Neuromyths and potential classroom implications: Part 3 – Drill to Kill, Multitasking, Forget your Emotions

This is the third part of the 4-post series on how neuroscience can be used in the classroom. If you missed the first blog post, read it here. You can access the second blog post here

1. Drill to Kill

Origin

Uses promptos facit

Dates back to the 1500s

Ever heard that saying? In its original form, from the Latin, it used to mean literally Use makes Mastery. Our most modern version of it is:

Practice makes perfect

It is hard to say how long this notion has been around in human civilization, but we could argue that, throughout History, some values such as dedication, mastery, discipline have been part of different societies. Think about the Spartan soldiers at the pinnacle of their human form through intense practice from an early age. Or the Ancient Roman sculptors who dedicated their lives to perfecting the skill of carving marble. Picture the Japanese samurai who could behead a person and stop the blade a few centimeters before it touched the skin of their necks (gruesome example, I know).

It does seem like practice makes perfect, doesn’t it? The more you train, repeat or drill, the better you get at something. But can you achieve perfection? If so, how much should you practice and for how long?

Why is it a myth?

Perfection is such an ideal, utopian notion, that I’d like to think we can never achieve it. Professional athletes have their good and bad days. They can break a record on Monday and come in last the next week. And someone will most certainly always break their record in the future.

But I’m concerned with one specific type of practice we have our students do in class. It’s called drilling. According to the TeachingEnglish website sponsored by the British Council:

At its simplest, drilling means listening to a model, provided by the teacher, or a tape or another student, and repeating what is heard. This is a repetition drill, a technique that is still used by many teachers when introducing new language items to their students. The teacher says (models) the word or phrase and the students repeat it

TeachingEnglish by the British Council

I have worked at schools where drilling was the foundation of their method (audiolingual). And I must confess it seemed to work well, particularly for lower levels. I’d say it worked well not because of how many times we drilled an item (a sentence, a grammar structure, an expression) in one lesson, but how many times we went back to it in the following lessons.

My point here is that drilling as much as you can may not be the best way to help your students if it is not based on two psychologically tested and recommended practices: Interleaved Practice and Spaced Repetition (Dunlosky et al. 2013)

Since the late 1800s, with Herman Ebbinghaus’ memory experiments, we have known that drilling to kill is actually OVERKILL. The best way to do it is by drilling just enough and going back to it (reviewing) some time after, then a little more time after and so on. This is called spaced repetition (Kornell & Bjork, 2008; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014)

Birnbaum et al. (2013) have also shown that drilling the same thing over and over might not be as effective as drilling one thing and then another and then going back to the first thing. It’s called interleaved practice.

Think about going to the gym to work out a group of muscles. How effective would it be for you to work out your biceps only, using the same type of exercise for as much as and as long as possible? The same principle applies. It’s better to vary the type of exercise and interleave it with exercises for a different group of muscles. And don’t forget you need to go back to the gym or work out that specific group again over time. The difference with how we learn in the classroom more effectively is how much space you add between sessions.

What does that all mean in the classroom?

Let’s imagine that we’re teaching a vocabulary lesson about fruits and vegetables (herbs included). Our students have already learned some items and now we’re moving on to a more complex list (such as zucchini/courgette, thyme, basil, eggplant/aubergine, squash, etc). To interleave, a good idea would be having an activity to go back to the list they had already learned (lettuce, tomato, potato, etc) and then an activity using the novel items. Then repeat. If you want to space this out, you can set a timetable to review these words throughout the next 30 days. It could be once at the beginning of the next class as a quiz, then two lessons from that last revision as a game (e.g. Who am I? for fruits and veggies), then in the fifth lesson (from the input) and finally in the last lesson of this 30-day period. You can read more about this technique here.

2. Multitasking

Simply said, it’s the ability to do more than one thing at a time. It’s often referred to as an admirable trait to have in this crazy information-craving and overload era. But can we actually do it?

Origin

It dates back to the mid 60s with the publication of IBM’ new product S/360. It referred to its incredible processing capabilities that allowed this mainframe computer to do things no other computer had been able to do before.

Psychologists in the 60s adopted the term to refer to human behavior when attempting to do two tasks at once, such as counting and trying to listen to someone talking at the same time. It was, however, in the 90s when the term became a trend and was actually recommended by many people. Workers, housewives, students were suddenly faced with this demand. Driving and listening to the news on the radio, cooking breakfast while quizzing the kids on what they had studied, doing the Geography homework while attending a History lecture or watching TV. It was all about saving time and getting more done as efficiently as possible.

Why is it a myth?

