"Practice Makes Perfect"

It is an old adage but it is true. There is another saying I got from one of my organic chemistry professors in college, "If you do not understand, memorize". My professor's point is that if one is familiar with something that still needs to be understood, there is a greater likelihood for serendipity. When the time is right, one is simply more prepared. It is therefore reasonable to hypothesize that fact learning is intimately related to higher order learning. A recent study scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology attempts to demonstrate that these two are not related, that is, knowledge of facts is not important to develop critical thinking. Here is definitely one instance where one needs to be extra thoughtful with regard to what an experiment is really measuring. Although the title and abstract do suggest that students do not need fact knowledge before higher order learning, examining in detail the experiment and the results does not really support this conclusion.

My organic chemistry professor emphasizes fact knowledge because its relationship to critical thinking in this field is evidently crucial. One simply cannot jump into drawing reaction mechanisms without knowing facts or trends behind reactions in organic chemistry. Another example that illustrates this link between knowledge and critical thinking, a favorite of a colleague of mine, is in biochemistry. One cannot really appreciate the properties of amino acids and how these relate to the secondary and tertiary structures of proteins without knowing what the various amino acids are.

Why is it then possible for an experiment to show what appears to be quite obvious not true? Well, it depends on what the experiment is actually measuring. Pooja Agarwal basically uses topics in social studies to investigate whether fact retrieval helps in higher order learning. One topic introduces the two sides of welfare and students are asked to read a thousand word passage entitled, “Does welfare do more harm than good?” To prepare for the final exams, one set of students is provided with quizzes that require retrieval of content that is explicitly stated in the passage while another set is provided quizzes that necessitate either inference or further analysis of the passage. A third set of students are given an opportunity to study on their own once, while a fourth set of students are able to study twice. After two days, all students take two final tests, one is pure fact-retrieval while the other requires higher order thinking. And the results are summarized below:

Above copied from
Agarwal, P. K. (2018, June 7). Retrieval Practice & Bloom’s Taxonomy: Do Students Need FactKnowledge Before Higher Order Learning?. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance onlinepublication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000282

The results are indeed clear. Those who did not practice do not score well. Those who practiced do better in the final exam. But there is one important detail. Those who practice with quizzes similar to the final exam do better in that particular final exam. Those who practice with fact quizzes do well in the final fact exam while those who practice with higher order quizzes do well in the higher order final exam. These results however do not demonstrate the lack of a relationship between fact knowledge and critical thinking. All it demonstrates is the old adage, "Practice makes perfect". And we all know this based on how students who enroll in courses from Princeton Review and Kaplan do better in standardized exams like SAT.  To arrive at a conclusion as profound as dismissing the need for knowledge to think critically requires topics that are much broader than the history or social issues that this study considers. Seriously, can someone really do algebra without knowing arithmetic?


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