Digital Storytelling in 90 Seconds

I have been working on a variety of digital storytelling rubrics focused on specific types of journalistic reports lately, cooperating with students to reflect what they see as valuable or important in feature writing versus opinion writing versus news reporting, and so forth. My next project is video, breaking down what works in video in these various types of reports and adding investigative reports to the mix. It’s a work in progress.

But, I have also created a very, very brief digital story of my own this week: a “Virtual Classroom Tour” that may be found below. This project is part of the presentation on podcasting in my Digital Journalism course that I will make at the Microsoft “Partners in Learning” Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in a few weeks. The time limit of 90 seconds was set by the good folks at Microsoft, and, as I so often say to students, I learned from having my communication forced inside an imposed structure. I wouldn’t only want to tell a story this way, but it’s a good opportunity to boil the podcasting project down to its essentials. Therein lies the strength of an imposed structure, similar to the AP exam’s time limit or a prescribed “elevator pitch” layout like a Pecha Kucha.


So, please check out this very brief digital story produced in Camtasia Studio and offer any and all feedback. I took the video of students with the iPad 2, which lacks a good microphone. I tried to compensate for that, but it only worked to mediocre effect. I also had to convert the video from the iPad to use it in Camtasia, which created very small final products. Part of my thinks the little “window into the student” effect of the almost embedded interview video is interesting, while another part recognizes it’s kind of crap. Still, it helped me conceptualize the curriculum a bit to push it out in 90 seconds. I can see the value of asking for super-brief videos asking for illustrations of key concepts as a method of formative assessment a as result of this experience.

Digital Footprints, Networking, & Conformity

My school recently did a digital footprint exercise with our students, asking them to Google themselves and check out Intel’s Museum of Me. I found our the exercise interesting not so much for the ah-ha moments, which some students had, but for what I didn’t see. Truly, most students are on board with the basic concepts of what might be called digital citizenship or understand how to cloak their poor decision making with anonymity, protecting their footprint while being a poor digital citizen. Basically, I didn’t see surprise; I saw students who pretty quickly grasped the concept of building a positive digital footprint so that a namesake on MySpace can’t cast too long of a shadow over their relatively good names.

However, they’re not too worried about college admissions or job prospects, and I think that what I want to call the Dan Allen Effect is to blame for this. Like a kid in a giant metropolis, they see the odds are in their favor and don’t see that the graffiti is likely to lead to big problems down the line. They’re happy to have all the other Dan Allens create so much white noise that they can operate happily unnoticed. I calculated my digital footprint using the tool linked to Moodle and I’m well over a terabyte and climbing. That’s a lot of white noise. I can’t decide if I agree or if I see this as a self-defeating, tragedy of the commons sort of problem.

The other piece that I have sympathy for is that they hear a message to conform and blow it off. Articles like the USA Today bit just sound ridiculous – post a list of people who share the same name as me? Looking past the redundancy that seems so obvious to me, does it look worse that I cyberstalk my namesakes or that some dude in West Virginia with my name also goes by Tweek on his forgotten MySpace profile? The subtext of these pieces is submit and be predictable.

What I like much more is a focus on the power of networking and networking literacy. Like Clay Shirky points out, transparency is a sharing of ourselves in order to get back more in return, what he sometimes calls reputational capital, amongst other benefits. Surfing through my different groups of Facebook friends, I quickly see the social norms of their closest social group and cultural context; the Kyrgyz kids are sharing Pan-Turkish media and political messages, the folks from my small town deride the hippies at Occupy Wall Street and shout for them to get a job, and the members of my Peace Corps group post messages of OWC solidarity. I would argue that these people are creating identities and reflecting their identities beyond virtual networks in ways that they also do in the bazaar, at the tackle shop, or while waiting for the barista. Kids do the same thing in social networks, reflecting the identities that they think will win them the most reputational capital, or cool points, and are at their best when they employ these tools ethically, to contribute and build.

Of course, kids are slow to see social pressure as a force of conformity and quick to view messages from the elderly (like me) as demands for conformity. My bet is that the kids who will try risky, thoughtless, or silly behaviors online to look cool at one moment for a particular group are the same who will try these behaviors offline. When I was in Berlin, I saw a great quote from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “True education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values.” I wonder if, amidst all the furor about digital footprints and citizenship, we should focus more explicitly on the nature of the behaviors we value, on footprints and citizenship. I know that we do this already, but the relationship is so clear to our discussion that it bears mentioning. By teaching kids to use their power to be positive contributors for their own sake, if not for the sake of others, empowerment might overcome the urges to be destructive to self or others. If not, at least we’d be exposing the values we teach rather than keeping them implicit, which sometimes feels coercive to me.

