’t the only people in the room who assume learning has occurred. Students certainly do so, also. I’ve heard many a student say the following: 

“I listened to the teacher and took the notes, so I should be good.”

Mirroring the teacher’s belief on this topic, students often trust that if they sat through the lesson and heard the material, they’ve learned it. There is every possibility that the assumption of learning from both the teacher and student perspective build on and feed one another…not good. Assessment to the rescue, again. But, many students see assessment as a grade and nothing more. I’ve found it takes some conversation and practice for students to see it as a valuable exercise for demonstrating what they know and what they don’t know. Changing that paradigm is huge…and takes practice…but I firmly believe it is worth the effort. Assessment is communication.

Assumption of Studying Effectiveness

Possibly as a subheading with the assumption of learning is the student assumption that they utilize effective study habits. Whether through what is taught to them in school or through their own intuition, students usually use two very inefficient methods: rereading their notes and highlighting their notes or textbook. In one study of 177 students, 84% reported using repeated rereading as a study method, with 55% reporting it to be their primary method.1 Simply rereading notes or highlighting notes has minimal impact on retention of information…and it feeds right back into the assumption of learning:

“I reread and highlighted my notes last night, so I know this stuff.”

Then they take the quiz/test on the material they ‘studied’ and probably don’t do so well, souring their belief in studying at all…all the while, not ever realizing their efforts could be so much more efficiently and effectively spent. 

How? I’m glad you asked.

Over a century of evidence points to two study methods that cast a wide net with respect to accessibility of use and positive impact on differing learners: retrieval practice and spaced practice. These learning strategies provide for more efficient and effective studying while also informing students of their level of understanding. Learning is effortful. Studying is effortful. By distributing their study sessions and attempting to recall or recognize information (rather than just reread about it), students are participating in a more impactful practice. And these are study habits that will benefit our students from elementary school through college. When employed properly they take the assuming out of studying. Students know what they know and they know what they don’t know. Then, that information is used to drive their future spaced study sessions on the material. 


So, assuming is bad in most areas of life, and learning is no exception. The more we can identify and combat areas of assuming in the classroom, the better. 

Where do you see assuming in your classroom? 

How do you fight assuming in your own learning?

Blake Harvard teaches AP (~ A Level) psychology in Madison, Alabama, and is particularly interested in applying advances in neuroscience to education.

References

  1. Karpicke, Jeffrey D., Butler, Andrew C. and Roediger III, Henry L. (2009) ‘Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?’, Memory, 17:4, 471 — 479.
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