Experience Alone

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Experience alone is a poor teacher.


Not surprisingly, learners often have preconceived notions of the material being taught. Even if these notions are wrong, belief in them can increase due to everyday experiences, in the absence of objective feedback. This has serious implications for learning and performance.

People may rely upon some heuristic to judge or interpret events and outcomes. By definition heuristics are mental shortcuts which do not always result in the right solution. The use of such heuristics often happens unconsciously in everyday situations and can lead individuals to overlook how their erroneous thinking came about. For instance, a physician may come to erroneously believe in causation by attributing a patient's improvement to a given treatment, although without a control condition, it is problematic to infer causation, as a placebo effect may have been solely responsible for the patient's improvement.

In addition, people have poor metacognition; that is, people are poor judges of what they know (Maki, 1998). They may have a misplaced sense of learning by falsely assuming familiarity with concepts to be deep understanding of them. Misguided notions may also develop in the course of learning. Learners may be fooled into believing that they are learning by the apparent ease of their performance; whereas, optimal learning is usually derived from moderately difficult learning situations. Confidence based upon familiarity or ease of learning, thus, is not a good indicator of actual knowledge acquisition.

A dramatic example of where experience alone is a poor teacher is illustrated by situations in which errors are highly costly. This is certainly the case in training a person to pilot an airplane, where an error could entail high costs in terms of life and property. Thus, pilots are trained on flight simulators and given systematic feedback on their errors before piloting a real plane.

Of course, the costs of incorrectly answering a test question do not equate to those resulting from a piloting error; however, when physicians base their medical judgments on a faulty premise, these actions have potentially life-threatening consequences.

Charles Judd's (1908) classic experiment demonstrates the benefits of guided practice. Two groups of boys practiced throwing darts at an underwater target. Prior to practice, the experimental group was instructed about how water refracts light and how this principle may affect the accuracy of their performance. The control group was not given this instruction, but simply practiced. Boys in the experimental group were more accurate at throwing darts at new targets at varying depths.

This demonstration illustrates how feedback can guide motor behavior to be closer to a target response.

Educational Applications

Be aware of students' common misconceptions and present lectures that address these misconceptions. Give systematic feedback, on homework assignment, tests, and projects, throughout the course of instruction to combat the persistence of erroneous thinking.

Guide students' knowledge acquisition by illustrating metacognitive principles. Students, thus, will become aware of their learning processes and when they may be misled into believing they have learned more than they have.

Suggested Readings

Judd, C. H. (1908). The relation of special training and general intelligence. Educational Review, 36, 42-48. This classic study demonstrates how the effects of practice may be enhanced by giving guided instruction on the principles underlying a task.

Maki, R. H. (1998). Testing predictions over text material. In D. J. Haker, J. Dunlosky, & H. C. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in educational theory and practice (pp. 117-144). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. This chapter reviews empirical findings concerning how accurate people are at predicting future performance on a test that measures their understanding of a reading passage. People who demonstrated better reading comprehension or had greater familiarity with the reading topic were not necessarily more accurate at predicting their test performance. Other chapters in this volume review work on metacognition in other educational domains, including problem solving, mathematics, and writing.