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Repetition and Confidence

As a tutor working with my students, I have encountered a recent trend in education that I call "spiraling." The idea behind this tactic is that, instead of breaking subjects and levels of work into distinct categories, the curriculum introduces students to concepts and skills early on and then circles back to them through the years, adding more in-depth knowledge each time. For instance, instead of learning everything about quadratic equations in Algebra 2, a math student might first encounter them in a limited basis in Pre-algebra, a little more in Algebra I, and then even more in Algebra 2. This method has obvious benefits.

First, classes can move quickly through the material because the focus is on exposure and familiarity instead of mastery. Second, studies on learning have shown that people retain information better when it is learned in spaced sessions. Third, it encourages students to think critically and creatively about the concepts at hand. Because the students do not have to concentrate on perfecting one skill by performing it over and over, they should, in theory, be less bored and more engaged. Indeed, the spiraling technique reflects a more general trend away from memorization and mastery towards creative thinking. I am forever an advocate of creative and critical thinking where the student develops a “deep” knowledge of the curriculum and a capacity to infer new ideas and connections. However, I would argue that some students do not mesh well with the spiraling system. Many students have no problem flying from one skill or concept to the next as long as they get relatively decent grades, but students with low confidence feel lost with this technique. While they may learn from the technique in the way intended, the lack of a sense of mastery is unsettling to them. The negative feelings they experience while tackling the work sometimes has more impact on their confidence than their test grades do. I have seen these feelings build into a state of panic, which, in turn, starts to bleed over into homework and tests further destroying the student’s confidence. In tutoring, I have found that students with extremely low confidence and high levels of math anxiety respond well to practicing a skill more than the text or teacher requires, even more than needed to improve grades. They also do well when focused on one skill at a time and feel uncomfortable with the variety that keeps other students interested. This kind of repetition would hinder students with higher confidence levels by causing them to tune out and disengage. But, for a student with low confidence, whipping out the answer to a specific type of problem ten times in a row brings a smile and a sense of accomplishment. I try to remember that for them, the most important thing is not whether or not they are learning things but whether or not they feel like they are learning. Hence, while educators look down on memorization and repetition in terms of their cognitive effectiveness, it is important not to forget their emotional impact.

Comments

There are a lot of variables in play here. Of course, any given method can be effective. Sometimes, I think it really comes down to course design--some ways of presenting information lend themselves to more or less flexibility. Now, I understand this particular example is a collegiate one, but spiraling would probably be a less-than-desired approach to teaching organic chemistry (which, no matter how you look at it, is a very memorization-intensive course). However, for other courses, it might be very beneficial. It's an idea that I'll keep in mind, but as an aspiring instructor, it's easy to forget that you can lose your way if you don't know where you're going. From a practical position, I'd say that it's up to the instructor to look at the big picture, and plan what they feel is the most efficient route. Far easier said than done, but that's the way most things are. You'll never know unless you try, right? Regardless of the above, repetition is inherent in learning. As a child, I think I burned myself on the stove a few times before it all came together. I'm sure most fall into that category as well.
We have several Latin language texts based on the spiraling method these days. While, as you say, it gets the kids familiar with concepts, unfortunately they are getting to harder levels of the language without the mastery they need to figure things out in the right way. I really like the method, the way it reinforces ideas throughout lessons, but it takes a great deal more to make sure they are getting the information, rather than just gliding over something they need to know.