The iPad 2 for Learning – Podcasting Project Reflection

My Digital Journalism class has finished their podcast news reports and the process was as interesting as the products. We began this project by listening to model podcasts, such as Radiolab’s amazing short “Four Track Mind.” Once students listened to some models, they edited our English department’s oral presentation rubric, resulting in this modified podcasting rubric, which I expect to modify further. Students sought to build upon earlier news reports in these podcasts, so the subject matter was not an obstacle.

Students worked in a variety of processes. Some students recorded all their audio on the iPad in Garageband. Others downloaded free apps, recorded in those apps, and offloaded to laptops; still others recorded everything on their 1 to 1 laptops. In my opinion, the most fluent and engaging podcasts were those created entirely in the iPad. Students couldn’t upload their podcasts to their blogs via the Posterous iPhone app and the files were too big for Dropbox, so they emailed the files to themselves and uploaded them. Each student reflected briefly on the process and product once they were finished and all podcasts linked below include a reflection. All podcasts shared here are shared with student and parent permission.

The podcasts show incredible attention to the conventions of media, suggesting to me that “digital natives” may not come into the classroom equipped with media creation skills, but that they do bring with them a vast experience with media consumption and a finely tuned sense of how to sound cool in a medium. The structure of our course is discovery learning, so students struggled a bit at first, and then built a good deal of fluency in the podcast medium in only a week or so. This podcast features excellent aural variety, an engaging voice, good sound quality, and smooth editing. The subsequent reflection is here. This podcast mimics many aspects of the Radiolab model and even spins some conventions onto their head, messing around with a lighthearted sense of ironic awareness even in their first attempt. The second example is also a pair project, self-selected by the students. One student took the lead and allowed the other to stretch his legs a bit with the language and acting portion of the podcast, but also covering for some technological discomfort on his partner’s behalf. The reflection briefly alludes to this. For their current video project, all students will produce a single video, even if working in groups, in order to build skills in this introductory unit. The final podcast example is smooth and straightforward, lacking the depth and complexity of the other two, but featuring good use of details and facts, as well as a clear speaking voice and subtle use of radio-style conventions. The final reflection shows depth and specificity about the process employed.

The iPad works well for podcasting, but even as I made one myself as a teaser for a “Speed Geeking” professional development opportunity this week, I found that I liked playing with music on the iPad but preferred building the podcast in Audacity. In our current video introductory project, I see more laptop use. Students seem to be recording video on the iPad and transferring it to MovieMaker. We’ll see what they wind up doing in the end.

Technology for Questioning and Exploring

Today my Digital Journalism class took the governor off and explored a current event or newsworthy situation through questioning. They identified what they knew about a topic, wrote questions using the 5 W’s of journalism fame, and jotted down a list of possible sources. Next, off they went. Some took notes on their tablet. Others recorded their interviews with Audacity. Still others recorded video of their interviews directly into Microsoft OneNote. I taught them none of those tricks, but another teacher did show a group of students how to use OneNote in this manner.

Once they had their first set of information, the next set of questions came flying in as they made connections and created new understandings. More sources became obvious. Off they went. They recorded more information. The cycle continued, and then they wrote. They began to lay out rough articles with spaces for the possibilities left open to them. They tore down earlier preconceptions and filled their new concepts with actual information. They struggled with how to present facts without bias. It was beautiful, and it was just the beginning. In our next class, they get the iPads and we’ll see how that platform opens venues for questioning and exploring in comparison to the tablet. And, they’ll have the option to choose whichever they would rather use. After the novelty wears off, I think functionality will win the day. We’ll see.

