I try to provide what you want…. the newest, latest and greatest in brain research. Of course, I do read the journals and subscribe to many, like the Journal of Neuroscience. But, I am also a student of the history of learning. I often reread classic textbooks from my bookshelves to reactivate the solid research of the past. After all, a huge amount of research has already been done.
I was digging around in my archives of research (I have a huge online database) and found an amazing research study that is quite relevant today, 25 years later.
The title of this paper was “The Learning Strategies Project”, published in a European Journal over 25 years ago. Many things about it got my attention. For one, the author was a pioneer in the field of learning, Emanuel Donchin. Second, the project was funded by the US Department of Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which later funded the original Internet as we know it today, stealth bombers and more (for more on this organization, go to: http://www.darpa.mil/About/History/History.aspx). Finally, the mission of the DARPA Learning Strategies Project was to test the assumption that ‘there are learning strategies that do make practice more efficient.’
In order to test which learning strategies were the best, they did something that no other project in history has done. They created a standard project model (‘…here is the activity, here is how much time you have to accomplish your goals and here is the control group of 40 students’). They sent their request for proposals to cognitive scientists all over the country. The model ensured that every single strategy would be fairly evaluated against the exact same standard, using the same learning conditions in the same time frame. Next, they took two years (not days or weeks) to accept and evaluate the actual projects submitted. Whew! It was an exhaustive research model, so let me summarize the results for you and give you the practical applications you can use today.
The task was designed so that anyone (no prior knowledge needed) could get started, but it was sufficiently complex that there was plenty of room for improvement. Each researcher had 10 hours available of task time for their participants. In the end, there were three primary “winning” learning strategies, each with a strong effect on learning. These were pre-training, immersion (whole training) and micro-skills (parts) training.
The first strategy was pre-training. Here is what they did: The researcher pre-trained participants for 10-30 minutes, this was done over several weeks period of time, and before an upcoming skill training took place. Each student was also told how the training would happen. Next, students rehearsed the skill mentally, as well as walked through the steps physically. They focused on a particularly hard or complex area of the upcoming skill. Doing this same strategy allows your students to get immediate acceleration in any task. For example, in math or reading tasks, teach working memory first (this is a 8-12 week process). This strategy, the analysis and teaching of a task based on its smaller components, leads to high task success in the exact learning challenge. But, it was a bit less transferable (Lee, et al., 2012).
The second was an immersion (learning the “whole”) strategy, simply beginning the process with NO advance training or skill building at all. What made this work (and what reduced failure rates) was in the instructions. Students were doing the full skill building, but the instructions varied to focus on different aspects of the task. In this way, they were getting exposure to the “big picture” without the usual overwhelm of information. For example, you might say to your students, “In this reading passage, notice how often the author uses adjectives and adverbs to clarify and amplify the meaning.” This strategy leads to greater task durability over time and resistance to distractions. It also has high transfer to other tasks (Gopher, Weil & Siegel, 1989).
The third strategy that worked was to build micro skills (learning in “parts”) in parallel with the task (vs. before) that were essential for the overall task. For example, one researcher deducted that smooth and rapid eye movements were critical. They trained that skill (smooth and rapid eye movements) as students participated in the task. In fact, each of the key skill areas were taught and it was found successful for skill building. This strategy approach is called ‘hierarchal’ since it posits that teaching core skills will support multiple other task skills. (Ahissar, Nahum, Nelken & Hochstein, 2009). This strategy reduces failure rates over time, but it also has lower transfer to other tasks.
How do we make this practical?
First, I had to check the research to find if there has been any conflicting evidence since this important paper was published 25 years ago. There was none.
Second, I had to check the study design and procedures to find out if and how this translates to the classroom.
Here’s the bottom line: ALL three strategies are good. The choice you might make depends on your students. If you want high task success with less transfer, stick with the “parts at a time” model. If you have disadvantaged students, use the pre-skill model. For more typical students, use the immersion model with targeted instructions for attentional focus.
Skill building is an essential part of your teaching. You cannot afford to have a broken model or unsuccessful students. Please review each of the three models and choose the one best for you and your students. Rock on! See you next month.
CEO, Jensen Learning