Thursday, October 16, 2014

Spotlight on the Explore Phase: the Anatomy of Mastery Learning Cycles

Nemo // Pixabay

Over the years, I've become convinced that pre-teaching and priming help students internalize content. Rather than a lecture or video being the first exposure to content, I've experimented with having students explore or experience the content firsthand. This is the thinking behind the exploration phase of the mastery learning cycles.

Ramsey Musallam (@ramusallam) convinced me of the need to let students explore content before providing content. Primarily, students who engage in an exciting lab or activity followed by a challenge, are more likely to pay attention to a lecture or video, assuming the content will help them meet the challenge. These situations can create cognitive dissonance. Brains don't like unsolved mysteries, which is why cliffhangers are captivating. The same thing can be true for some learners. Challenge them with an interesting problem, then make helpful content available. The other benefit of pre-teaching or priming is the cognitive load of a video lecture is reduced if students have some intuition or experience with the concept prior to watching the video. 

In the inheritance unit, students begin with the "Baby Making Exploration." This is an activity where students form pairs, complete a trait inventory and use simple rules of inheritance in order to make babies. After drawing two of their children, they are challenged with figuring out the likelihood of future children having particular traits. At this point, they have some intuition about how traits are inherited but lack some of the content and tools to complete the challenge. Students learn these concepts through a video and revisit the initial challenge later in the learning cycle. Immediately after the exploration, a few students can successfully complete the challenge but after the video, all students are able to complete the challenge. 

Sometimes an exploration may not be an activity or lab but a case study or a new problem. For example, after the students learn about inheritance from the learning cycle described above, I provide some problems with results that contradict the content they just learned. They are met with a scenario that does not meet their expectations. This creates cognitive dissonance. They are asked to offer hypotheses explaining these seemingly abnormal observations. Undoubtedly, some students will be more motivated to watch the video since there is a reason to do so. 

In other units, students conduct experiments and are asked to use the data to make generalizations. After watching another video lesson, they are able to revise these conclusions. 

Whether the exploration is a lab, interesting problem or activity, I'm hoping students are gaining an intuition about content before taking notes. I am also hoping that they will pay closer attention and be more motivated to watch the videos.