How to Make ASTRO 101 Classes More Memorable

Tim Slater, tslater@caperteam.com

At the end of the year, the perennial question ASTRO101 astronomy professors quietly ask themselves, “Well, what exactly did my students learn this year?” Yet, the answer of “what learning is occurring?” is often more elusive than one would hope. Perhaps surprising, one might think the question of what was learned is an easy intellectual pursuit. It seems only natural to assume that one could readily test students about their knowledge of a particular topic as they enter the class on the first day, and then again as they leave their final examination and subtract the difference to arrive at a quantitative measure. Although it sounds easy in theory, it turns out to be much more difficult in practice. As Michael Bennett, a previous Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and DeAnza College professor likes to quip, “the only difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference.”

The first challenge is how to determine what to use as a fair pre- and post-test. Although some exist, like the Test Of Astronomy STandards–TOAST, these tests are notoriously difficult to create that actually measure what you want to measure. A second problem, even more challenging than the first, is that students don’t usually being enthusiastic to take a pre- and post-test and often require cajoling to participate. Although there are notable astronomy education researchers around who are very good at systematically managing confounding variables, sampling difficulties, and measurement validity issues, they rarely often allocate considerable intellectual energy to this particular version of querying learning.

We’ve known for decades that students fail to retain significant information when attending an hour-long college astronomy lecture. It’s not just today’s millennial students either, but was true even when we professors were college students years and years back. Few of us learned our astronomy by listening to a lecturer go on-and-on about the wonders of the universe, even when using Kodak slide carousel projectors. We didn’t learn much of it watching Carl Sagan on television either. Instead, for many of us, it was the outside of class work, pouring over the textbook, and talking with our peers and professor out of class, perhaps even long after sunset in the observatory, where we learned most of our astronomy. And, for the vast majority of us, we didn’t actually learn our juiciest astronomy until we began to formally teach astronomy in a classroom, share the night sky under the dome, or in the park talking with the public. The real learning of astronomy, as it turns out, is much more about social transmission than solitary book learning or listening.

Insights from the field of cognitive science provide tremendous insight into helping professors increase the amount of learning that can occur in ASTRO101. However, in order to leverage these insights, it helps to reframe our departure point from “What did students learn?” to the far less depressing and more action-oriented question of “What can I do to enhance what students remember about my ASTRO101 class?” In other words, my thesis is that informed ASTRO 101 professors can dramatically increase their success by focusing on memory, rather than on learning. As it turns out, memory is much more malleable than you might think.

From the perspective of the cognitive scientist, our human brain memory system is composed of two distinct components: working memory and long term memory. Working memory is the highly fragile and quickly fleeting notions and concepts that we keep in our head for a very short period of time before they are dismissed. Where did you last see your car keys? What was the name of the check-out clerk at the grocery store? How much was a gallon of milk when I was last at the store? What did I have for lunch yesterday? What was the name of the fifth brightest star in Aurigae. These are things we “know” only for a short-time. They are best characterized as things we don’t dwell on very much.

At any one time, human beings on average can manage only about seven things in their working memory. That’s how many digits are in a telephone number sans area code. That’s about how many variables you can monitor simultaneously when driving a car. You’ve probably noticed that if you’re driving in a rain storm, you usually can’t do extra things easily like talk on your cell phone that you can normally do in good weather. If you want to watch your working memory in action, multiply in your head two 2-digit numbers: 12 times 37. With some concentration, many of us can do it. But, instead, if I challenge you to multiply in your head two 3-digit numbers—123 times 456—most of us will quickly give up in frustration because that multiplication problem exceeds our working memory size, whereas the two 2-digit multiplication problem did not.

