What is the best way to learn new content? In general, let us consider that it is necessary to know theory first and then practice. However, a new Swiss study noted that this rule doesn’t work so well most of the time. It is even more likely that someone will learn better by initially dealing with practical issues and experiencing productive failure.
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Published in the scientific journal Review of Educational Research, meta-analysis — study that compares results of other research on the subject — from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) analyzed 43 studies done previously. All questioned which learning strategy is more effective: instruction before practice or vice versa.
“If you want to achieve optimal learning outcomes, it’s best to first solve a problem that is specifically relevant to a topic before exploring the underlying principles,” says Manu Kapur, professor at ETHZ and one of the authors of the meta-analysis. In these cases, learning occurs through the concept called productive failure. Want to catch up on the best tech news of the day?
“If you want to achieve optimal learning outcomes, it’s best to first solve a problem that is specifically relevant to a topic before exploring the underlying principles,” says Manu Kapur, professor at ETHZ and one of the authors of the meta-analysis. In these cases, learning occurs through the concept called productive failure.
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Understand the research on the best way to learn
During the study, the researchers investigated how well school-age and college-age students understood the concepts of the subjects of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. In addition, they sought to assess whether these students were able to apply their knowledge successfully. It is worth noting that the study did not consider the ability to learn reading or writing, nor the human sciences, so the findings may have a practical limit.
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According to the authors, all students were more successful in learning when they had to solve exercises and problems before the required concepts were explained. This advantage was even stronger for high school and university students than for elementary school students.
“Practice before learning the theory is almost twice as effective as receiving a year of instruction from an excellent teacher,” explains Professor Kapur. Now, if students fail “productively” during the practice stage, their learning outcomes are up to three times better than what a good teacher can achieve in one year of teaching, he argues.
How to apply productive failure in education?
To use productive failure as an ally in teaching, researchers define the 4 main bases for the learning method. They are:
- The problem that will be presented to the students must activate as much of the knowledge already acquired as possible. This is because productive failure, according to Kapur, “requires a certain amount of prior knowledge.” If a person wants to solve a statistical problem, he must at least be familiar with the most fundamental concepts, such as the average;
- Students must recognize the deficit between what they do and what they do not yet know, which will increase their awareness that more knowledge must be acquired;
- It is necessary that students are receptive to new concepts and are interested in solving the problem. For this, the previous step can be an excellent path;
“Learning outcomes depend on teaching in such a way that all four of these mechanisms play a key role,” says Kapur. o Students deal with problems that can be intuitively grasped, but for which they do not yet have the necessary knowledge to solve them.
To access the full study on the importance of productive failure in education, click here.
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