McMaster University Symposium on Education & Cognition

By Kristie Dukewich, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto

More and more cognitive researchers are directing their research to develop evidence-based applications for educational interventions, and I have to say, it seems like a natural union. I attended the McMaster Symposium on Education & Cognition, August 12th-14th, 2014 and this meeting was particularly interesting because it brings together researchers who study attention, learning and memory in lab experiments and researchers who study the same processes in a classroom-based setting. There were several really great presentations, including a talk by Dr. Dan Schacter, a veritable giant in the memory literature, and two talks by graduate students in McMaster’s Department of Psychology, Barb Fenesi and Faria Sana, who are focusing their studies on best practices for instructional design. But there were two talks that I have really been thinking about since I left the meeting.

Dr. Katherine Rawson presented a particularly potent slide (below, including with kind permission from Dr. Rawson) that illustrated study techniques as a function of both efficacy and actual use. It turns out that the two least effective methods – rereading and highlighting ¬– are the two methods students report using most (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013). Rawson and her colleagues recognized that the two most effective methods of studying, spaced practice and retrieval practice, were actually already combined in a potent study technique called successive relearning. Successive relearning involves having students practice successful retrieval multiple times, in multiple study sessions spaced across several days. Rawson and her colleagues have found this technique substantially improves long-term recall of course concepts, allowing students to retain information as they move into high-level courses that build on previous learning.

Photo of power point slide from what students could do seminarI have a fantasy about starting an undergraduate TA program in my department, where the undergraduate TAs would organize study groups in which the participants bring questions for each other. This kind of platform would be a great opportunity for students to engage in successive relearning, and it would give more undergraduates an opportunity to explore leadership roles during their degree. I think that would be a phenomenal experience for everyone involved… Now just to find some extra time!

There was also a really intriguing talk on mind-wandering in lectures by Dr. Karl Szpunar (delightfully pronounced, “spooner”), Dr. Schacter’s post-doctoral fellow. When he was introducing his talk, Szpunar said something like, “We regularly expect students to attend to lectures that are 50, 60, or even 90 minutes long.” I actually shrunk in my seat a bit. At U of T, many departments regularly offer courses that are a whopping 180 mins in duration, and the Psychology Department in particular offers all of its courses in this format. So I am very familiar with the problems associated with students’ mind-wandering during lectures. However, I was dismayed to find out how little students learn in lecture, even when the lectures are less than 3 hours. If you probe students during a lecture by suddenly asking, “Were you just mind-wandering?” somewhere between 30% and 50% of students are not paying attention at any given moment (Szpunar, Moulton & Schacter, 2013). If you surprise-test students immediately after a lecture on the material just presented, the average student score is somewhere around 25% (!!!!!!!). Yikes.

Szpunar went on to explain one antidote: frequent testing. In one study, they found that punctuating lecture segments with short quizzes substantially reduced mind-wandering and increased note-taking (Szpunar, Khan & Schacter, 2013). Comparing students who were tested after every 5-minute segment and students who were only tested on the last of 4 segments, Szpunar and his colleagues found that the group who had be tested frequently during the lecture substantially outperformed the group that was only tested once. Keep in mind that the frequently-tested group was not being re-tested on previously learned material – the groups were only compared on how they answered questions from the last quarter of the lecture. The frequent testing appears to affect students’ overall arousal levels, such that they are better able to pay attention throughout the lecture.

I am acutely aware that students in my lectures engage in mind-wandering regularly. I try to combat mind-wandering in a number of ways – slightly obnoxious transition slides when I’m changing topics, multimedia presentations, discussion activities, and iClicker questions. I’m not sure I have the resources to test students 10-20 times per lecture (actually, I’m sure I don’t), but Szpunar’s talk has inspired me to add pop-quizzes to the arsenal – quizzes that aren’t for marks, but that might be surprising enough to bring students back to the lecture, and potentially, keep them there longer.

Dr. Dan Schacter:
Barb Fenesi:
Faria Sana:
Best practices for instructional design:
Dr. Katherine Rawson:
Dr. Karl Szpunar: