Rethinking “Huh?”

The following scenario is, I doubt, difficult to imagine. You’re heading into a lesson like a kid into Disney World, and you mention a concept you believe banal but understood. Student faces say, “Huh? What are you talking about?” The reaction is a fly in the soup of your lesson plans, leaving you with two general options: continue with the lesson as planned or stop to address their confusion. The first feels preferable. You’ve prepared this lesson, not the old one. You’ve made a handout, a presentation, a metric to test their understanding. They’ll catch up, you say. The second is off-putting. How much effort will it take to address their bewilderment? Will you reach today’s objectives? You know there’s a risk that this detour could give way to a rant where you’ll end up “should-ing” all over them. Not your preferred teaching posture.

A decade old study may help us shift our perspective regarding the “Huh?” The article, “Spacing Effects in Learning” (Cepeda, Vul, et al.) considers the importance of forgetfulness in the learning process. Here’s how in broad strokes. They designed a study with these four steps: (1) an initial lesson is taught; (2) the lesson is followed by a gap in which no review of the information occurs; (3) a second lesson on the same material is taught; (4) a test on the information six months later completes the process. The only thing that varied from participant to participant was step two. For some participants the gap was relatively short (a day or two) and for others relatively long (several months). What the researchers were trying to identify was whether spaced out learning affects information retention. If so, could they identify optimal intervals? What they found was that forgetting information is essential for moving previously learned material from short-term memory to long-term. In fact, relearning a lesson too quickly keeps the information in the short-term receptacle and “is likely to produce misleadingly high levels of immediate mastery that will not survive the passage of substantial periods of time” (1101). Forgetting is essential if not infuriating.

Perhaps your experience confirms what Cepeda, Vul, et al. have found. Mine does. The first time I taught the Ablative Absolute in Latin 102 was an exercise in relearning the concept’s primary uses. Remembering the temporal, conditional, concessive, and causal has been a piece of cake ever since. As another example, I had forgotten along the way that ἐπιμέλεσθαι takes a Genitive object until I had to explain the concept of “care of the self” in an online course I wrote called “Training the Citizen: Philosophy as a Civic Virtue.”

Students must have the opportunity to relearn because relearning is how we have become accomplished academics. Nevertheless, relearning does not necessitate re-teaching. At least not, directly. Consider the traditional study guide. We can assign portions that they teach each other. Students can present what they relearned in class, which gives us as instructors the opportunity to comment on their presentations.  Or, if we don’t want to give up class time, students can record these teaching sessions using video communication apps like Flipgrid. We will still be able to correct as needed using phones or computers, and other students can ask questions.

One last thing, and it’s more or less a reminder. Computers can create unhealthy perceptions of human learning. For instance, the human mind doesn’t upload and download, copy and paste. It’s capable of so much more than simply memorizing the information on our beloved PowerPoints. We are, as Marilynne Robinson insists, “astonishing creatures, each life so singular in its composition and so deeply akin to others that [we] are inexhaustibly the subject of every art” (Robinson, 2018, “The Sacred, the Human,” What Are We Doing Here?, 68). We are capable of empathy and compassion, courage and self-sacrifice—qualities our world needs desperately. So, when we find ourselves disgruntled and befuddled by the humans in our classrooms who need relearning, we would do well to remember we are participating in the process of cultivating people, not automata.

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