Thursday, September 18, 2008

Did You Really Learn Anything?

Is it possible for you to go through a course or a class and not learn anything? Oh yeah, we've all probably had an experience like that.

But is it possible to go through a course, enjoy the teacher, get a good grade, and still not learn anything? Read on...

I read about the following experiment in the book What The Best College Teachers Do (22-23):

In the early 1980s, two physicists at Arizona State University wanted to know whether a typical introductory physics course, with its traditional emphasis on Newton's laws of motion, changed the way students thought about motion. As you read this account, you might substitute for the line "think about motion" any other phrase that fits your subject. Do you the students in any class change the way they think?

To find out, Ibrahim Abou Halloun and David Hestenes devised and validated an examination to determine how students understand motion. They gave the test to people entering the classes of four different physics professors, all good teachers according to both colleagues and their students. On the front side, the results surprised no one. Most students entered the course with an elementary, intuitive theory about the physical world, what the physicists called "a cross between Aristotelian and 14th-century impetus ideas." In short, they did not think about motion the way Isaac Newton did, let alone like Richard Feynman. But that was before the students took introductory physics.

Did the course change student thinking? Not really. After the term was over, the two physicists gave their examination once more and discovered that the course had made comparatively small changes in the way students thought. Even many "A" students continued to think like Aristotle rather than like Newton. They had memorized formulae and leearned to plug the right numbers into them, but they did not change their basic conceptions. Instead, they had interpreted everything they heard about motion in terms of the intuitive framework they had brought with them to the course.

Halloun and Hestenes wanted to probe this disturbing result a little further. They conducted individual interviews with some of the people who continued to reject Newton's perspectives to see if they could dissuade them from their misguided assumptions. During those interviews, they asked the students questions about some elementary motion problems, questions that required them to rely on their theories about motion to predict what would happen in a simple physics experiment. The students made their projections, and then the researchers performed the experiment in front of them so they could see whether they got it right. Obviously, those who relied on inadequate theories about motion had faulty predictions. At that point, the physicists asked the students to explain the discrepancy between their ideas and the experiment.

What they heard astonished them: many of the students still refused to give up their mistaken ideas about motion. Instead, they argued that the experiment they had just witnessed did not exactly apply to the law of motion in question; it was a special case, or it didn't quite fit the mistaken theory or law that they held as true. "As a rule," Halloun and Hestenes wrote, "students held firm to mistaken beliefs even when confronted with phenomena that contradicted those beliefs." ...The students performed all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid confronting and revising the fundamental underlying principles that guided their understanding of the physical universe. Perhaps most disturbing, some of these students had received high grades in the class.

Have you noticed how hard it is to really convince someone by arguing? People have to be receptive to new ideas for them to really change. It sometimes takes tectonic shifts to get people to change their worldview.

So, either the person needs to be at a point where they want to learn, or they have to be at a point of disillusionment with their worldview. Far more important than providing new information is showing why they should care in the first place.

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