Most of us assume it’s up to someone else—a teacher, administrator, employer—to measure how much we’ve learned. But when we do this, we lose something very valuable: our own educational narrative. We may remember which subjects we excelled in and which subjects we failed, or recall when and where we learned particular bits of information, but for the most part we can’t make sense of our learning as one long, unfolding event. And cognitive science has confirmed that the whole is, quite crucially, more than the sum of its parts.
Many employers complain that today’s graduates seem to have learned nothing at university. But we know it’s not for lack of trying, because many students have the same complaint. So how can this be? How is it that so many students spend four years “learning,” only to graduate with scattered knowledge about a handful of topics?
One problem is the limited nature of human memory, and the fact that our assessment systems don’t compliment the way the brain works. For example, teachers should be testing students more frequently to support retention, and with different media to help forge more connections. They should be discouraging the use of highlighters and the practice of re-reading, and encouraging self-quizzing and spaced study sessions.
Another issue, seldom visited but equally important, is that students aren’t encouraged to assess their own learning. Instead, they’re taught to memorise a unit here and a unit there, each one discrete and self-contained, then wait for a grade from some higher authority. That grade is meant to reflect how much a learner knows about a subject, and as soon as it’s administered, however accurately, it stands as a permanent label of progress, not to mention potential.
Shouldn’t each of us, with our unique backgrounds and study habits, have the most authority on our progress? Shouldn’t it be easiest for us, as individual learners, to determine our strengths and weaknesses in order to improve? When we assess our own progress, learning becomes one fluid process, whereby courses connect and build off each other, even years apart. We can see where we’ve been and where we’re going, and why it may take longer to achieve one goal versus another. It’s not that we should have the only word on our progress—outside feedback is necessary and good—but we do need to be part of the conversation. And when we are, it’s not only our motivation that receives a boost, but also our brain.
Why Self-Assessment Is Good for the Brain
Imagine for a moment that, upon entering the public education system, everyone is required to create a personal learning portfolio, meant to last through university. In the portfolio are the usual samples of work, graded assignments, and notes. But there are also journal entries, hundreds of them, documenting your thoughts and reflections on what you have (and haven’t) learned. Imagine being able to go back and read these entries, one year or ten years later, to reflect on your learning journey as a whole. How might this influence the way you approach learning in general?
Researchers at HEC Paris, Harvard Business School, and the University of North Carolina have found that reflecting directly after a lesson increases individuals’ performance the next time they return to the material.
The researchers divided participants into groups and asked them to solve a series of brain teasers. After completing the first round, one group received instructions to think about what they had done, and then to write about the strategies they had used. According to reports, when participants in this group completed a second round of brain teasers, they performed 18 percent better than those who hadn’t reflected between rounds.
In a field study, this discrepancy was even more striking. The researchers divided employees in a job training program into groups, and for ten days of the program, some of the employees were asked to reflect on what they had learned for 15 minutes each day. When the employees were given assessments at the end of their training, those in the reflection groups performed 23 percent better than those who hadn’t been given time to reflect, according to reports.
According to the researchers, reflection leads to a stronger feeling of self-efficacy, which in turn leads to improved performance.
“When we stop, reflect, and think about learning, we feel a greater sense of self-efficacy,” Francesca Gino, one of the study’s authors, told Forbes. “We’re more motivated and we perform better afterward.”
Another recent study found that brain mechanisms engaged when people allow their minds to rest and reflect on things they’ve learned before may boost later learning.
Margaret Schlichting, a graduate student researcher at the University of Texas-Austin, and Alison Preston, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, administered two learning tasks in which participants were asked to memorise different series of associated photo pairs. Between the tasks, participants rested and could think about anything they chose, but brain scans found that the ones who used that time to reflect on what they had learned earlier in the day fared better on tests pertaining to what they learned later, especially where small threads of information between the two tasks overlapped. Participants seemed to be making connections that helped them absorb information later on, even if it was only loosely related to something they learned before.
“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning,” says Preston. “We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.”
“Nothing happens in isolation,” says Preston. “When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”
So there you have it. Reflection isn’t some wishy-washy, new-age teaching strategy meant to bore students to death. It actually improves performance. And that’s why it’s such a powerful tool in the learning process. Reflection helps us organise, make sense of, and better remember what we’ve learned. Below are five ways self-assessment through reflection can aid learning.
