Would You Rather? Education Edition #1

I’m starting a new series on the blog called ‘Would You Rather?’ where a question is posed and I ask teachers/professors/researchers their viewpoint and try to make them choose a side…sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The questions are not easily answered, as there’s rarely a ‘good’ answer and the lovely people who provide their opinion are made to decide between the lesser of two evils. Take it easy on them…

Today’s question was tweeted to me by Taylor Grayson. Here it is:

A really interesting proposition to consider. Would you rather have great explanation without retrieval practice OR decent explanation with great spaced retrieval and interleaving? Tough call.

Let’s see what they say:

Paul Rivas is a study skills specialist at SMITH RIVAS study skills & academic coaching. He is the author of This Book Will Not Be on the Test: The Study Skills Revolution.

I’m reminded of the saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

If the original explanation was so mediocre as to render the concepts incomprehensible or incompletely comprehended, then interleaving will help fill in the gaps with context provided by practicing related skills, but retrieval practice won’t be useful until the gaps are filled because what use is it to remember something incorrectly, except for purposes of starting a family argument?

If the original explanation was merely underwhelming, then spaced retrieval and interleaving together are the simple solution. But I’d bet everybody can think of several things that they learned by having someone explain it to them once brilliantly. For example, I once received a brilliant piece of advice that I’ll never forget: “Don’t be good at stuff you don’t want to do.”

Of course, my telling you about it serves as spaced retrieval, and people who give advice are also prone to repeating themselves, which provides even more retrieval practice!

There’s no such thing as brilliant instruction with no follow-up retrieval practice because brilliant instruction gets remembered, and to remember something is to retrieve it from your huge brain.

Dr. Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel is a lecturer in psychology at Dundee University. She is also the founder of the TILE Network and is a member of the Learning Scientists.

You need a good explanation or exposure to the concept to begin with. Otherwise, there is nothing to build on when students start engaging in any form of strategy. So, for me this is not an either or thing. Once you have that initial understanding, you can think about ways to reinforce it (retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, and so on).  

Rob McEntarffer is a former high school psychology and philosophy teacher, and a current assessment/evaluation specialist.

Interesting hypothetical. My first response is: no one can predict this! I expect the answer about which one of these options would promote better learning is really contextual (like everything else in education!). There’s probably a lot of variation between how students might respond to each of these choices, and it might matter what is being taught, BUT that’s probably not the point of the hypothetical 🙂 It’s more fun to make a prediction and try to justify it.

So here’s my swing: I’m going to go with the mediocre explanation and good retrieval practice and interleaving.

My rationale: the explanation isn’t the tough part. Encoding into long term memory and retrieval are the tough parts. A mediocre explanation could still engage students’ selective attention and is probably good enough that students can connect it with something they already know. If there is solid retrieval practice and interleaving, I bet it’s likely that students will be able to retain and recall what’s being taught. A brilliant explanation will help with selective attention and encoding (which might = high “storage strength), but without retrieval practice and interleaving there won’t be much retrieval strength.

Amy Pento is a Spanish teacher at Liverpool Central Schools.

So — I’ve struggled with this question for a while but then realized I was making a wrong assumption. I kept thinking the explanation was wrong but the explanation is merely weak so my answer is “B” — weak explanation with effective, deliberate practice strategies after the fact. If I were to pick “A”, the only winner would be the teacher along with any students who already know how to practice and have the discipline to do so. Choice “A” is what we see a lot but it contributes to the Matthew Effect. Option B levels the playing field so that’s what I’m going with — a “meh” explanation but great follow up.

So, there you have it. Four people who are deeply invested in education with four somewhat different outlooks on the problem at hand…shocker. I valued their opinions greatly before I asked them to contribute and, even though they don’t completely agree, I still value their opinions…fancy that.

What do you think? Please feel free to comment with your opinion. Let’s have a conversation.

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