Education and Psychology

By Tim Groenendyk

The internet promises many opportunities to increase our knowledge but it also offers just as many to side track us. Paul Ginns is using psychology to shed light on how distractions like the internet can inhibit how much information we absorb in the classroom and beyond… with a little help from Doctor Who.

Paul Ginns

“Your job, as a teacher, extends beyond the classroom. Your job is to make partners of parents and help them understand the optimal conditions for learning." Paul Ginns.

Dr Paul Ginns, a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Education and Social Work, realises that we learn best when instructional methods and study environment are at their most ideal.

“We live in an age of distractions. If people are serious about their learning then they need to actually monitor and eliminate distractions while studying,” explained Ginns.

One of Paul’s major research focuses is the application of cognitive science principles to instructional design.

In other words, using psychology to improve how we absorb information.

The bedrock of this research is cognitive load theory, which holds that the mind has a limited capacity to process information at any one time.

“Cognitive load theory makes a very strong argument that many forms of teaching and learning activities, instructional materials and behaviours are delivered in such a way that overloads working memory.

“Working memory is what we are conscious of from moment to moment.

“If you overload working memory, which is very limited in its capacity and duration, then learning is likely to be sub-optimal.

“People may not learn anything, or much less when compared to learning with materials designed with an understanding of working memory strengths and limitations.”

“The other component of cognitive architecture that cognitive load theory focuses on is long term memory – the store of everything that we’ve learnt during the course of our lives.”

Tying long term and working memories together are constructs known as schemas – fully formed prior knowledge.

A schema could be knowledge of how to get to work, build a house, or write an essay.

“If I say I know how to write a journal article, it’s a constellation of knowledge: how to type, how to spell, there’s a whole bunch of little facts, but over-arching that is a sense of the process from beginning to end.

“If people don’t have relevant schemas to the topic that you’re discussing it’s likely that you’ll shoot over their heads, at worst. Good teaching will be very much a meeting between the teacher’s and the student’s minds.”

Paul is mindful of CLT in his own teaching, and brings tools and experiments from his research into the classroom.

Halfway through some of his first year lectures, after illustrating the implications of working memory, he’ll ask his students to review their notes and write a paragraph describing how these implications work.

“While they’re doing that, silently, I’ll crack open a YouTube video of a song called ‘Here come the drums’ from a Doctor Who episode.

“There’ll be a bit of confusion and laughing and I’ll say ‘Come on, get back to work! Two implications’.

“They’ll try to do so. And I’ll turn the volume up, and then start dancing around the classroom.

“And eventually it’s farcical. There’s huge noise going on as well as this ridiculous video clip. The thought of them actually engaging with that task and using their minds becomes impossible.

“There’s been any number of experiments of the negative effects on learning while listening to music.”

However farcical Paul’s demonstration, it makes a valid point, especially to teachers. Children, and parents, have ample access to the internet and the many devices on which we can access it – such as smart phones – have increased the potential for distraction.

“Your job, as a teacher, extends beyond the classroom. Your job is to make partners of parents and help them understand the optimal conditions for learning.

“If they’re checking Facebook, or instant messaging, then it’s unlikely they’re engaged in the task at hand.

“If you receive really good instruction, what you learn in a couple of minutes or a half hour may last you the rest of your life. I think that level of focus is easy to forget but very important.”