5 Benefits of Self-Assessment:
Interpretation is a fundamental part of learning, but rarely do we take the time to interpret the learning process itself. Did it take you very long to learn a new concept? Would more context or background have helped? Are you finished studying or do you need another session? Interpreting your own learning helps you recognise patterns and habits that you can adjust for optimal retention.
Most of us don’t take the time to mentally organise individual concepts into more general patterns of cause-and-effect, or to break large concepts down into smaller points. Usually it’s an instructor’s job to do this as he or she designs a lesson, but there’s no guarantee it will be done effectively. The advanatage of self-assessment is that you can give yourself the opportunity to organise information however you want. The result is stronger connections between concepts and, ultimately, better learning.
When you assess your own learning, you make connections between all sorts of things you wouldn’t otherwise think about. You see the relationships between learning environment, study habits, instructional methods, subjectmatter, etc., and over time it becomes possible to manipulate these factors in order to best suit your learning preferences.
Once you reflect on what you’ve learned, what you haven’t, and what you’d like to, you will have a much better idea of how to guide your own learning. And you’ll save yourself a ton of time. Imagine sitting down to study for the GRE and having a written summary of your strengths and weaknesses in algebra, which you recorded four years ago while studying for the SAT. What a time-saver!
How often do we “repeat history” when it comes to learning? And how often is it because we haven’t reviewed or used a piece of information since we first learned it? The more we think about something we’ve learned—whether through written, spoken, or reflective means—the more likely we are to remember it.
The 10 Essentials of Self-Assessment
At the most fundamental level, self-assessment is about being more aware. You could call it mindfulness or metacognition, self-reflection or introspection–whatever term makes the most sense to you. The important thing is that you take the time to do it, and once you’ve gotten yourself into the habit of it, it will be easier to view learning as something you have control over.
Here are the ten steps we suggest you begin with.
1. Record what you know and what you don’t.
You can determine the right time to do this for yourself, whether it’s after a study session, a lecture, or even a test. The point is to do it, because most of us don’t. Most of us passively absorb information in the hopes of retaining it, and this is simply not enough.
2. Measure notes taken against material remembered.
Is there a positive correlation between the amount of notes you take and the amount of information you remember come test time? If not, you may want to rethink your note-taking habits, especially since you are sacrificing your attention to the lecture if you are constantly writing things down. Maybe you should try tape-recording the lecture instead, and writing notes later.
3. Test yourself frequently and in different ways.
You won’t really know what you know until you test yourself. So do it frequently, daily even, and in different formats. If you used flashcards yesterday, challenge yourself to give a mini-lecture on it today. The more variety, the better your brain will remember it.
4. Measure retention over time.
If the goal is to retain information for as long as possible, you’ll need to keep reviewing it occasionally over time. This is where learning portfolios can really help. But you’ll need to start seeing beyond mid-terms and finals, toward real-world situations in which you can use the material to your advantage. (If you can recall it in ten years’ time, that is…)
5. Note your interest level.
The courses you struggle with are not always the courses you find uninteresting. And the courses you find uninteresting aren’t always the ones you struggle with. When you don’t get the grades you want, identify what the real reason is and take steps to solve the problem yourself.
6. Test your ability to relay information to others.
The “true test,” in my opinion. If you can’t explain a concept to someone else, you haven’t really learned it.
7. Connect new material with prior knowledge.
This is something only you can do, despite how much background or context an instructor tries to provide. You are the only one who knows your “proximal zone of development,” and therefore the only one who can connect new material with prior knowledge in a way that helps you remember both.
8. Test recall out of context.
Why is it so hard to answer trivia questions? Because they force you to produce information out of context. But that’s exactly what makes a champion quiz player so impressive: the ability to recall a detail or fact completely out of the blue, without associative clues or the original context in which it was first learned. One memory technique, called interleaved practice, suggests that alternating flashcards from different subjects within the same study session is actually better than keeping the subjects separate.
9. Make progress more personal.
“Progress” is not about test scores and grades; it’s about learning. Becoming more involved in our own learning early on, through a personal portfolio or other means, will make it easier to actually care about it and to think of it as an ongoing, interconnected process.
10. Measure study habits against results.
There’s no use employing the same study strategy time after time if it doesn’t work. So how do you know whether it works or not? Your test results and grades should give you some indication. But while most of us simply aim to “study harder” next time, we should instead aim to “study differently,” acknowledging that progress is in our control.