Empirical Work Behind the Textbook



Active Learning

Active learning is a broad category that encompasses many of the other ideas below. This section therefore serves as a short introduction to the empirical basis of the textbook.

We want students to acquire durable, long-term knowledge and skills. Study after study has shown that the best way to accomplish that is through effortful activity and various forms of feedback.

Active learning is effective because our brains must convert short-term memory into long-term knowledge, and that process simply doesn't happen efficiently in a passive learning environment.

Converting short-term memory into durable learning is a cognitive expense, and we have to make our brains bother to rewire and strengthen synapses. Many active learning techniques, such as interleaving practice, connecting to prior knowledge, and retrieval practice are methods for getting the brain to do that work.

Interleaving Practice

Traditional textbooks group all the exercises of the same type together. Students do problems in blocks, one type at a time, and instructors rarely assign problems from past chapters in new problem sets.

A large body of research suggests that is not an effective way to practice and learn. Students learn best by interleaving problems of different types, not doing the same type of problem in a block (then moving on to another type of problem).

Students also benefit from interleaving that mixes past problems and previously learned skills with new ones. Doing so helps students make connections with prior knowledge; it reinforces previous learning by provided spaced-out review; and it requires greater cognitive effort because students can't mindlessly solve a new problem type in a block.

Our textbook uses continuous interleaving, both within sections and in every problem set.

Prior Knowledge

A key aspect of durable learning is connecting new information to prior knowledge. Each connection to prior knowledge strengthens neural pathways to new information and gives us more ways to access that information later.

A great way to activate prior knowledge is to use already-learned skills in new ways. Doing so reinforces those skills while contextualizing and making meaningful the new information as well.

See Ambrose et al. 2010; Bransford et al. 2000.


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