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Rating Corner | What Do You Know About Learning?
The Rating Corner | Dec 28, 2021
Rating Corner | What Do You Know About Learning?

Jen Sharp

Above photo by Jen Sharp.

Learning about learning is one way a rating holder can “update their operating system” as they continue to pursue improved teaching skills. Taking a test is a great way to find out what you know. So, in the spirit of discovering those gaps, here’s a no-stakes, five-question, true-false quiz for anyone who teaches—or for that matter, anyone who learns!

1. Practicing a skill perfectly over and over burns a skill into “muscle memory.” True or False?
False. Repetition alone does not produce long-term retention. Instead, we need shorter bits of learning spaced over time, also called distributed practice. Massed practice—aka “cramming”—is ineffective for retaining both physical and intellectual skills, despite giving the teacher and student the illusion that learning occurred. People are actually much better at retrieving information later or repeating a physical skill if they have forgotten it a little bit first (in other words, if they give it a rest and come back to it). This phenomenon, called the “spacing effect,” significantly impacts long-term learning.1

Examples for use: Many first-jump courses contain too much material in too short of a timeframe to properly provide active learning and proper assessment of skills. To improve retention of information, give solo students the link to skydiveschool.org as soon as they sign up for ground school and encourage them to study ahead using the handout guide. You can use a similar strategy throughout a student’s license progression by giving them “homework” before the next jump.

2. Students should study one thing thoroughly before moving to a different topic. True or False?
False. Instructors tend to avoid mixing topics, thinking it might lead to confusion. However, loosely mixing related topics (known as “interleaving”) improves critical thinking and discriminatory skills, especially when it comes to long-term recall.2

Examples for use: During the first-jump course and subsequent review sessions, mix in canopy problems with malfunctions when teaching emergency procedures. This gives the student the ability to evaluate any kind of event, rather than just memorize the name of the malfunction and a response for the photos you have on hand. You can also teach “up” and “down” body positions together, then test for proper application with a doll depicting the level the student should match. The student may confuse up with down at first but after a few iterations will be able to respond to any level change with the correct corresponding position.

3. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. True or False?
False. Corrected errors support learning better than errorless practice.3 Also, repeating a skill exactly as it should be performed is not as effective as variable practice, that is, presenting scenarios and mixing up the practice.4

Examples for use: During dive-flow practice for maintaining heading in Category C, instructors may think that students should practice holding a perfect body position for several seconds, multiple times. Not only can this be tiring, it reinforces only a perfect situation … which is unlikely for most students. Instead, simulate movement when the student is on the horizontal trainer and have them practice how to respond to unwanted drift, unintentional turns, loss of reference point, etc.

While teaching forward movement to dock, have students practice traveling various distances, exploring how the amount of input and time in each of the start, coast and stop phases affects their movement.

4. You must show students exactly how to do something before they try it, and while doing so, break it down in simple steps for them to copy. True or False?
False. Talking is not teaching. Neither is demonstrating. The actual learning takes place on the student’s side, when they actively participate in the experience.5 Having a student work through a problem before providing the solution can lead to durable results. Generative learning, as it is called, is supported by strategies such as self-paced environments, desirable difficulties, self-regulated learning, elaboration and reflection. Humans have an amazing capacity for growth, and intelligence is not fixed.6 So, giving our students the chance to try it themselves first might yield surprising, time-saving and enriching results.

Examples for use: For first-jump courses, instructional rating courses or ground preps, have the student tell you what they consider the main idea of what they just learned or practiced. Providing fill-in-the-blank worksheets or note-taking templates can keep your students engaged and on track without taking much time. Problem-centered instruction works best, leaving plenty of time for application.

When conducting a debrief after a jump, allow the student to reflect without interruption, even if they pause. Reflection is a form of practice. Their account should come first, organized by priority, not necessarily by chronological order. Having them fill out their own logbook is a great way to add to the education they just experienced in the sky.

5. Tests are not very helpful for learning and have limited benefits for skydivers. True or False?
False. Studies show that taking no- or low-stakes test such as frequent closed-book quizzes are more effective than reading or re-reading material.7 Even unsuccessful testing is better than instructors presenting material in a lecture format. Did I mention that talking is not teaching? Improvements in performance from this so-called testing effect are enhanced even more when the students generate their own tests.

Examples for use: In first-jump courses and instructional rating courses, shift to using tests for teaching and retrieval practice instead of using tests only as summative assessment tools. You can have these prepared ahead of time and bring them out as pace-changers.

Encourage students pursuing their A licenses to take the Integrated Student Program quizzes online as many times as they want, looking up the answers only after they finish.

How did you fare?
How did what you thought you knew compare with what studies have shown? If you did not fare too well, you’re in good company. It turns out, we aren’t very good at knowing what is most effective for learning.8 This often results from misinterpreting our current performance as “learning.” Proven strategies include distributed and spaced practice, interleaving, variable practice, generative learning, and low-stakes frequent test-taking. Just as backsliding students will insist that their legs were out until they see themselves on video, instructors may find that scholarly research reveals the truth about their training methods.

Jen Sharp | D-17516; Examiner Rating Course Director; AFF, Tandem and Coach Examiner
Ph.D. candidate in education, specializing in teaching and curriculum

References

1) Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354–380.

2) Birnbaum, M.S., Kornell, N., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The roles of discrimination and retrieval. Memory & Cognition, 41, 392–402.

3) Huelser, B. J., & Metcalfe, J. (2012). Making related errors facilitates learning, but learners do not know it. Memory & Cognition, 40, 514–527.

4) Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning, Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 56–64.

5) Bradbury, N. A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? Advances in Physiology Education, 40(4), 509–513. 

6) Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

7) Agarwal, P. K., Karpicke, J. D., Kang, S. H. K., Roediger, H. L., & McDermott, K. B. (2008). Examining the testing effect with open- and closed-book tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22, 861–876.

8) Merrill, M. D. (2012). First Principles of Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

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