Learning Without Understanding

The following post is from Eric Brunsell, a science education professor at UW-Oshkosh. It ran last year on his blog Teaching Science 2.0, but I felt it is worth reblogging in light of my recent posts on Towers, Lab Groupings, and Grading which make important points about my classroom environment.

Name: ________________                        Period: ________  Date: _______


Please answer the following questions in complete sentences.  Each question is worth 3 points.

1.  What is the developer’s primary focus?

2. What is the retro encabulator capable of synchronizing?

3. What is the retro encabulator successfully being used in?

4. Where is the differential girdle spring located?

5. Extra Credit: what is the only new principle involved in the retro encabulator?

Name: ________________ Period: ________ Date: _______


Please answer the following questions in complete sentences. Each question is worth 3 points.

1. What do insects brush against to effectively cross-pollinate the flowers?

2. What do the markings and hairs on the Fox Glove flower act as?

3. Which species of plants have pollen grains smaller than those of insect pollinated flowers?

4. When the florets were growing, what was pollen transferred too?

5. Extra Credit: Which plant has evolved the “most interesting” for ensuring cross-pollination?

OK, so do these questions REALLY reflect current teaching of science? Take look at these questions from Glencoe’s General Physical Science textbook supplement:

Chapter 8 Quiz
1. When industries release hot water into streams and rivers, it is called _____. Hint
A. thermal expansion
B. thermal pollution
C. contamination
D. radioactive water

2. The state of matter that has a definite volume and a definite shape is _____. Hint
A. gas
B. liquid
C. plasma
D. solid

3. The most common state of matter is _____. Hint
A. gas
B. liquid
C. plasma
D. solid

Not sure about this one? Here is the hint:
Think about where most of the matter in our solar system is located.

4. Most pressure is measured in _____. Hint
A. grams
B. kilopascals
C. newtons
D. kilograms

5. Charles’s law states that the volume of _____ increases when the temperature increases, at constant pressure. Hint
A. a solid
B. a liquid
C. a gas
D. all matter

(Inspired by a classic)

How will I use this? I am going to give the Encabulator video as a HW assignment for my students and tell them there is a quiz the next day taken from the questions. I’ll play the whole thing up, totally serious. After the quiz, I think this will generate lively discussion about learning vs. understanding and my goals for the course.

Original post at Teaching Science 2.0

7 responses to “Learning Without Understanding

  1. Love it. Another powerful message here is to remind students that you want them to be comfortable saying “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What the heck is an encabulator?”

  2. I think we need one in every classroom. If we purchase one for $1000 per teachers, we can then expect them to make lesson plans that use it. I personally have been unable to incorporate technology without one.

    • ROFL!! Industrial automation is the way of the future. You want them to learn 21st century skills, don’t you?

      I’m blown away that the makers of the video got away with using actual trade names, corporate logos, and equipment. Wikipedia states that the video was made by Rockwell themselves, but I couldn’t find anything more definitive. If your students are more interested in cars, there’s also a Chrysler version.

  3. This is both hilarious and awesome and will be added to my teaching arsenal.

  4. This also makes me think of Derek Muller’s video where students actually think they understand the concepts because the presenter was confident and ‘clear’…and they could find AN answer to a question afterward. Could be another discussion point.

  5. I see this as a science experiment. To what extent is the ability to answer the quiz questions correlated to deep understanding? It is apparent that everyone can answer the questions, but no one has a deep understanding of the encabulator. So in the first case, the quiz shows no correlation. As an assessment tool, quizes about videos are ineffective because they can produce false positives.

    However, it is possible, based on the data here, that students learn the maximum amount of information in a video that makes sense, and that a quiz shows amount learned / amount possible. But if we say that nothing can be learned about the encabulator, then the grade should be infinity! But whatever is tested is assumed to be capable of being learned (the denominator). Therefore, whatever is on the quiz can be learned, even if it is gibberish. (Whether gibberish to everyone or just to student is secondary.)

    The real problem is that just as particular pieces of gibberish are cherry-picked for the quiz on the encabulator, so are pieces of science about pollination. This effectively downgrades the importance of everything not tested, to the point that the student is just matching grammar.

    The palliative changes include changing the phrasing and order of the questions so it’s not just matching, and asking about more things. The long-term solution may be to ditch simple recall entirely.

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