31 March 2013

My new favourite journal.

I have a new favourite journal, even though I've only ever read two articles from it.  I searched my old blog posts for a reference to the first one, but shockingly, it would appear I've never actually mentioned it here.

The journal in question is Psychological Science in the Public Interest, compiled by the Association for Psychological Science.  The APS describes the journal:
"a unique journal featuring comprehensive and compelling reviews of issues that are of direct relevance to the general public. These reviews are written by blue ribbon teams of specialists representing a range of viewpoints, and are intended to assess the current state-of-the-science with regard to the topic."
Note that term "reviews of issues".  All too commonly, journals are full of individual papers that are too technical for anyone outside of the field of study, and pushing the point of view of the authors/researchers involved.

Not so PSPI.  Here we have a journal dedicated to identifying important research and summarising the state of knowledge and quality of research across the subject, such that people outside the research field can base their practices on the evidence.  This calls to mind Ben Goldacre's submission to the UK government, Building Evidence into Education, as even teachers who attempt to follow new findings tend to be tricked into following ideologically-led movements through the difficulty in obtaining actual evidence.

Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence
The first article that brough PSPI to my attention was entitled Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence (free to read as PDF), and it reviewed the evidence supporting the extremely popular notion of "learning styles" in education, concluding that
"at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number."
Note that the article never claims that learning styles don't exist, or that research into learning styles should cease, but that the current state of knowledge of learning styles offers no demonstrable benefit to the classroom teacher.  This kicked off a bit of controversy which is summarised briefly on Wikipedia: the reviewers chose the papers to include based on the rigour of their experimental design, which led them to omit many of the most cited papers on learning styles, which only goes to show that the most cited papers are not in any position to prove anything, having employed sub-standard experimental methodologies.

(I discovered the paper via a forum link to an article on Chronicle.com)

Improving Students' Learning with Effective Learning Techniques
The second article, which I stumbled upon thanks to a friend linking to a Time magazine article on Facebook.  It's called Improving Students' Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Education Psychology, and it reviews the literature supporting 10 different study techniques, concluding that most of what students do to study isn't particularly effective.  It's also worth noting that a lot of what they advise against is precisely what I was told to do in "study skills" lessons at high school and university.  As has been observed by many people, what is taught in study skills classes and what successful students actually do are two very different things....

I'll hopefully give a more in-depth review of the article once term's over and I'm able to devote a bit more time to it, but I'd like to also note that they make the mistake of criticising cramming without the qualification that cramming, while not the best way to learn, is still the best way to pass an exam, and that our school system still rewards it as a practice (particularly when you know that you're not continuing with the subject next year).  In fact, one training course I took at work several years ago was just two days of cramming followed immediately by the exam.  When one of the delegates asked the trainer why the exam wasn't a week later, the trainer said (with a straight face!) that they'd tried that and more people failed.  He completely missed the point that this really was in no way a good reflection on his teaching methods.


Lucy Purkis said...

This is interesting Niall, I'll look out for this journal. The Evidence based teaching network has some useful ideas.

Nìall Beag said...

Thanks for the link -- I've just signed up.