Before and After Learning
Sometimes it isn’t all that easy to see that you’ve learned something or are in the process of doing so. I have sat with many students, handed them something written early in the course and asked them to look it in light of something they’ve just completed. “Do you think your writing has improved?” Invariably they’d shrug a response, “I don’t know.” I look and see improvement in almost every sentence.
A recent issue of Teaching Theology and Religion, (21, 2), contains an interview with Lynn Neal, the 2017 winner of the American Academy of Religion Excellence in Teaching Award, in which she talks about using “before and after” assignments (p. 143). The assignments struck me as being beneficial on several fronts. First, they can offer students a visible demonstration of learning. You can start a unit asking them to write what they think they know about a topic, then explore that content, and conclude by asking the same question. If students look at what they knew before and after, in most cases, they’ll be able to see that they know more.
Even if the learning is still in process, as in a skill that’s developing like writing, painting, problem solving, or welding, a before-and-after assessment can make progress visible. The before part may be some low-stakes writing that evaluates skill level, captures all those first-try emotions, and assesses confidence (or lack of it) going forward.
Having this sort of concrete encounter with what has been learned can be very motivational, especially if the content is challenging or the skill is complex. If you don’t think you’re making progress, discovering accomplishments, even small ones, can provide fuel for continued effort.
Making students more aware of learning as it happens develops several ancillary skills. For example, it helps students more accurately assess their knowledge. “Oh, so I do know that.” “Yes, I can do that.” Before-and-after writing gives students the opportunity to practice articulating what they know and can do. That process solidifies the knowledge thereby increasing the chance of long-term retention. An awareness of learning grows the appreciation and sometimes love of learning. It also gives students more confidence in their ability to learn, especially when they end up learning or doing something they didn’t think they could.
Before-and-after writings—they could also be discussions or in some cases demonstrations—can occur before and after any number of course events: at the beginning and ending of a class session; before and after a course activity or event, say a field trip or guest presenter; before and after an assignment or a collection of assignments; before and after an exam; or at the beginning and ending of the course.
Framing the questions that prompt these kinds of analyses and reflection is important. If students are asked to write what they know about the Kreb Cycle, they’ll take care of the request with a single word: nothing. The prompt must encourage students to delve into what they know, think, or might imagine happens to food when it reaches a cell. The prompt needs to encourage students to explore their feelings, not so much about what they’re learning, but about the process of learning it. We cannot underestimate the importance of what students believe about their ability as learners. Most of them have strong feelings about what they can and can’t do, and those beliefs become barriers to learning. Writing gets those feelings out in the open, and if the learning experience has any positive outcomes—and most do—writing after the fact can raise questions about their beliefs.
If before-and-after writings aren’t a required assignment will students take them seriously? You know your students. If you do need to make the assignments worth a few points, let it be low-stakes, where the credit is earned by making an honest effort. If students think points can be earned by calling the learning experience wonderful, that’s what many (some, for sure) will do.
Many students don’t have a lot awareness of learning. They’re so focused on what they’re learning, they don’t think about it as a process. Anything we can do to increase that awareness further develops their prowess as learners.