Pedagogy Thoughts - 1
Conceptual Learning vs.
Plain Old Practice?


Re: Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping By Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt, in Science (Online), 20 January 2011 (10.1126/science) DOI:10.1126/science.1199327   

What? Students learn more when they simply practice recalling something, than when they study by observing conceptual relationships? These findings by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt in their recent report, Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping, seem unsettling at first glance. Is this a setback for conceptual learning? Not necessarily.

Testing: Teachers frequently ask students to recall material, for the purpose of gauging how much a student has learned, the report notes. We piano teachers routinely "test," usually informally. We assess results as students perform a piece, improvise on a pattern, explain a musical concept, and so on. Karpicke and Blunt's research, however, adds an interesting point: When an individual recalls something, the process of recollection does much more than merely provide "a read out of the knowledge stored in one's mind." Rather, the authors assert, "the act of reconstructing knowledge itself enhances learning."  

Most of us in performance fields such as piano teaching, well know the importance of reconstructing knowledge, i.e. practicing. As a teacher, however, after seeing this research, I find I'm more actively asking  students repeatedly, throughout each lesson, to mentally retrieve specific material they learn. For instance, if we've just finished "discovering" how to improvise with an ostinato, we might then move into practicing with flashcards. But, not without looking back. I may "surprise" my students by suddenly interjecting, "who can run to the piano and play the ostinato right now?" or "what was that word we learned a few minutes ago?" and "what does it mean?" Spending a few seconds this way here and there in the lesson ensures that students practice the actual retrieval of new information and helps them learn more, sooner. 

Conceptual Learning: The Conceptual Learners in Karpicke and Blunt's experiment lacked something important in their method of learning. These Conceptual Learners studied by reading a text provided to them and mapping its conceptual relationships on paper. This group did not, however, practice recalling information from memory. On final assessment of how much they learned, this group was outperformed by another. Unlike the Conceptual Learners, the better performing group did practice information retrieval: as part of their study program, they periodically wrote, without looking at the text, all they could recall about the text. With this observation in mind, Karpicke and Blunt suggest that concept study, itself, is a valuable learning tool. But, they advise, it is important to make sure that students reconstruct concepts from memory, as a regular part of their study.

Creative "Re-Construction:" Many years prior to this study, Robert Pace's "Comprehensive Musicianship" approach stressed the limitless potential for "re-constructing" knowledge—in a creative way. Retrieving/reconstructing knowledge is basic to  the framework of Comprehensive Music. When students give feedback and tips to each other, and explain and teach one another concepts, they are actively reconstructing information and strengthening their ability to access, apply, and expand upon knowledge.  Moreover, when students vary music, or transpose it (another form of variation), reconstruction is built in: In creating variations, students must mentally retrieve the original concept. But beyond that, they also must comprehend it so that they can make something new that is like the original, and simultaneously different. Creative change does not substitute for practicing specific recall when learning the actual original material. Creative change, or "re-construction" does, however, immensely enhance, reinforce and expand learning.

by Cynthia Pace, EdD.

© 2011 Cynthia Pace

© Copyright 2017 by Lee Roberts Music Publications, Inc.