Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mental Models and Learning

A recent New York Times article on teaching methods* caught our eye.  It reported an experiment by college physics professors to improve their freshmen students’ understanding and retention of introductory material.  The students comprised two large (260+) classes that usually were taught via lectures.  For one week, teaching assistants used a collaborative, team-oriented approach for one of the classes.  Afterward, this group scored higher on the test than the group that received the traditional lecture.  

One of the instructors reported, “. . . this class actively engages students and allows them time to synthesize new information and incorporate it into a mental model . . . . When they can incorporate things into a mental model, we find much better retention.”

We are big believers in mental models, those representations of the world that people create in their minds to make sense of information and experience.  They are a key component of our system dynamics approach to understanding and modeling safety culture.  Our NuclearSafetySim model illustrates how safety culture interacts with other variables in organizational decision-making; a primary purpose for this computer model is to create a realistic mental model in users’ minds.

Because this experiment helped the students form more useful mental models, our reaction to it is generally favorable.  On the other hand, why is the researchers’ “insight” even news?  Why wouldn’t a more engaging approach lead to a better understanding of any subject?  Don’t most of you develop a better understanding when you do the lab work, code your own programs, write the reports you sign, or practice decision-making in a simulated environment?

*  B. Carey, “Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning,” New York Times (May 12, 2011).

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