Brain Elasticity & Learning Through Action

I just listened to a fascinating podcast from On Being entitled “Investigating Healthy Minds” with Dr. Richard Davidson and it meshed with an interview published recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Know Much About History” with famed historian David McCullough. While Dr. Davidson makes many points about the nature of the mind and the effect of meditative practices on the mind from the perspectives of a practitioner and a neuroscientist, toward the end of the interview, a question about meditative practices as “spiritual technology” elicited the following, fascinating response:

Potentially. I don’t think I’ve used that phrase, but certainly I have talked about the range of practices, really the mechanics of practice, that are so richly described in some of the contemplative traditions and the potential value that many of these practices might have for modern science and our modern understanding of the mind. You know, I certainly — the idea of transformation is one that to me meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding. I’ve no problem with that and, you know, I think that really is a natural byproduct of understanding many of these constructs as the product of skills that can be enhanced through training. (emphasis added)

This idea underlies all of teaching and learning: the acquisition of skills over time changes the brain at any age. So often, I see kids sitting and staring at their desks, their notebooks, their laptops when they are working on prewriting exercises or planning stages of projects. Almost invariably, when I ask what they’re up to they respond with one word – thinking. My response is also almost invariable – thinking is doing, so do something. This is not merely flippant. I have a raft of suggestions for activities from taking a walk to drawing a picture to working on something else for a bit. Every assignment and project isn’t perfectly designed to capture every student, intrinsically motivating them into motion, but at the end of the day, thinking is action. So, do something, analyze the result, revise, and try again with an altered approach. Learn to do, better and better, through practice, approaching this process as a skill related to fluency in other skills, like writing, speaking, or film making. In the context of the conversation, I take Dr. Davidson to mean that meditative practices transform the mind in powerful ways because they are learned skills worked closer and closer to perfection over time. Because these practices are learned and then put into action repetitively, I see them as analogous to any performance skill taught in a classroom.

Learning as doing that transforms the mind is also reflected in the Wall Street Journal’s conversation with David McCullough, as he suggests, among other great ideas like active, involved parenting, student centered projects and art in the teaching of history in order to create critical minds:

And teach history, he says—while tapping three fingers on the table between us—with “the lab technique.” In other words, “give the student a problem to work on.”

“If I were teaching a class,” he says, “I would tell my students, ‘I want you to do a documentary on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Or I want to you to interview Farmer Jones or former sergeant Fred or whatever.” He adds, “I have been feeling increasingly that history ought to be understood and taught to be considerably more than just politics and the military.”

What about textbooks? “I’d take one of those textbooks. I’d clip off all the numbers on the pages. I’d pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here—all the way through. I’d put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say, ‘Put it back in order and tell me what’s missing.'” You’d know that book inside and out.

Mr. McCullough advises us to concentrate on grade school. “Grade school children, as we all know, can learn a foreign language in a flash,” he says. “They can learn anything in a flash. The brain at that stage in life is like a sponge. And one of the ways they get it is through art: drawing, making things out of clay, constructing models, and dramatic productions. If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play, you’re never going to forget it as long as you live.”

“We’re too concentrated on having our children learn the answers,” he summarizes. “I would teach them how to ask questions—because that’s how you learn.”

McCullough’s final point is powerful and true. History isn’t a fixed quantity to be memorized and held (or forgotten), but a series of techniques for understanding the past through drawing connections and interweaving disparate narratives and artifacts. Skills. Teach doing, build fluency in questioning and examination as skills, and transform minds as meditative practices transform minds thanks to the brain’s elasticity. Spiritual practices and history are both shrouded in mystery, but through the sometimes mundane, sometimes transformative process of doing each, we learn and are changed for the better.

Creating an Environment for Writing

Edutopia’s blog section has a nice piece up today with “Five Fundamentals for Creating a Positive Writing Atmosphere” that I like a great deal and not just because it begins with one of my classroom mantras: writers write. As teachers of writing, and all teachers are writing and communication teachers (and models), this piece is worth a look. I particularly like the idea of modeling writing for our students, which is one of the reasons I have a class blog and why I love #4 on the list, which is to “set pure tone” by doing the writing assignments yourself:

Jeffrey Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise State University and the director of the Boise State Writing Project, believes that teachers need to write in order to teach writing. In his interview for the book, Teaching the Neglected “R”, he clearly states that it’s important for teachers to do the writing assignments they give students and then ask, “Would I do the work I’m asking my students to do?

This is essential – could I write a descriptive essay about Thomas Jefferson using my five senses? What did Jefferson smell like? How does he smell today? What kind of grade would that piece get me in fifth grade? Writing responses to AP-style prompts and sharing them with students has informed my instruction, given me compassion for some of the uncool realities behind on-the-spot literature surprise attacks, and shown me the potential value of document-based synthesis surprise attacks.

I also value the realization that writing takes time and so often schools cram in more and more and more, choking out time for creative enterprise and energy. Students amaze me at the depth and beauty of their output so often whilst being strung between endless club, activity, academic, artistic, and social demands. Some freedom and space in both the physical and time dimensions can give opportunities for creative output – written or otherwise.

