The Mystery of Translation

03 Dec 2018 1:33 PM | Anonymous

Chris Hakala (Springfield College)

For the past several years, I have had the fortune of serving both as a classroom instructor of psychology and the director of a teaching center. Prior to this, I was a faculty member, and have taught many, many courses over the length of my career. During all this time, I have attended many conferences, talks, workshops, etc. all dedicated to teaching. For many of those events, I came away feeling like much of what was discussed or described about effective teaching was really couched in the world of psychology. Faculty were using principles of psychology to help students learn effectively, or they were talking about “novel” approaches to teaching that, according to much of the data, would in fact, hinder effective learning. What I didn’t hear much about, at least up to that point, was about translational research that tried to systematically use what we know about how students learn to impact our basic classroom practice.

            Much of that has changed over the last 20 years, as more and more researchers have begun to systematically examine how we can implement psychological principles into the classroom. Much of the work has come out of the labs from Washington University under the direction of Roediger, but there are many, many people who have contributed to this conversation (e.g., Benassi, Overson, & Hakala, 2014; Brown, McDaniel, & Roeiger, 2014; Lang, 2016; McDaniel, Agarwal, Huelser, McDermott, & Roediger III, 2011; Sana, Fenesi, & Kim, 2011; Whiffen & Karpicke, 2017). In many of these conversations, the discussion has centered on what the faculty member can do to improve the memory and learning of students. For example, much of the work on retrieval enhanced learning suggests that by creating conditions under which students are required to repeatedly retrieve information, learning should improve. There is clear evidence that this, in fact, works. When students are required to retrieve information, there are overwhelming positive benefits for those students (see Karpicke, 2012). If, for example, a faculty member gives quizzes to students each class, to test knowledge acquired in a previous class, students are more likely to remember that information when they are required to retrieve it for a cumulative exam. This, alone, is great information for students, and the kind of strategies that should lead to extensive quizzing among faculty to increase learning.

            There are other findings that are also supported by the data. One is that if you interleave (Blasiman, 2017), you are more likely to retain information over a longer period of time. The idea of interleaving helps students by teaching one set of concepts, switching to another set of concepts, and then returning to the original concept. When done across classes, there is strong evidence that students benefit from the second exposure to the content under different conditions.

            Given the increased evidence of utilizing such concepts in the classroom to improve student learning, it stands to reason that teaching is getting better, students are learning and are able to transfer that knowledge to other contexts and domains. In short, the student experience should be one that is seamless, integrated, and more complete than it has ever been.

            Sadly, this is not the case. One of the biggest problems with teaching is that we often know a lot about one thing but do things differently when required to act. For example, a classic psychology study suggests that organisms do better when reinforcement is used rather than punishment. It’s taught in psychology courses around the country, and it’s a concept that is clearly understood by anyone who has even a passing knowledge of basic psychological principles. However, when faced with a behavior that is not a desired one, people often resort to punishing that behavior rather than using the strategy that has been shown to be more effective under many conditions.

            Why do we, as faculty, do the same thing. That is, given all that we know that works in the classroom, why do faculty still resort to teaching in a manner that has been shown to not increase student learning and to not help students transfer knowledge from one context to another?

            This straw-man argument is one that is bandied about at many a teaching conference, and often by psychologists, who are stunned that their less informed colleagues are not using all that we know about human behavior to better education our college students. The typical comments are similar to, “well, we know that lecturing doesn’t work. Why do we still do it?” or “Why don’t these students read what we tell them to read”, or “It’s not my responsibility to hold my students’ hands”.

            The argument suggests that learning is straightforward and that if we do these things, students will learn, our colleges and universities will improve, and life will be better. All we need to do is read Small Teaching or Make it Stick and do what they tell us, and we will now be the best model teachers that we can be, and our students will be amazing. Oh, were it that simple.

            As psychologists, we know that behavior is complicated. I’d like to add to that, from a pedagogical standpoint, that learning is messy and teaching is not only idiosyncratic, but also deeply personal. To say that all we need to do is X to improve teaching is to underestimate all that we know about human behavior. It’s the equivalent of saying, “if you eat green beans, you will live to 100”. Life, like learning, is messy, with all sorts of variables that can impact any given situation. To maximize any given situation, one needs to be flexible, adaptable, aware of what is effective, and, understanding of the role of uncontrollable factors. In the scenario about green beans, consider that one might take that to mean that to live a long life, one needs to eat well. That’s true, to some extent, but there are countless counterexamples. One needs many different factors to coalesce for a long life. Eating well is one, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a long life. We have SOME control over factors that impact these very important landmarks in our world, but to think that we have complete control over our life span is to be, I would argue, a bit delusional.

            I would say the same about teaching and learning. The idea that there is one ideal teaching strategy or one ideal teaching approach that would work for all students is folly. Rather, I would argue, similar to most of the things we face in life, an understanding of teaching and learning requires us to know several things:

  • 1.      How humans learn
  • 2.      How we can impact how our students learn
  • 3.      How we can do that in our classroom given
  • a.     Who we are
  • b.     Who are students are
  • 4.      How that translates to classroom activities that are consistent with our discipline
  • 5.      How that is received by students in our particular institutions’ culture

To ignore this is to pretend that all students come to us with the same preparation, all faculty enter the class with the same sets of skills to teach, and all of us teach at institutions that have nearly identical campus cultures. In short, this doesn’t really seem to make a lot of sense.

            I would like to argue that we should recognize that teaching and learning are personal   

       tasks and that to really be effective as instructors, we need to recognize:

  • 1.     Our strengths and weaknesses in presenting course material
  • 2.     Our students’ strengths and weaknesses
  • 3.     Our content and what it lends itself to
  • 4.     Our institution’s culture
  • 5.     How what we know about learning can be crafted to fit into these above mentioned issues.

Thus, an effective classroom is one that makes use of what we know about how students learn, but it is one that is crafted to best meet the needs of our students in the context of what works within the course, the institution and the instructors’ skill set.

            As psychologists, we have a good understanding of human behavior. And, given that knowledge, we should apply it to any interactions we have with other humans. In our research, we carefully weigh variables, look for confounds and other factors that will impact our results.  We need to consider these exact attributes when we design our courses and plan our class sessions.

Be aware of how students learn, read the work by others, and ADAPT it to your context, to your classes, to your teaching and to your students. Only you, as the instructor, know what strategies would fit in your courses. Consult with your teaching center, or others on campus that know about the literature.  However, when translating that into your classes, consult with your experience, your expertise, and your own knowledge to craft a classroom experience that maximizes learning for your students and does so in a way that is authentic, effective, genuine and productive.


Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Blasiman, R. N., (2017). Distributed concept reviews improve exam performance. Teaching of Psychology, 44 (1), 46-50.

Brown, P. C., McDaniel, M., & Roediger, H. (2014). Make it stick : the science of successful learning. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 157-163.

Lang, J. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. New York: Jossey-Bass.

McDaniel, M. A., Agarwal, P. K., Huelser, B. J., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger III, H. L. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology103(2), 399.

Sana, F., Fenesi, B, & Kim, J.A. (2011). A case study of the introductory psychology blended learning model at McMaster University. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2(1), 6.

Whiffen, J. W., & Karpicke, J. D. (2017). The role of episodic context in retrieval practice effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43, 1036-1046.

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