Motivation: Debunk popular urban legends in education about student-driven learning
Urban Legend 1: Learners Are Digital Natives
Legend: Digital natives, or people who have interacted with information technology throughout their entire life, are presumed to be able to learn from and simultaneously pay attention to multiple sources and mediums.
Reality: University students typically use a limited set of programs and application, and typically they use them in a limited way. They need training to use technology for learning in a way that isn’t passive. This legend also assumes that students are effective multitaskers, but at best students are effective task switchers. Rapidly switching between tasks leads to poorer performance on those tasks than serial completion.
Urban Legend 2: Learners Have Learning Styles that Are Beneficial
Legend: Catering to people’s individual learning styles significantly improves their learning outcomes. The most well-known learning styles are visual (learn by seeing), auditory (learn by hearing), and kinesthetic (learn by doing), but there are dozens of styles based on several dimensions.
Reality: Learning styles are based on broad (and sometimes extreme) groups instead of individual scores on dimensions, which is unrealistic. Furthermore, learning styles are typically assigned by self-report or low-validity measures. Instruction is more effective when teaching style is matched to the content/skill being learned rather than the learning style of the learner. There is little empirical support that catering to learning styles significantly improves learning. Instead we should be catering to the cognitive architecture that all students have in common.
Urban Legend 3: Learners Are Effective Self-Educators (without guidance)
Legend: With the practically unlimited open educational resources available today, learners should be encouraged to teach themselves the curriculum of the day however they see fit with minimal interference from instructors.
Reality: Many students lack the skills to consistently find trustworthy information on the internet. “Prior knowledge largely determines how we search, find, select, and process (i.e., evaluate) information found on the web.” (p. 177). Self-directed learners often need more help to regulate learning and employ effective learning strategies. Learners should be given limited, not unlimited, control over their own learning.
Why this is important: Many educators are taking steps to improve education, but some do not have the educational research background or resources to scientifically test their hypotheses. For this reason, education reformers sometimes popularize untested, but typically intuitive, interventions. Articles like this differentiate between educational interventions that make intuitive sense and those that are scientifically supported. I see a lot of value in periodically reviewing educational interventions and ensuring that we understand the cognitive architecture that makes interventions work (or not).
Kirschner, P. A., & van Merrienboer, J. J. G. (2014). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169-183. doi:10.1080/00461520.2013.804395
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