An environment for writing in the classroom corresponds to an environment for creative, active learning in the school and beyond. I’ll be thinking about this blog piece as I plot out next year’s curriculum and loose plan in the next few weeks.

Thinking About Feedback

As I rounded essay number 45 or so and headed for third base today, my eyes were dry and I had the familiar essay ache that doubtless plagued my students at the end of their timed write. I enjoy reading student writing, and actually look forward to assessments like timed essays because it gives me data, information on what kids have learned, improved upon, missed completely, or ignored outright. I write a lot of feedback on student writing, and I push myself to be specific every time. I also try to focus on no more than three areas of growth, tied to our writing rubric, for each kid each time. There are many balls to keep in the air, including goals from previous writing assessments, but I dig it and enjoy the interactive nature of reading student writing and providing specific, targeted feedback.

So I read, I write, and I give students back their writing. They flip to the grade, roll their eyes, give high-fives, gasp in delight or horror, and ignore everything else. In the past, I had students who were much less grade driven and/or had classes with very few students, in which we could all sit down individually and discuss each student’s performance at length. I’ve made some minor changes to providing feedback, asking students to write metacognitive responses prior to seeing feedback or grades, but in larger (but by no means large) classes, I haven’t found the magic trick that will move students past simply looking at grades and shutting down or throwing up defensive walls. Of course, the same thing that works every time takes a long time to establish: a mutually respectful, open, and honest collegial relationship.

So, I have some ideas about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to feedback and focusing students on feedback. What doesn’t work:

  • Grade Centrism – Grades just get in the way. In a perfect situation in which any rubrics handed down from upon high are very valid, used with and by students regularly, and common across curriculum areas, grades become measures of performance. In less than perfect situations, grades quickly turn into arbitrary judgements of the good and the bad, the smart and the not-smart, or whatever the teenaged mind might read into the ambiguity between performance and grades. Not good, feedback doesn’t get through here.
  • Competitive Academic Environments – Collegiality counts. If you are an obstacle to my success, if this is a zero-sum situation, we’re in trouble. Related to the above.
  • Shifting Language – As a writing teacher, it’s a little crazy to me how many terms teachers have for the word “thesis.” It’s equally crazy how many different ideas teachers have for what a thesis should be. If I laud a student’s voice, and another teacher applauds that student’s style, and another teacher cheers that student’s tone (but without meaning tone, as I define it, as the speaker’s relationship to the subject), the student will think she is doing three things well. If one of us gives negative feedback on voice/style/tone/etc, how will she fix the problem? This even happens in math, I think, when kids learn different terms for operations at different levels. We have to know this means learning the same thing differently, time and again. Getting our language aligned can streamline learning and certainly make feedback laser focused.
  • Vague Feedback – I learned this from Grant Wiggins. “Good job!” Every time I write “Yes!” or “Great!” it’s a clarion call to keep writing: “Yes – sensible identification of tone in narration and effect on the theme of confusion in the text!” or “Great use of a signal verb to introduce a detail from the text!”
  • Dropping It Like It’s Hot – Got, got, got to go metacognitive, ideally before they see my feedback at all. This can be tough sometimes, but it must be done. This can go hand in hand with portfolio assessments, which is why I say we’ve got, got, got to be doing e-portfolios, but that is for another day.

There are more things that don’t work. What works reads like a flipped list:

  • Performance Feedback, not Grades – Sure, grades, I get it. It’s the way we do things. Sweet. Still, let’s change school cultures to focus on performance, through authentic performance tasks for assessment. Let’s show kids what great is, how to create great, and then assess the result with lots of specific feedback.
  • Cooperative Academic Environments – Nobody is an obstacle to your success – they are either an asset utilized or ignored. It’s a paradigm for mutual success. If this is working, everybody can provide constructive, specific feedback at any level in any direction and everybody learns, including instructors and administrators.
  • Aligned Language – Make the language match across the disciplines. Wow, does this take a lot of work. It’s worth it, though. Ancillary benefits are clearer expectations and a greater conversation around big ideas like differentiated instruction and assessment, what that means, what non-negotiable performance benchmarks might be. I don’t know what bad outcomes of this slow process can be.
  • Specific Feedback – Specific and aligned to expectations shared in advance of, as part of, or through instruction. Language must be non-judgmental, but also clear in terms of what has been done well, what hasn’t, the implications, and the path forward.
  • Spending Time with Feedback – Here’s a great opportunity for metacognitive response, conferencing (portfolios!), revision, peer discussions, and so much more. My action research for my MAT focused on student-created rubrics from model work or exemplars – it wasn’t all perfect, so perhaps model could be a misleading term for some. Students can create powerful assessment tools and, through so doing, truly internalize the expectations and produce amazing products as a result. It’s like a feedback loop inside a feedback loop.

