Can finding a better way to convey a concept improve how well it is learned?

Researchers have found that by conveying a concept in a better way, we can vastly improve how well it is learned and in my opinion, this is an extremely important issue in the field of education.

If you only want to read one thing about this topic I would recommend Biederman and Shiffrar (1987).

This experiment gives a dramatic demonstration of how finding a better way of teaching something improves how well it is learned. You will struggle to find a better example of this in the literature.

Why is this topic important?

A misleading notion held by many educators is that authentic learning is the best and consequently students are frequently educated using implicit learning methods, i.e. the learning is incidental and the student is unaware of what they are learning. This is also known as discovery learning as the student has to learn mostly unaided. Whilst it may seem a rational assumption that this way of teaching is beneficial, it is not always efficient to learn in this way, with Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) arguing that there is no proof that discovery learning is in any way beneficial. Instead, guidance is often more effective and it is, therefore, important for the teacher to find the best way to convey a concept. Biederman and Shiffrar have provided a good example of this with their chick sexing experiment.

What is chick sexing?

Experts examine chicks when they are born to find out their sex as splitting up the chicks according to their sex saves money in feeding costs and stops male-female rivalry. Originally, it was the Japanese who mastered the technique and in the 1920s, they brought it to America and set up chicken sexing schools. It takes 6 to 8 weeks of training to classify chicks with just 80% accuracry and the technique takes years to master. Expert chick sexers can accurately determine the sex of chicks in 98% of cases.

Chick Sexing

The picture above shows how the chicken is held during the sexing process. The chick's eyes have been blacked out to protect it's identity (Amazing what you can find in a psychology paper!)

Biederman and Shiffrar's chick sexing experiment

With the help of a highly experienced chick sexer named Mr. Carlson, Biederman and Shiffrar were able to come up with a leaflet containing diagrams and instructions for chick sexing. An example from the leaflet can be seen below.

Chick Sexing

After just 1-minute of implicit training with this leaflet, naïve subjects could correctly determine the gender of chicks in 84% of cases whereas professional sexers who received between 6 and 8 weeks of exlicit training had an average accuracy of only 72%. These results suggest that explicit learning is more effective and efficient than implicit learning. In other words, if the teacher provides explicit instructions focussing the attention of the learner to the critical features of the concept, performance can be greatly improved in a short period of time.



Key Reference

Biederman, I. & Shiffrar, M.M. (1987) Sexing day old chicks: A case study, an expert systems analysis of a difficult perceptual-learning task, JEP: Learning, memory & cognition, 13 (4) 640-645

If you want to know more

Baddeley, A. (1997) (2nd edition) Human memory: theory and practice p.336 (Hove: Psychology Press)Hendrickson, G., and Schroeder, W. H. (1941). Transfer of training in learning to hit a submerged target. Journal of Educational Psychology, 32, 205-213Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E. (2006) Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75 - 86