So that’s why it’s not working

I have been introduced this week, via a Google+ post by Dianne Rees, to the research of Derek Muller, a physics educator who creates videos for physics students (many posted on his YouTube channel Veritasium).

His research work, which dates back to his dissertation in 2004 but includes articles (most behind paywalls, unfortunately), concerns student preconceptions and misconceptions blocking the cognitive work needed for them to understand material being presented in videos. In a blog post about designing multimedia units to teach physics, he notes that “pseudoteaching” occurs when the video looks like good teaching (it’s clear and concise), students feel like they’re learning (they gain confidence that their answers are correct), but the students aren’t learning (scores don’t improve).

In this video, he uses Khan Academy as an example of videos that don’t work for this reason. (Note: I have nothing against Khan Academy – I think what Sal Khan has done is amazing and wonderful and badly needed – that’s not the point of showing this video.)

His focus may be on physics, and video/multimedia, but the implications are huge for all forms of teaching (in class and online) and all subjects, including mine.

Science is most definitely not the only field where students bring in preconceptions and notions that stick, that prevent them from learning something new. In History, these notions range from conspiracy theories to stuff they were taught in elementary school or picked up in popular culture.

As it happened, the night before I discovered Muller’s work, I was grading a batch of US History essays, and I noticed a pattern among the essays written about women. Almost every student writing on that subject believed that prior to the Progressive era, women were sequestered at home, had no public or political influence, couldn’t vote, and possessed no rights. All of a sudden, due to women like Margaret Sanger and the suffragists who pushed for the vote, they were freed.

In total frustration, I created this slideshow in a couple of hours, and posted it with the announcement that the essays had been graded.

This was different from other slideshows I’ve made, where I tell a narrative story or take them through a list of points, because the context was clearly correcting a false belief: that women’s active role in society sprung up suddenly in the early 20th century. Although I was creating it out of frustration with student misconceptions, I was inadvertently using the technique Muller suggests: deal with the misconceptions directly as part of the lesson.

Muller’s work has broad implications, not just for multimedia and physics, but any instructional method (especially presentation) and any subject. Over two decades of teaching, I have seen repeatedly what Muller describes. I get all excited because class discussion was so wonderful that day, everyone seemed to get it, everyone was engaged, but then they fail to show any understanding on an exam or even in the next class discussion. Or my lecture seemed great, no one was bored, they asked cool questions and took lots of notes, and no understanding was apparent in the essay.

Muller’s research thus also supports my concern that engagement does not necessarily mean learning is happening (a viewpoint which seems to put me in the minority among faculty). A student can be fully engaged but be learning very little.

In the original post by physics teacher Frank Noschese that Dianne shared (the one which led me to Muller), Nochese says many people have their own preconceived notion: “that teaching is really just explaining”. We explain and explain, and believe that because we are clear in our explanation, students should learn.

But if we don’t deal with factors that may block them from learning, we can’t get through. So to our list of things that prevent student learning (lack of sleep, socio-economic conditions, weak intrinsic motivation, and strategic studying) we can at least add a factor we can do something about.

2 thoughts on “So that’s why it’s not working

  1. Hi Lisa,

    I appreciated your sharing the idea of addressing student misconceptions. Derek Mueller’s research on student learning from online videos was quite enlightening. There are days when students really enjoy a class or will comment on how interesting a discussion was, but I have found it does not always mean they will apply what we discussed based on later assessment. Your post has me thinking how I might address the idea that engagement does not necessarily mean learning is happening.



  2. Lisa,
    I completely agree with you. I am so interested in keep reading about this matter. Thank you for providing the links to find out more about this. You have doubled the teaching experience I have, and my short life as an educator I have seen the same things you mention above. I have dedicated hours to produce a wonderful (according to me, of course) and well-explained presentation. Results are great, students engage so much that I end up with a big smile in my face thinking “Mission Accomplished” but… when the test comes, scores reflect no understanding. Al least not the understanding I thought they had. At first I was questioning myself about how good of a teacher I was… but now I have a dissipated understanding that I am not alone.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.
    –Vanessa Holanda


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