A critically important thing for upcoming master ASTRO 101 professors to become cognizant of is the nature of expertise. Experts are uniquely characterized by cognitive scientists as people who can collect and chunk information into packages to better squeeze more into their working memory. Novices, by definition, do not have the ability to chunk information into their working memory slots. As an example, consider when I say, “stars of Orion” to an experienced ASTRO 101 professor, that professor immediately loads as one single unit the location, shape, star colors, brightness, and star names into a single working memory slot occupying only a small 1/7-sized portion of their available working memory. A novice, on the other hand, fills all seven working memory slots with the seven brightest stars of Orion, and is unable to attend to colors or brightnesses let alone right ascension, declination, hour angle or even mythological origin of its name. This is a tremendous problem for ASTRO 101 professors, who can easily talk about Orion’s parts and compare it to other constellations or asterisms as well its altitude at different geographic latitudes when a novice is simply overwhelmed. The end implication here is that professional research astronomers are naturally inclined to label some astronomy education research-informed curriculum innovations as too simplistic for their students when in fact it instead presses the limits on students’ ability to comprehend. This is an intellectually precarious predicament. Our expertise gets in our way of understanding that we are fundamentally different than our students. My point is that there is a limit to how much information you can force feed students, and it is far less than most new astronomy professors initially think.

The other component of memory is long term memory. Long term memory permanently holds the names, numbers, images, cartoons, movies, and stories that are burned so deeply into our brains that we are loath to forget. You might recall things that happened to you decades ago— the birth of a child, advice an elder shared with you, or how you felt about the unique smell of a special place. These long term memories are also those things you’ve rehearsed time and time again—the names of stars, the sequence of moon phases, and the start-up sequence of your favorite dome. These are notions, both positive and negative, that you couldn’t forget if you tried.

Before you quickly jump to the natural question of how does one move things from short-term working memory into long-term permanent storage memory, let’s consider how these two things are different. Working memory is characterized by information flowing into it and then rapidly flowing out of it when the brain perceives it is no longer needed. This is partially to explain why we have few memories of the first years of our life—we simply don’t need the information cluttering up the mental works. (It is quite probably related to our infant-selves not yet having a sufficiently developed language to describe and encode those experiences into long term memory, but that’s a different article.) It also explains why we are able to completely ignore than thousands of individual pieces of irrelevant information that enter our sensory system when driving, and only pay attention to the most relevant. Here is the rub: For many students, decontextualized factual information delivered rapidly in the lecture hall often easily flows in and out of working memory without sticking around long enough to be stored in long term memory. The key to getting things to soak around in the working memory area of the brain long enough to at least have a chance of getting stored into long term memory is that the audience must have sufficient time to think about it, to mull it over, to see how it relates to other thoughts, previous experiences, and emotions, all without being distracted by new information or images that crowd their way into limited working memory. What cognitive scientists tell us is that memory is the residue of thought.

Perhaps surprising, we’ve long known how to get ideas to stick inside people’s heads long enough for them to think about it deeply enough to produce memories. This seemingly simple keystone is through the long-held tradition of telling stories. Allow me to advance a seemingly unrelated but perhaps powerful example that has been widely used elsewhere: Consider as a person living in Western civilization, you are probably aware of a widespread book generally known as the Bible. You don’t need to be a spiritual person or brought up in a strictly following Jewish or Christian family to have heard of this book and know some of its important contents. Simply living in a westernized society is enough to consider this example. Here is your task: List the Ten Commandments the Lord gave his followers. Grab a piece of paper and make alist.

  • Yes, list all of them.
  • Yes, there are ten.
  • Yes, one is about murder, and another about adultery.
  • Keep going.
  • Don’t worry, take your time ….

Ok, by now you’ve probably grabbed your cell phone or computer or even a Bible and looked them up. How did you do? Unless you have developed a mnemonic device, most people reading this probably struggled with getting all ten, or perhaps, even half. Don’t worry if you didn’t get them all, this is common even among people who identify themselves as regularly attentive Bible students.

Instead, consider the answers to these questions: What happened to Adam in the Garden of Eden? What happened to his son Abel? How long did Noah spend in the Ark? How did Jonah try to hide from his omnipotent god? How many following disciples did Jesus have? (And, for bonus points: Where were the Ten Commandments handed down and to whom?) My experience seeing many people take this informal quiz is that people growing up in Western cultures generally remember most of these things. This seems to present a contradiction: How is it that people cannot readily remember 10 simple rules of life listed in the Bible even when raised in deeply religious homes whereas most people of widely varying faiths and experiences can often readily answer these and an surprisingly wide array of questions about perhaps not so important details about religious doctrine to which they sometimes rarely pay any attention to? The answer is again, stories. We most easily carry information within ourselves through stories, and have throughout much of history.

