Thoughts on Learning and Forgetting | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 

Gibbs opens this article with a story familiar, surely, to all of us; of sitting in a lecture theatre some years ago... and that being more or less all you remember about the course. He writes:

Most of what we are taught, much of what we learn, is lost, or at least not easily retrievable. It is possible that some of my economics course is buried in my brain somewhere and that a cunning set of prompts might enable me to retrieve a few fragments. But it is certainly not available to me as I read an article in the newspaper about some national economic issue and try to remember what Gross Domestic Product includes and what it does not.
— Gibbs, 2014

As a student who couldn't tell you much about some of the courses I took in my first year of undergraduate study, I can testify to the truth of this statement. But as an early career teacher, this statement is initially rather depressing. So much thought and energy goes into reading the set texts, developing lesson plans, and delivering those lessons - only to think that what the students recall about our lessons in ten, fifteen years time may be fragmentary at best. 

However, the important thing is to take this fact of the matter on board when it comes to designing learning and setting outcomes for the class. Rather than worry about the deterioration of a student's factual knowledge of Plato, can I help them develop the skills to read Platonic dialogues in the future? Can I show them the resources available to teach themselves and reinforce their understanding? The skills and strategies for reading, discussing, and understanding philosophy should endure beyond the factual recall of the texts themselves.

There is some respite from the question of "will my students forget everything we learn together?" in Gibbs' discussion relating this fact of forgetting to assessment styles. A study of Cognitive Psychology students at the Open University that showed that, many years later, many of the students had forgotten much of what they had learned on the course. Achievement in the exams did not correlate with what they could remember, however; it was achievement in the essays and coursework that predicted the long term recall of concepts. He writes:

The kind of learning students usually do for exams often has short-lasting consequences, while the kind of learning they do when they are trying to understand something well enough to write about it in assignments often has much longer lasting consequences. This is termed a ‘deep approach’ – an intention to make sense, to understand, to relate ideas together, and so on.
— Gibbs, 2014

Exams rely on memorisation of facts for recall in that one 2 or 3 hour window of furious writing that comes at the end of the course. Learning for exams is often shallow; a re-reading of notes, rote memorisation of dates, and stacks of flash-cards. This kind of knowledge is likely to slip away when not being actively cultivated in preparation for that one opportunity for recall.

Coursework and essays, on the other hand, ask students to critically engage with the material from the course. This leads to a deep approach to the material: students can return to different papers and primary sources they've read, follow the citations in them, explore the limits of their essay question. The process of relating ideas and concepts together in this way makes the students more likely to be able to remember the material further down the line.

The upside of this is that, in this aspect, tutorial teaching resembles more an essay than an exam. The aim of tutorial discussion is to practice evaluating and analysing the text, concept, or other material, much like they have to do in their formal assessments. It is the 'deep' approach to learning in practice, as I encourage the students to relate what they have learned to other concepts, whether those are from their lectures, their wider reading, or their own experience.

What this means is that, hopefully, if a student remembers anything of their course in a decade's time, then it is likely to be our tutorial discussions.