Our brain’s ability to focus and take in information is much more limited than we’d like to admit. Miller (1956) and Sweller (1988) had already discussed that we can suffer from cognitive overload when exposed to too many things at the same time. Several studies have shown that doing two things at once will worsen our performance because the brain needs to shift our attention back and forth to complete the two tasks (see the meta-analysis by Wolpert, 2009). It’s actually better to complete one task first and then do the other.

What does that all mean in the classroom?

Well, I suppose the biggest potential problem in the classroom has to do with technology, mainly social media. I realize that this might be quite difficult to control depending on your educational setting, but if students are posting on social media while you’re teaching, or texting someone during an activity, their brains are struggling to keep focused and the research suggests that their performance will be negatively affected. If you choose to ban their phones from the classroom, that might have both positive and negative impacts. They might be outraged and hate you for it (and even rebel), but might actually be able to focus better. One possible solution is to use the idea of brain breaks. You can allow them to have some short breaks to check their social media or do anything else unrelated to what they’re leaning so that their minds can relax a little. Read about it here.

Bottom line: try as much as you can to make sure your student’s focus is on one thing, which is the the one thing you want them to learn.

3. Forget your emotions

In order to make a rational decision we must put our emotions aside. I’ve heard this at least a couple of times in life. I wonder, is it possible?

Origin

Again, it’s hard to determine when and where this originated. But it’s safe (sort of) to assume that for millenia, chiefly throughout passage rituals, societies have been telling their members to wipe their tears and hide their fears to be able to accomplish something. Be it becoming an adult or getting married to someone who was arranged by the parents or even allowing elders to decide whether the kids a woman had just had should be kept, sent away or killed (thrown over a cliff). It was all part of a hierarchy of things, often established by beliefs (religion, myths, etc).

Je pense, donc je suis

René Descarte, 1637

Nonetheless, it was in the 17th century that the father of rationalism, French philosopher René Descartes, said the famous quote: I think, therefore I am. He seemed to make it official that humans have the faculty to be rational beings over anything, that our bodily sensations can be separated from our minds, that our emotions can be suppressed by our cognition.

Today it is quite common to say that our decisions need to be stripped away from our emotions so that we can decide better, rationally. Is that really the case?

Why is it a myth?

António Damásio (2006) explains it well in his book entitled Descartes’ Error. Referring to at least a century’s worth of scientific research, he says that we cannot separate emotion from cognition. As a matter of fact, he talks about a patient called Elliot who had suffered damage to important structures in the brain in charge of emotional responses (making him a person unable to experience them to a certain extent). Elliot should be an effective decision-making machine according to this common-sense belief. In fact, he was terrible at making decisions and many times simply couldn’t decide. He would take an hour to choose between going to restaurant A or B, trying balance the good and bad aspects of each before reaching his decision, which, quite often, would never come.

Damásio and Immordino-Yang conclude their paper We Feel, therefore we Learn as follows:

When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students ’ emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in students ’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all

Immordino-Yang & Damásio (2007)

What does that all mean in the classroom?

Despite the controversy of ideas such as multiple intelligences and emotional intelligence, we can use some of their concepts in the classroom. We can teach our students how to better self-regulate and deal with their emotions. We can discuss these things and make them feel more comfortable about sharing how they are feeling. We can also get help for them if necessary (like counseling for example). What we cannot and should not do is simply assume that a struggling student can turn off their emotions and be present in the lesson. If they’re feeling anxious, intimidated, hungry, scared, sad, depressed, or even too excited with something that will only happen at the end of the lesson, they are probably not attending to the lecture or lesson as they should be.

Read my post with the analogy of Captain Marvel right here.

Ok, we’re done for today, folks. Hope you liked this one too and remember: I discuss this in a lot more detail in my MASTERCLASS and online course. If you want to invest in professional development, click here and go for the Neuroscience and Learning Online course or simply get access to my MASTERCLASS.

Let me know what you think of this article too!

Have a great week!

REFERENCES

DRILL TO KILL

Birnbaum, M. S., Kornell, N., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The roles of discrimination and retrieval. Memory & cognition41(3), 392-402.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013).  Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques:  Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology.  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.

Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: Is spacing the “enemy of induction”? Psychological Science, 19, 585–592.

MULTITASKING

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review63 (2): 81–97

Sweller, J. (1988), Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12: 257–285

Wolpert, S. (2009). Is technology producing a decline in critical thinking and analysis. UCLA Newsroom27.

FORGET ABOUT EMOTIONS

Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes’ error. Random House.

Immordino‐Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, brain, and education1(1), 3-10.

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