Humans are innately able to internalize details within stories much more efficiently than even the most eloquently presented facts. This is because stories contain elements that force the listener to engage in thinking, and this thinking results in storage in long term memory. The underlying mechanism is that if you have to think a lot about a notion, your brain decides that it must be important and stores it for later recall. Alternatively, if you don’t attend to an idea for very long, then your brain decides it probably isn’t very important to come back to it, and discards the briefly considered notion.

What are the elements of a story that cause one to ponder it long enough to remember it? First, stories usually follow a logical sequence of events—a sequence is easier to follow than randomly disconnected facts. Second, stories are characterized by cause and effect. Characters do things and there are consequences to those actions. Sometimes a listener agrees with the actions, and other times a listener disagrees with decision a character makes. This is important, albeit narcissistic—an engaged listener must decide if he or she would do the same thing in a given situation or not. Moreover, stories can’t possible relate all of the precise facts that an observer would see, so the active listener must make inferences. What’s fascinating here is that these emotional connections to the story sequence, the characters questionable actions, and inferences from the left out details that combine to make one’s brain decide to commit the story to long term memory. The bottom line is that engaging in a story requires active thinking, which is why stories are better remembered than rapid firing of precisely articulated and cleverly illustrated facts that leave no room for students’ interpretations.

Although the idea that it is what is left unsaid in a story that makes it more memorable can be a bit unsettling initially, it does hold up to examination. Imagine for a minute a series of powerful images you might have recently shown an audience: Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Martian Surface Water, Pluto’s IAU Vote, or TMT atop Maunakea. Its only natural to tell students about the images. What if, on the other hand, the images were used in conjunction with questions, rather than the facts? In the spirit of being provocative, consider alternative captions in the below:


JUST THE FACTS vs VAGUE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

IMAGE: Hubble Ultra Deep Field
-This picture shows more than 10,000 galaxies in a tiny region of space vs  Do astronomers compete against one another for highly limited telescope time?

IMAGE: Mars Phoenix Lander discovering water
-Water observed on Mars vs  How could a Faster-Better- Cheaper Mars Phoenix Lander, created from spare parts, find water beneath rockets?

IMAGE: 2006 IAU Vote on Pluto
-Pluto is now classified as a dwarf planet vs  Pluto is still there; but, why can’t smart humans agree on its category?

IMAGE: Artist’s Conception of Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea
-is being built in Hawai’i vs  Where should the next great new telescope be built?


My thesis here could naturally be misinterpreted as suggesting that facts are unimportant or that students don’t really care about hearing cool facts. In stark contrast, I am convinced that students really do want to hear about what’s it called, how big is it, how far away, and how did it get that way? What I am advocating here is that although precisely articulated and cleverly articulated facts are definitely cool, they are insufficient on their own to deeply engage the audience in a memorable experience. Given that memories are the residue of thinking, it behooves the compassionate ASTRO 101 professor to be sure that the students has the opportunity to ponder questions, make inferences, and be positioned to welcome the facts and figures available to them when they’re primed and ready. The implication from cognitive science is that astronomy lectures should be filled with ponderous questions and connected stories that the students can hang on to during each class. Taken together, all of this means that with purposeful effort, ASTRO 101 classrooms can be uniquely created to make meaningful and memorable connections between students and the cosmos.

Bibliography for Further Reading (Check Out the CAPER Team Amazon Book Store):

  • Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.
  • Levitt, S. D. (2014). Think like a freak: The authors of freakonomics offer to retrain your brain. Simon and Schuster.
  • Slater, S. J., Slater, T. F., & Bailey, J. M. (2010). Discipline-Based Education Research: A Scientist’s Guide. WH Freeman.
  • Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.
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