New strategies can be tough

The authors of Make it Stick (Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel) warned me that students wouldn’t necessarily appreciate better learning strategies. They were right.

Using their research-based methodology, I have been giving my AP Macroeconomics students challenging quizzes at the start of class every day, to force them to practice retrieving their new knowledge and help them identify areas of confusion.

Is it working? We’ll see — the first test is next week.

But the quizzes have been rough, with most students getting 3/4 or 4/5, which doesn’t sound bad but makes for a grade in the C+/B- range, at least for now.

One solution is to not count the quizzes, but the authors say that is a mistake. You see, the brain works harder at retrieval when it thinks something matters.

“Students in classes where practice exercises carry consequences for the course grade learn better than those in classes where the exercises are the same but carry no consequences,” according to Make it Stick.

Imagine you are at the grocery store, trying to mentally tabulate the full cost of the cart before you get in line. If it’s just a casual exercise, your brain will work at half-speed, not really worrying if the answer is off by $10 or so. But if it matters – if you have to pay in cash, and you only have $50 on hand – your brain will work a lot harder to do the right calculations. And that’s a better workout.

The same goes for learning economics or grammar or chemistry. Students are more willing to work their brains — what is opportunity cost? where does this comma go? how many ions? — if there is a cost to getting it wrong. Open-ended practice, with no consequences, just doesn’t have the same impact.

This isn’t the first time I’ve used formative quizzes this way. A colleague and I started doing this with our Psych students a few years ago — mainly to help them experience the kinds of questions they would face on tests — and it has improved their test scores immensely.

Already, the quizzes have definitely upped econ students’ willingness to ask questions before class, and the middling grades have prompted a few of them to come in and review concepts that are stumping them, like the difference between demand and quantity demanded.

But trying something like this is always a little stressful, as a teacher. The students are getting more (and better) feedback than ever before, but they’re also feeling more anxious, which isn’t good. They’re worried that they’re not learning the material, and I don’t want them to get discouraged.

Make it Stick assures me this is normal. “Do students resist testing as a tool for learning? Students do generally dislike the idea of tests, and it’s not hard to see why,” the book says.

But the authors add reassuring evidence from their research: “Those who were frequently tested reached the end of the semester on top of the material and did not need to cram for exams.”

That sounds like a good outcome. Hopefully, next week’s test will go well too.