Challenging. Illuminating. Rewarding. A masterpiece of organization and clarity. Frederick Reif's Applying Cognitive Science to Education has been a privilege to read.
Reif, a former University of California physics professor whose research interests shifted to education and cognition, states that "College or university science...have ordinarily not studied psychological or educational issues.... They rarely think much about the underlying thought and learning processes." His goal is to provide a coherent introduction to issues concerning knowledge, thinking, and learning, in the belief that a better understanding could "help to improve instruction and significantly facilitate students' learning." His intended audience includes science and math instructors from the high school level up, textbook writers, and students preparing for careers in teaching.
To highlight some pertinent points, chapters 1 and 2 introduce thinking about thinking and some basics of intellectual performance. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss knowledge and its basic components and concepts; in science these must be precisely specified to be reliably used. Yet student knowledge is often faulty, creating many difficulties (chapter 5); instructional suggestions are provided.
Chapter 6 discusses memory and its management. Recall of information in long-term memory is facilitated by active processing; more connections with prior knowledge create more retrieval paths. New information may interfere with recall of other information, especially if common elements are shared; such interference effects are common in courses with many concepts in rapid succession. Stored knowledge decays with time, but memories are refreshed with practice, especially if adequately spaced; cramming results in rapid forgetting. Active incorporation of information into a coherent knowledge structure is important. Students often mistakenly believe that mere listening or reading, without elaborate processing, leads to acquisition of usable knowledge.
Chapter 7 concerns the description of procedures for task performance. Students often learn little in "cookbook labs" where procedures are followed without understanding. Reif describes how, when he was a student, "mindless procedures" led to his dislike of chemistry. Alternatively, labs can emphasize problem solving; students are given a goal and asked to design and perform an experiment to achieve it.
Chapter 9 discusses organization; common forms are lists, networks, and hierarchies. But student knowledge is often poorly organized and fragmentary, and therefore not readily remembered. An explicit structure into which course content is embedded is important. Also discussed are communication difficulties. Information provided by an expert comes from a well-organized knowledge structure, but a novice receiver, lacking this structure, may be overwhelmed by a jumble of facts; transmission has not resulted in communication.
Chapter 14 discusses intellectual efficiency. Performance can become automatic (lacking conscious awareness) with practice. The nervous system is mostly subconscious; only a small part performs conscious processing and deliberate thinking. Experts often are unaware of their automatic use of knowledge, which can impair their communication with beginners. Students, lacking the experience needed for efficiency, proceed laboriously with deliberate thought; great efficiency is too much to expect in a single course. Letting students make mistakes and helping them learn from these is better than merely giving sage advice.
Chapter 15 discusses knowledge quality. Often, students are not concerned with this; they may not bother to check their work and make few attempts to learn from mistakes. Ways to actively engage them in assessing quality are suggested. Very useful is an explicit awareness of one's own knowledge and thinking (metacognition).
Chapter 16 contrasts the ambitious goals and exacting thought processes in science with the looser approach of everyday life. Students often import thinking from the everyday domain into the scientific domain, and thus encounter difficulties. They may not realize the importance of the more general cognitive framework into which factual information is embedded.
Chapters 18 through 21 detail the design and implementation of instruction – an "ambitious goal that is difficult to achieve." Chapter 20, in part, incorporates previous topics. It also discusses maintaining a reasonable cognitive load; if information is excessive, little or no learning occurs. Chapter 21 considers teaching one or a few students; individual tutoring is probably the most effective method. Learning by teaching, self-teaching, and assessments are also considered.
Chapter 22 discusses the challenges of teaching many students and considers the advantages and disadvantages of lectures, textbooks, and homework. Chapter 23 discusses newer methods: interactive lectures, cooperative learning, self-paced courses, distance learning, and computer-assisted learning. Present technology could greatly improve education.
The last chapter comments on the challenges ahead. Even the best instruction is often ineffective; more extensive use of computer tutors would be helpful. Reif views education as still in its early stages – like medicine a century ago, before most practitioners were taught biochemistry or physiology. But he sees realistic possibilities for transformation into more of an effective applied science (built upon insights about underlying mechanisms). Important for progress in this direction would be changed perspectives in the many universities that value research excellence but are content with educational adequacy.
For me, this book provides a valuable framework for understanding numerous teaching observations. It inspires my trust; when I encounter a difficulty – an abstraction I do not immediately grasp – I safely assume that the deficiency is within me. I will return to it many times to further assimilate the extensive content.
The appeal of this book will vary among the broad diversity of biology teachers. Those who tend toward greater introspection may become thoroughly immersed; others may find themselves merely gleaning the gems that are sprinkled throughout.
ELIZABETH COWLES teaches freshman biology, biochemistry, and entomology at Eastern Connecticut State University. She has taught at the undergraduate and graduate college levels for over 20 years. Her interests include insect toxicology, protein characterization, and astrobiology. Cowles holds degrees in biology and biochemistry from Cornell University and Michigan State University. Her address is Department of Biology, ECSU, 83 Windham St., Willimantic, CT 06226; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.