Anyway, here’s a quick breakdown of what works from Grant Wiggins, as published by New Horizons.org:

Elements of a an educative assessment system:

1. Standards

· specifications (e.g. 80 wpm w/ 0 mistakes)
· models (exemplars of each point on the scale – e.g. anchor papers)
· criteria: conditions to be met to achieve goals – e.g. “persuasive and clear” writing

2. Feedback

· Facts: what events/behavior happened, related to goal
· Impact: a description of the effects of the facts (results and/or reactions)
· Commentary: the facts and impact explained in the context of the goal; an explanation of all confirmation and disconfirmation concerning the results

3. Elements of evaluation

· Evaluation: value judgments made about the facts and their impact
· Praise / Blame: appraisal of individual’s performance in light of expectations for that performer

4. Elements of Guidance

· Advice about what to do in light of the feedback
· Re-direction of current practice in light of results

There is more outstanding information at the Wiggins article linked above and here regarding how to create a feedback cycle. It’s genius in its simplicity and power. At any rate, as I read, wrote, and reflected, I wondered what makes me effective as a writing teacher. As I consider all of the things I’m doing differently now from last year, it’s the commonality of my feedback on student writing that helps students learn and improve more than any one thing. At least, that’s my thought for this busy Sunday, and it’s what led to the reflections herein. I wonder what works for other people in terms of providing feedback for student learning.

Thinking About “Tools for Thinking”

Now is an amazing time to be alive, but the context of now is clearly that of the past. A case in point – what you think of the uprisings of “the Arab wave” will likely be determined by how you view the world, based on your upbringing, education, and myriad other factors. The United States is behaving in these conflicts like a griffin of sorts – half Cold War beast, half Bush doctrine hawk – and the result is a superpower behaving unpredictably. Why, exactly, does this happen?

David Brooks suggests in a recent column entitled “Tools for Thinking” that such behaviors may be attributable to certain intellectual traps, like the Einstellung effect, which he describes as trying to “solve problems by using solutions that worked in the past instead of looking at each situation on its own terms.” Beyond simply applying solutions that have worked in the past, I would argue that we often view the present as more of the past, past 2.0. Of course, the context has changed over time, wildly differing causes can lead to remarkably similar effects. Knowing this is only a little helpful, however, as it takes a truly divergent thinker to break with deep-seated instincts like the Einstellung effect.

The Einstellung effect is somewhat related to another trap labeled Path Dependance, which “refers to the notion that often ‘something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.'” Brooks gives the example of the QWERTY keyboard, which we use today across the English speaking world. The QWERTY keyboard was designed not for ergonomic ease, but to slow the typist, reducing jamming of typewriter keys, which I think we can all agree will never happen on an iPhone screen. We use the QWERTY keyboard because it’s what we use, not because it’s what we should use. The difference is clear, yet…Path Dependance rules the day.

How does this relate to the classroom? In a number of ways, I’d venture. I have a Smartboard and projector in every classroom I enter, and I use it like a chalkboard from the nineteenth century roughly 80% of the time (that may be low). We want technology in the classroom, so products are designed based on existing, low tech products – like chalkboards/whiteboards – and the problem is solved! Sort of. Not really. Part of this disconnect is the path dependent design of the tool, and part of it is my own experience and sense of classroom context. Can the Smartboard be used to get the teacher out of the front of the classroom, or students away from PowerPoints, acting as teachers in front of the classroom? I don’t see it.  Breaking the model, changing the path – here lie innovative solutions. Here we are, 1 to 1 – why use a Smartboard to share information? We could use Google docs and Dropbox over coffee and conversation in the hallway.

If you, as a student, use your tablet computer as a notebook, a textbook, or even Scott Klososky’s “outboard brain,” how engrained is the path? Can you make your tablet into a sidecar easel, a portable printing press, an onboard media studio and darkroom, a compact global network? As a teacher, what are ways for me to facilitate the path shift? I think, first and foremost, we need to bring an attitude of play into each class, removing the life-and-death, fear of failure paradigm wrapped up in our AP/IB courses and start blazing divergent paths to the top of this mountain we’ve chosen to climb (worth it or not). Creative learning is learning, and if the tests have any validity, they test learning. If they don’t have any validity, we should be smart enough to change the path.

