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Reflections on the McMaster Symposium

Written on November 15th, 2013

When are students engaged in optimal learning activities?  Are some teaching practices more effective than others?  These questions I consider often and an issue I learned more about last week.

Last week Thursday I attended the McMaster Symposium on Cognition, Learning, and Education in Hamilton, Ontario.  Attendees represented various fields inside of education and cognitive psychology and our purpose was to explore the relationship between the empirical evidence gathered in research projects and how these findings impact current instructional designs in classrooms.  As an educator, my goal is to utilize best practices in implementing and designing learning programs for students.

For me, it was a time of affirmation regarding our professional development focus this year at John Knox Christian School (Brampton) on assessment.  Referencing the Ontario Ministry of Education’s document, Growing Success, we are implementing assessment practices for three distinct purposes: to gage mastery, to direct instruction, and to promote the learning process.

Dr. John Dunlosky in his public lecture, “Improving Student Success:  Some Principles from Cognitive Science,”  highlighted the significance of frequent retrieval as a learning activity.  Traditionally, students completed an area of study and then reviewed the material and were assessed on the content. According to Dunlosky’s research and other studies this is not the optimal model for long term memory retention.  Rereading and summarizing material as a core approach is successful for short term memory; however, a more productive approach is for students to be required to retrieve new information often as they study and review.  Therefore, teachers should engage their students in frequent assessment activities in order to promote overall learning and long term retention.  As we prepare our students for their future studies, it is important that we teach them to be reflective, life-long learners.

For example, effective assessment practices for placing information into long term memory are taking frequent quizzes, utilizing flashcards in studying, filling in missing information into a partial outlines or graphic organizers, and taking note in the Cornell note taking model.  It is helpful for teachers to assist their students in scheduling study sessions and guiding them how to use retrieval strategies.  It is much better to study over several days and to practice retrieving the information than to “cram” the night before.

In summary, it is important that educators teach students how to learn and not just what to learn. I am excited about our school’s  assessment initiatives we will be devilling into this year!