Dangerous Fluency: Performance Isn’t Always Learning

How often do you have this experience?

Your students obviously understood yesterday’s topic. You know this because, say, their exit tickets revealed a high level of progress.

And yet, when you begin class today, they have seemingly forgotten everything you discussed, and everything they learned. Or, “learned.”

Teachers experience this frustration all the time: short-term performance doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term learning. (I’ve written before about Nick Soderstrom’s AWESOME review article considering this tension.)

A Telling Example

Last year, Glass and Kang published an important study about the effect of technology use during college lectures.

G&K let students use technology–laptops and cellphones–during 1/2 of the lectures in a psychology class, and forbade them during the other half.

In fact, they taught two identical sections of the same course, and enforced this ban in each class on alternating days. So: they could compare students to themselves in the ban- vs. no-ban classes.

The result headlines go like this:

This tech ban had NO EFFECT on immediate quizzes: students scored equally well on average in the ban- and the no-ban classes.

And yet, it had a SUBSTANTIAL effect on the term-end exam. Students averaged 7 points lower on material they had learned when tech was allowed than when it was forbidden.

And, crucially, students scored lower in no-ban classes even if they didn’t use technology themselves. Presumably, their classmates’ technology use distracted them.

This study suggests several conclusions. (I’ll mention a particularly counter-intuitive one at the end of this post.)

Most People Don’t Judge Their Own Learning Well

Because we’re teachers, we are–relatively speaking–experts on learning. Especially if you’re reading this blog (and attending Learning and the Brain conferences), you probably know a lot more about the complexities of learning than most people do.

And, you know more about learning than your students do.

That’s a (surprisingly) controversial statement. But, consider the students’ perspective in Glass and Kang’s psychology lecture.

They might reasonably say:

“Look: I scored equally well on the daily quizzes whether or not I was using technology. Clearly I understand material just fine when I’m texting my friends.

Have a little faith in me as a learner. I know when the professor is saying important things, and I focus then. And, I know when she’s gone off on a cute-but-unessential anecdote, and I use that time to check in with my people.”

Everything in that hypothetical statement is accurate, or at least plausible.

However, it lacks the long-term perspective. Their performance on short-term quizzes does not predict their long-term learning and understanding.

Because we have G&K’s research, and see the longer perspective, we know that their texting had a subtle, harmful effect on retention. However well they did right away, students just didn’t learn that information deeply.

For this reason–among many others–I think teachers should be confident in claiming our expertise. When our students say “I know I learn better this way,” we can use our best judgment in evaluating that claim.

At times–especially if they have a particular diagnosis–they might well be right.

At other times–especially if they want to watch YouTube while doing homework, or claim that their learning style requires that they do X instead of Y–you can offer strong guidance based on cognitive science research.

Counter-Intuitive Conclusion

I promised above I’d offer a surprising interpretation of Glass and Kang’s study. Here goes:

Because students did worse in the no-ban classes whether or not they used technology, the obvious conclusion is that we should utterly ban technology from our classrooms.

However, that conclusion misses an essential part of G&K’s methodology. They didn’t exactly ban technology use. In fact, they required technology use.

You read that right.

Those “immediate quizzes” you’ve been reading about? Students had to take them on some kind of electronic device: a laptop or a cell phone.

So, the study does NOT compare performance in a ban vs. a no-ban condition. It DOES compare performance in classes where technology was required at times (to take quizzes), and where it was used however students liked (as well as taking quizzes).

In other words: the problem wasn’t USE of technology. It was MISUSE of technology.

Here again, I think this insight brings us back to teacher judgment.

Should you ban technology from your classroom?

If the topic you’re covering doesn’t benefit from technology, then you have plenty of reasons to do so.

But, if you’ve got some great way to enhance instruction with technology–and you can monitor their technology use as G&K did–then you might get the same benefits that Glass and Kang’s students did when they took those quizzes on laptops.

Research guidance can shape our thinking. And, we should always blend it with our own experience and classroom skill.

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