In our brave new world, a successful thinker is a free associater, one who can draw connections between broad sets of information and create new, valuable information for wide or specific audiences. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, has something to say about this, as well, in his “Six Verbs for the New Web.” Check out the last one: Generate! If you want to make a mark, and have an audience, you must generate something new and useful, or at least fun. Can you take a fresh look at the world, de-Einstellung yourself (so, the solution is not on a single Wikipedia page, bout could be in 15 taken together), break with the path dependance of tools (see iPad), and make something new?

Can we? I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on this one.

Additional, tangentially-related, and fascinating discussion with Kevin Kelly via the good folks at Radiolab in a roughly 20 minute podcast here.

Reflecting on Past Expectations with Futureme.org

One of my frustrations is getting students beyond grades and focused on learning and improvement in a personally meaningful way. Often, as students learn and grow in their abilities, they fail to recognize their own growth. Even reflection from assessment to assessment doesn’t necessarily provide the ah-ha crystallizing total distance traveled from day one – I visualize the academic equivalent of Ford Prefect’s ability to convey to anyone else the “incomprehensible sense of distance” between their places of birth. Snap – that’s how far, so whaddya think? I’m wondering tonight if futureme.org is a way. I’m thinking that I’ll create an anticipatory set of questions or comments on fiction and poetry for August, and have students mail their responses to their school accounts in December, and then do a similar activity for April in the AP Literature course, for example.  What attitudes might be revealed? What prejudices or preconceptions? What worries long past, what misunderstandings? Could a carefully crafted anticipatory set uncover learning such as improved higher order critical analysis, compositional awareness, or other elusive, complex skill sets, as the ignorant or partially complete voice from the past is encountered in the future? I’m going to try this next year and report back.

Learning Information is a Reflective Process; Get Started with a Test!

A fascinating study has just been published in the journal Science regarding kinds of study strategies and their effectiveness in improving recall, or retrieval, of information later. An article on the study has been linked below and all quotes come from the linked text.

In brief, when compared to strategies such as repeated reading, cramming, or concept mapping, taking tests has proven to increase recall later. I find this terribly interesting because of the conclusion that making mistakes on tests leads the learner to revise their understanding:

The students who took the recall tests may “recognize some gaps in their knowledge,” said Marcia Linn, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “and they might revisit the ideas in the back of their mind or the front of their mind.”

When they are later asked what they have learned, she went on, they can more easily “retrieve it and organize the knowledge that they have in a way that makes sense to them.”

It may also be that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.

Maybe that is also why students who took retrieval practice tests were less confident about how they would perform a week later.

“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”

By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.’ ”

So, overconfidence about the quality of one’s knowledge leads to poorer retrieval, no doubt because the brain does far fewer reflective cycles over the information and is not forced to revise understandings for greater clarity or correctness, as it must after flaws or gaps are pointed out via a test. Of course, the learner has to experience the results of the test. As such, our practice AP tests are of much higher value in improving your knowledge of the subject than the final exams themselves, because you will be given the results and be asked to revise answers, consider errors, and generally revisit the material. In short, you will naturally reflect on the outcome and seek to improve. At least, this is my reading of this study.

Also important is the conclusion at the end of the article that this study doesn’t mean more standardized tests are needed in American public schools, for example. Those tests are generally worthless, as students never receive feedback on the test beyond a score. Sometimes, the lucky ones get a print out with numbers in categories. None of this leads the learner to reflect on the specific gaps in his or her knowledge, as determined by the test.  As such, tests useful for improving learning should be specific, meaningful, valid, regularly occurring, and (probably) fairly brief. Tests should be given back to the learner soon after their scoring, and the learner should be led through a reflective process by the instructor as much as possible. These are, of course, my conclusions and not necessarily the conclusions of the study.

What does this mean for the secondary school student? When you have an identifiable set of information to learn – say, a text like Slaughterhouse Five, in which recall of many specific details are necessary for writing and discussing, or dark and light photosynthesis, with myriad attendant details and process – find a partner and devise a little test for each other, focusing on the most important ideas and essential details, as you see them. Take, swap, and discuss. That process would utilize your study time much, much better than sitting in a room and rereading lines that flow in your eyes and out through your mouth, hanging open with boredom. Would any of you try that process?  I’m genuinely curious. Would a session on writing test questions be helpful as a study strategy?

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” – The New York Times