It’s one of the hardest questions in education: how do you know your students really know a subject, topic or even a single fact, so that if they were asked about it tomorrow, next week or in an exam, they could give a correct answer?
This was the topic discussed by Professor Daniel Willingham at the World Education Summit, which took place last week. You can listen to an interview on this topic in the podcast below.
He outlined that one of the big problems with “knowing” is that we can all – including students – be guilty of thinking we know more than we do: he cited the examples of people thinking they know how an everyday household items works or naming a famous actor or politician they “sort of” recognise.
Usually getting this wrong does not matter but, for a student about to take a test, this belief that they know something, which then founders when actually asked to prove it, is a big problem.
But speaking to Tes, Willingham said there are ways that teachers can tackle this issue.
One key point Willingham made was to focus on “over-learning” so that students really ensure they know something, not just reading it once and taking that as knowledge but going over the same thing again and again.
However, this is not about rote learning, which will often demotivate students: “The big drawback is motivation. It's not fun to keep practising something that you feel like you already know and when you're ready to move on to something else,” he said.
Instead, it’s about looking for opportunities to “fold in” past content with new content, so it’s relearned in a more organic way.
“[This means] it doesn't feel difficult or like a problem at all, or boring, because you've got this other larger problem that you’re working on.”
This idea, often termed interleaving, can also be done in more dynamic ways by setting ad-hoc tests and quizzes within a lesson.“You could set a pop quiz on what we studied a month ago. Or another way is you say ‘here’s a quiz and it’s got stuff from three months ago, it’s got stuff from a month ago, it’s got stuff from last week’, and so on.”
2. Discuss our strange brains
He also says teachers should be willing to chat about this with students, to explain why going over content can be a useful learning strategy.
“All we're saying is, ‘right, if you learn it up to this criterion, and you've just reached that criterion then, in the future, forgetting is going to happen, and you won’t be at that criterion anymore’.
“So it’s not like it’s anything that people don’t kind of know – it’s really just making it a little bit more explicit.”
3. Consider B to A questions
He also explained that another interesting aspect of knowledge to discuss with students is the way in which memory and knowledge can work in one way but not another.
For example, the answer to the question “What year was the Battle of Hastings?” may be easily recalled as 1066, but if asked, “What happened in 1066?” a student may struggle to recall the answer.
He says teachers should be willing to discuss this idea with pupils to ensure they think about learning key facts and ideas in more way than one.
“Explaining to students that this is the way your memory works, and it’s kind of quirky and peculiar…can be really helpful.”
“A common one used is ‘salt and pepper’ – if you ask people what’s the first thing you think of when I say the word ‘salt’, then a very high proportion of people will say ‘pepper’. But if you say ‘what's the first thing you think of when I say pepper?’ very few people say ‘salt’ and people say things like ‘hot’ or ‘chilli’ or something like that.
4. Write your own revision guides
Another key point he made was that when students are revising or self-testing, it can be tempting for them to use pre-existing test resources online but that, actually, the act of creating your own revisions cards or notes can be a key part of the learning-to-knowledge pathway.
“It’s not the writing out itself that’s important but it’s the deciding what is important enough to end up in your slide deck and thinking about what's a good way to phrase this question. ‘How would I put the answer what goes with [that question]?’. It is organising all of that which can be time well spent.”
5. Don't fall for the re-reading fallacy
The above can also act as a useful way to overcome one of the biggest issues with how many students learn – reading their notes or textbooks – something that is far less effective than they may believe.
“Re-reading is the most common technique that students use to study but it’s horribly inefficient for memory [because] what it does is increase the sense of familiarity, so it leads you to feel like, ‘yeah this all makes sense, I know this’, but actually, it's not really sticking with you in memory at all.”
This is where teachers should use timely interventions, such as tests or returning to content alongside new content, to help students see that while they think they know something, they perhaps don’t know it quite as well as they thought.
“This is when students get so frustrated, when they feel like ‘I can't believe I got that one wrong – I knew that one’.”
You can listen to the full interview with Professor Willingham below or listen to the podcast on your podcast platform of choice.