When it comes to learning, people often describe the mind as a computer. But that’s not quite right because the analogy makes it seem like our brains are robotic in their ability to absorb information, that data enters the brain and then automatically becomes stashed away in a mental hard drive.
But in order to learn, the brain needs to process information deeply, and studies show that we can’t gain any sort of new skill or expertise without really engaging in an idea or skill or bit of knowledge.
“You can be motivated to learn but if you use a shallow strategy, you won’t learn,” Stephen Chew
Stephen Chew has written thoughtfully about this point. A professor at Samford University, Chew is one of my favorite observers of the new science of learning, and he has put a together a wonderful study guide for college students.
Some time ago, Chew sent me an email, giving an example of how the brain needs to meaningfully process information in order to learn it. He makes the point that we need to find information meaningful in order to really gain any sort of expertise and describes an informal experiment that he’ll do with audiences.
With Chew’s permission, I’m posting his description in full:
“I give workshops to various groups (faculty, student life staff, students, and tutors) on how people learn to help teachers teach more effectively, students learn more effectively, and support staff and tutors teach students to learn more effectively. In my workshop, I almost always include a demonstration of deep processing and learning that is based on research first published in 1969 by Thomas Hyde and Jim Jenkins (who was my grad school advisor).
“The amazing thing to me is that this simple principle has been well established for about 45 years but is largely unknown outside cognitive psychology. And even most cognitive psychologists have never thought about its implications for teaching.
“If you use a deep processing strategy, you will learn whether you intend to or not,” Stephen Chew
“The basic idea is that if you think about information meaningfully (deep processing), you are much more likely to remember that information than if you think about at a superficial, meaningless level (shallow processing). And this is true regardless of whether you intend to learn the material or not.
“When I do this demonstration to a large audience, I divide them up into 4 groups without their being aware of it. I hand out a sheet of instructions, but there are actually 4 versions of instructions. The instructions say that I will read a list of 24 words. For each word, they need to carry out a task. For half of the audience, the task is to check “Yes” if the word contains an “e” or “g” (Hyde and Jenkins used just an “e” but latter Jenkins changed it to both an “e” or “g” to make it a bit more interesting).
“The other half of the audience checks “Yes” if the word is pleasant to them or “No” if it is not. So half are getting E/G checking and the other half are getting Pleasantness rating. Now half of each of those groups is warned that they will be asked to recall as many of the 24 words as possible after the task is over. The other half are not warned. This creates 4 groups, based on the kind of task they do and whether or not they were warned about recall.
“The amazing thing to me is that this simple principle has been well established for about 45 years but is largely unknown outside cognitive psychology,” Stephen Chew
“The pleasantness and E/G checking tasks are called orienting tasks because they make people process information in a certain way regardless of their intention. Hyde and Jenkins found that orienting tasks that induce deeper processing (pleasantness) lead to better recall than shallow ones (E/G checking), regardless of people’s intention to learn.
“I read the list of 24 words and everyone carries out their orienting task. After reading all the words, I then ask everyone to recall as many of the words as possible. When they can’t recall any more, they count up how many they recalled. We then do a poll to find out which of the four groups recalled the most words.
Samford University Professor Stephen Chew
“The deep processing groups recall the most words, regardless of whether they were warned about the recall task or not. And the shallow processing groups recall fewer words, once again with no difference between those who were warned about recall and those who were not. So people who processed words deeply but were not expecting the recall task remember many more words than people who did the shallow processing task but were warned about recall.
“Good intentions cannot overcome bad study strategies,” Stephen Chew
“It shows that depth of processing matters more than intention. You can be motivated to learn but if you use a shallow strategy, you won’t learn, and if you use a deep processing strategy, you will learn whether your intend to or not.
“I sum it up by saying that ‘Good intentions cannot overcome bad study strategies” So teachers need to think of their teaching assignments and activities as orienting tasks, and students need to think of their note taking and studying in terms of depth of processing.