I recently had the great pleasure of reading Bill Bryson’s new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants. It’s classic Bryson: a fascinating, well-told, hilarious overview of how the seven octillion atoms in every one of us make us what we are. Being a nonscientist, what jumped out at me was just how much about basic anatomy and human biology remains a mystery. Why do we have fingerprints? No one knows. The same goes for sinuses, even though they take up a lot of room in our heads. Speaking of heads, brains across the world shrunk by about 150 cubic centimeters (about the size of a tennis ball) at the end of the last ice age, a diminution nobody can explain. And finally, despite plentiful theories, we still don’t understand why we age.
Equally noteworthy are Bryson’s many examples of anatomical lore that have no actual basis in fact. The claim that we consist of 10 times more bacterial cells than human ones? That was just a guess in a 1972 paper; more recently, the estimate is closer to parity. The model where tongues have well-defined taste zones? A myth traced to a 1942 textbook which misinterpreted a research paper from decades earlier. The old chestnut that we use only 10 percent of our brain? The source of that figure is unknown, but in fact we put our whole brains to use in one way or another. The belief that our hair and nails continue to grow after we die? Pure moonshine, though strangely the liver continues to break down alcohol for a while postmortem.
It’s the educational parallels to that second grouping that I’d like to discuss here. How much of what we assume is true about teaching and learning is problematic or has little to no evidentiary underpinning? The stakes are potentially high since a teacher could build a whole educational approach around faulty or unsubstantiated ideas. Let me offer just a few here, and I invite you to share others in the comments section below.
1. Effective studying is a matter of a desire to learn or a function of personal learning style. During the keynote address at the 2018 Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, cognitive psychologist Stephen Chew gave the audience a multiple-choice question on the most important factor in successful learning. Possible answers were as follows:
What do you suppose happened? The vast majority of college educators got it wrong, with most choosing option a or c. Chew dismantled those responses, showing how intentionality and desire by themselves don’t matter and reminding attendees that there’s no empirical evidence that “learning styles” even exist. (See Chew 2011b for a more complete explanation.) But there is a correct answer, and very few people chose it. Successful learning isn’t a function of paying close attention or time on task, though those things can help. Rather, the key is item e: what you think about while studying.
At first blush, that might sound strange. After all, don’t we just think what we think while studying? Perhaps, and therein lies the problem. Students often believe that memorizing isolated facts is crucial or that the very process of learning should be quick and easy (more on that below). Instead, it’s a matter of providing learners with useful frameworks, questions, and organizing principles, among other things, that can alter how they interact with materials, leading to deeper, more sophisticated understandings.
2. We remember 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, 50 percent of what we see and hear, 70 percent of what we say, and 90 percent of what we say and do. Those statistics grew out of Edgar Dale’s (in)famous “cone of learning,” illustrations of which you might see adorning classrooms, faculty offices, and college websites. It’s an intuitive, even seductive progression, and there’s a kernel of truth to it: multimodal learning yields greater benefits than unimodal learning does. But as the Metiri Group shows, it isn’t entirely clear where those nice numbers came from, nor can anyone find actual research to undergird the figures (2008, 7). It’s not all Dale’s fault: the forerunner in the field of visual learning invented his scheme only as a visual metaphor without percentages attached to categories. But the cone of learning appears too enticing to go away. It stands testament to how a ubiquitous, seemingly data-driven learning monument can actually have feet of clay.
3. Quality learning should be fun and easy for students. One can certainly debate what quality learning is. Here, I mean it as training students in the authentic skills and habits of mind of professionals as opposed to mere content acquisition. Although it would be great if ease and fun attached to these, such skills and habits are almost by definition difficult, even unpleasant, to develop. Why? Because they call on us to think—and as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham (2009) points out, our brains are designed not to think but to avoid thinking. Thus, when actual learning occurs, it’s hard work. Nor is Willingham a lone voice. Writing about the ever-elusive skill of critical thinking, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” concludes that, from a biological standpoint, “we are naturally predisposed against [it]” (2017, 212). The implications for “fun” as a cornerstone of the authentic learning process are therefore predictably grim. Conclude educational researchers John Hattie and David Yates, “Actual learning is not enjoyable” (2014, 119).
That this is necessarily the case is made clear by psychologist Anders Ericsson (2016). The world’s expert on expertise, Ericsson’s years of observations show that to make significant improvement in any activity, one must not only practice it diligently but engage in “deliberate practice.” Such training places far higher demands on the practitioner, calling for “near-maximal efforts.” And every expert Ericsson has studied agrees that such exertions are not fun or some cognate thereof. This isn’t to say that humor or spates of relaxation have no place in learning environments. After all, as Angela Duckworth (2016) points out, even professionals can’t maintain near-maximal efforts for very long before their mental or physical reserves are depleted. But as Ericsson and Robert Pool warn, “If your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve” (2016, 151). Stephen Chew (2011a) is less charitable, saying that an expectation for quick and easy learning is “a belief that makes you stupid.” See both my earlier column (2017) as well as my forthcoming article for expansion on these important themes.
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Lendol Calder, an award-winning historian and SoTL pioneer, cautions his students that “it’s not the things we don’t know; it’s the things we know that just ain’t so.” That’s to say, our faulty extant knowledge is arguably a greater impediment to learning than is our utter lack of knowledge. I can readily empathize with Calder: trying to disabuse my own students of the medieval “flat earth” myth (Russell 1991) is but one of my recurring exercises in futility. But the lesson applies equally well to college faculty, many of whom got little to no formal training in educational theory or practice before finding themselves at the front of a classroom and who may have picked up scattered bits of uncorroborated wisdom along the way. The good news is that if you’re reading this column and others in The Teaching Professor, you’re part of the solution.
And if you ever see the oft-cited statistic that the average person spends 20,160 minutes kissing over the course of a lifetime, just know that Bryson says that’s a baseless claim too.
Bryson, Bill. 2019. The Body: A Guide for Occupants. New York: Doubleday.
Burkholder, Peter. Forthcoming. “Quia difficilia sunt: The Pedagogical Benefits of a Challenging Middle Ages.” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching.
———. 2017. “Lessons from Expertise, Decoding, and a Quest for the Five-Minute Mile.” The Teaching Professor, May 1, 2017, https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/preparing-to-teach/course-design/lessons-expertise-decoding-quest-five-minute-mile.
Chew, Stephen. 2011a. “How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Part 1 of 5, ‘Beliefs That Make You Fail… Or Succeed.’” Samford University. Video, 6:53. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH95h36NChI.
———. 2011b. “How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Part 2 of 5, ‘What Students Should Know About How People Learn.’” Samford University. Video, 7:14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9O7y7XEC66M.
Duckworth, Angela. 2016. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner.
Ericsson, Anders, and Robert Pool. 2016. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Hattie, John, and Gregory Yates. 2014. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. New York: Routledge.
Metiri Group. 2008. Multimodal Learning through Media: What the Research Says. Cisco Systems Inc. https://www.cisco.com/c/dam/en_us/solutions/industries/docs/education/Multimodal-Learning-Through-Media.pdf.
Nye, Bill. 2017. Everything All at Once. New York: Rodale.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. 1991. Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. New York: Praeger.
Willingham, Daniel. 2009. Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Pete Burkholder, PhD, is professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he served as founding chair of the faculty teaching development program from 2009 to 2017. He is on the editorial board of The Teaching Professor, is a consulting editor for College Teaching, and serves on the national advisory boards of the Society for History Education and ISSOTL-H: The International Society for SoTL in History.