If flash cards are the answer, we’re asking the wrong question.

I’m in St. Louis. I’ve just finished a two-day conference at Washington University that brought together leading cognitive science/cognitive psychology researchers with education researchers and innovators from various STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. As conferences go, it was pretty good: a manageable number of generally high-quality (invited) talks, neither too short nor too long, by respected scholars; adequate time for questions and discussion; enough elbow room around the scheduled events for networking and hallway chat; a sense of conference mission; and a few breakout sessions for greater interactivity. Really, the organizers did a good job.

So why am I disappointed and frustrated? Two reasons:

1) There’s still a huge gap between the phenomena that the “coggies” are studying and those that we in higher STEM education are (or at least should be) wrestling with. I find it telling that the coggies, in talks about learning, generally refer to “recall” and “reproduction” when they’re being careful about what learning outcomes they’re seeking. When my students are struggling their way through the analysis of a complex physics scenario, they’re doing a whole lot more than recalling or reproducing something.

I tried raising this a few times during the conference, but rather than dialogue aimed at understanding and closing the gap, I elicited two kinds of response: defenses of why coggies study basic recall and training mechanisms, and assertions that cognitive science also has work that speaks to the general sorts of concerns I’m presumed to have. Yes, I know: research on “executive function” and “metacognition”, for example. Unfortunately, such research had a low profile at the conference. More seriously, much of that research is also conducted in highly simplified, abstracted situations far removed from the messiness and contextual dependencies of real classroom learning.

I am absolutely *not* criticizing how the coggies do their thing. Physicists have spent much time and many federal dollars researching highly simplified, isolated systems, too; that’s where theory-building begins. (Thus the old joke about the spherical cow.) However, I have a problem with glibly calling memorization and visual identification “learning” and framing it as something of direct relevance to my teaching or my education research work, as this conference seems to have at least implied.

What frustrated me was the lack of dialogue about how to connect such low-level, yet undeniably foundational and relevant, research to the actual work of STEM teaching and learning. Giving research-based advice about strategies for efficient studying with flash cards doesn’t cut it.

2) Even among the STEM education researchers and innovators at the conference, most of the presentation and discussion was about narrow, localized topics: specific innovative curricula, getting students to approach physics problems strategically, one department’s project to overhaul its upper-level courses, capstone courses to teach engineering design, etc. We all came with our parochial concerns and peeves and pet ideas, and spent most of our time seeking an audience for those.

Yes, cross-fertilization is a good thing, and is perhaps the primary benefit of typical conferences. This, however, wasn’t supposed to be a typical conference. I wish we had tried to take advantage of all those different viewpoints by rising to a higher level, seeing how they fit together into a more general pattern, and articulating a broader research agenda for the general community. (Admittedly, I’m something of an extremist about “going meta” at every opportunity.)

I suspect that this kind of big-picture-emerges-from-many-perspectives outcome is what the conference organizers were hoping for. Could it have been instigated by structural changes to the conference design? Perhaps. Would more explicit metacommunication about our joint purpose have helped? Maybe. Was the conference about as successful as it could possibly have been, given the state of the fields represented and the psychology of academics? Quite possibly.

The day closed with some talk about repeating the event in another year or two, to see what fruit arose from this year’s frenzy of cross-pollination. Maybe by then, we’ll all be better at seeing the chasms that divide us and planning the bridges we need.

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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2 Responses to If flash cards are the answer, we’re asking the wrong question.

  1. Very interesting points, and I must say that your second point is something that I feel a lot at many of the conferences I’ve been to. Do you think that a flipped approach to that conference would have worked, where everyone posts their presentations and you gather to talk or try to attack a particular problem? My problem with the flipped conference approach is that, while I’m sure most probably would upload their own, I’m not sure how many would watch the others.

    • Ian says:

      A flipped conference? Interesting idea. I’m quite pessimistic that busy faculty would actually do their homework. (And what does that say about our complaints that students don’t do their pre-class homework either?)

      That being said, I once went to a smallish agenda-setting conference (rather than a research-reporting conference). The organizers sent out a white paper to all attendees with instructions to read it, as it would serve as a common frame of reference for the discussions. I think there was enough buy-in to the goals of the conference that many people did in fact read it.

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