Harvard Professor: Learn 3 Minutes a Day

Some educators are turning to short online learning activities as a preferred approach to engage students.

Take SpacedEd.  It offers students the chance to “learn most anything in 3 minutes a day.”  Originally developed by Dr B. Price Kerfoot, a Harvard Medical School professor, for medical school students, the method has been proven through 10 rigorous studies to increase knowledge by up to 50% and strengthen retention of concepts up to two years.

SpacedEd feeds short bits of info to users in small spurts of questions and answers.  Learners browse a directory of courses ranging from medical subjects to bartending, music theory and fantasy football.  “Courses consist entirely of questions and answers.  They are sent to you in small amounts (typically 1 or 2 a day) on a regular schedule via email, the Web or RSS … Questions repeat based on answers … Get a question wrong and it repeats sooner.  Get it right one or more times in a row and it is retired from the course.  Retire all questions to complete the course.”

This method is based on two psychological findings: the spacing effect and testing effect.  The “spacing effect” refers to the finding that “information which is presented and repeated over spaced intervals is learned and retained more effectively, in comparison to traditional ‘binge-and-purge’ methods of education.”  In other words, learning over extended time periods works better than cramming.  The “testing effect” refers to the finding that “the long-term retention of information is significantly improved by testing learners on this information.  Testing is not merely a means to measure a learner’s level of knowledge, but rather causes knowledge to be stored more effectively in long-term memory.”

Dr. Maria Droujkova of Natural Math agrees that short (albeit a little longer than that of SpacedEd) educational experiences are the way of the future.  In fact, she already sees it in innovative communities, such as homeschoolers and OER/Open Educational Resources communities.   She believes that over the next 15 years some of what’s seen now in the more innovative learning communities will hit the mainstream namely: “Rapid prototyping of everything, short cycles of evaluation and change, correspondingly, short educational experiences.  Mov[ing] from ‘package deal’ to handpicking books, teachers, methods for each child for each 2-4 months of each subject.”

Here are other practices Dr. Droujkova predicts mainstream educators will adopt, from more experimental online learning communities, over the next 15 years:

  • Focus on dreams: personal meaning and significance for each learner, rather than one-size-fits-all, or even “personalized” but still global curricula.  “Math for poets” does not even begin to cover it!
  • High value placed on engagement, love for subjects and personal relevance of activities both for activity leaders and for all participants.  It is expected that participants and especially leaders of activities care.
  • Deconstruction of “age” and shift to ability levels and styles.  You frequently see age spreads of 3-6 years within each group activity.  Grouping by age is rare and loose (e.g. “teens and tweens” rather than “14yo”).
  • Barter economies, gift economies, network economies, coops and other innovative (or age-old) alternative forms of education financing.  Interestingly, the largest benefits of homeschooling as far as standardized tests and college admissions go happen in the poorest families with lowest-educated parents.
  • Co-production models of learning, where learners and teachers are curriculum co-creators, project learning, unit studies and other active learning models.
  • “Nakama” groups, small local tight friend and family groups getting together to achieve their goals, and tied personally as well as educationally.  High value placed on friendships, and day-to-day educational decisions built around personal ties.
  • Active, robust local communities and global support networks, for anything from finding an appropriate math program for [the] highly gifted ADHD Asperger kid who likes computers, to helping a family through tough economic times.
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