Most of the professors I had at West Chester University were not as bad as the one I mentioned in the last Blog post. One of the best ones I had was for Educational Psychology. He was a Thomistic philosopher.
One of the main themes of his course is something that I always incorporate into my teaching. It's simply that the amount of learning that goes on is in direct proportion to the amount of thinking that the learner puts into it.
It seems obvious: the more a student is paying attention, the more he will learn.
But there is a bit more to it than that. Even if a student is listening to every word and can even repeat back exactly what was just said, that's not enough. How much he learns depends on how hard he is thinking about what he is being taught.
One way to get students thinking about what is being taught is by eliciting their opinion about it. To form an opinion takes at least a little bit of thought, beyond simply listening and short-term remembering. First you have to think about something before you can say what you think about it! So if students are able to formulate opinions on something, then they must be thinking about it, and that's the first step to learning.
Another thing that requires thought is argument. It can be a good thing when a student disagrees with what the teacher is saying! It means he must be thinking about what he is being taught. It can also be of practical value, giving the teacher an opportunity to clarify what was being taught so the student is better able to understand it and see where he made a mistake about it. But the most important advantage of it is that it requires thinking. It's not always productive: for instance, if a student is just in a bad mood and is disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing without having any reason for what he's saying, or is just trying to feel or look smarter than the teacher, or if a student's only argument against something is "Mommy says.." or "Daddy says.." because that does not require any deep thinking. But when a student argues against something he is being taught with a reasonable argument, even if he's never convinced and continues to disagree with it, at least he has learned something. I always prefer a student who disagrees with something I say over a student who says nothing because he just doesn't care.
This also means that "subliminal learning" is not possible.
And it is why cramming for an exam is such a bad idea. Simply being able to recall the correct responses to questions until a test is over is no more productive than jotting down the answers on one's arm before the test. Thinking takes more time than that, and learning requires thinking. This is also why trying to teach or learn too fast is less effective than allowing for time to think about what's being learned.
There are many different styles and methods of teaching, some work better than others. But the most important thing is not as much the method of teaching that is used, as whether the student is made to concentrate and think hard about what is being taught.