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Thursday, December 01, 2022
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Courtesy of Mitchell Nathan

Q&A: Dr. Mitchell Nathan talks about his educational psychology research, embodied learning, study habits

Nathan’s years of research on learning sciences has taught him effective teaching and study techniques.

Today, the typical vision of education features a teacher at the front of the room with an audience full of students, watching, listening and sitting. While common, this form of teaching and learning is not ideal, according to Mitchell Nathan, the Associate Chair of the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

Nathan’s primary area of research is in learning sciences. In this area of study, he focuses on understanding and describing how people learn. Through his research he has learned effective teaching and study techniques to achieve a more detailed picture of what people know.  

Nathan sat down with the Cardinal to discuss his prior research, embodied learning and study habits.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Could you explain your different areas of research and the different research projects you have conducted?

I study students and how they learn and also study teachers, and how teachers structure learning experiences for students. I look at the actual act of teaching and even go into classrooms to watch teachers teach.

I interview teachers and sometimes recruit them for laboratory experiments off campus as well. That also means I look at how teachers learn. We observe how they teach and really think about if there are ways that evidence-based practices could inform their instruction and change how they teach. A unique quality of my work is that I don't only look at how people think in their heads if you will, but I consider the body as part of the cognitive system.

What we're trying to do is broaden our understanding of what it means to know something by including body movement. One of the current research projects uses video game technology and computer vision to track players who are playing games, so that we not only see where they click, and what they say, but how they move their bodies while they're playing these games. These are educational games — games that are actually designed to teach mathematics.

We have players interact with players in the game, who are moving and they have to sometimes interact with their bodies. We try to pick movements that will help the game players reason more deeply about the mathematical ideas that they're being asked to think about and generate proofs about. And then when they explain their thinking, we also look at the ways they use their bodies in their explanations.

Your research has shown that embodied learning and teaching are the most effective ways of explaining information, yet school systems are not set up in such fashion. Can you expand on this and explain what embodied learning is?

If you actually stop, pay attention and notice, you'll see students actually using their bodies frequently as they're thinking about and explaining new ideas. Let's say they're talking to a peer or they're explaining their thinking to a teacher in a classroom. They're using their body.

Even as those ideas are coming in, they might be choosing to think through the ideas with their bodies. When we include people's body movements as information about what they're conveying, we get a richer picture of what people know and how people think.

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What changes should be made to apply embodied learning in schools?

One way we could productively change classrooms is to create an environment that is more open and inclusive of movement based ways of assessing what you know. Teachers could even model good behaviors for their students in ways that we already know are helpful. And we could improve classroom experiences by helping teachers to understand how they could incorporate movements in their assessment of what people know.

By including information of movement when students are expressing what they know, teachers will have a much richer and, quite frankly, based on our statistical analyses, more accurate picture of what it is that students actually know about the topic.

Has COVID-19 and virtual learning taken schools further away from embodied learning?

I would say the answer is somewhat yes. There are ways that online learning can make accommodations that will improve learning virtually, such as teachers using appropriate camera settings so that students can see their whole bodies, certainly their arms and their upper bodies. This ensures that students are picking up the entire rich communication that teachers are conveying. We see teachers use their bodies, hands and arms as much as 70% of the time that they're talking. 

It is advantageous for teachers to be able to see students especially when the students are the ones who are talking. We might pick up on places where students have trouble spots, and they're exhibiting some kind of confusion or frustration or they have a misconception that you can sometimes notice, because they are gesturing a certain way. 

For example, they might be thinking about something in a linear way, but it's not a linear idea. They're making very linear movements or they're suggesting that a concept is really simple when it has many parts to it. 

Being in a room and feeling the room together matters. When I'm trying to understand somebody and they’re gesturing, one of the coolest things that I can do is copy their gestures. Then it's not just visual. I'm putting my body in a similar state to their body state. And it might help me to understand their perspective and how they're thinking about an idea. We move very intentionally, in order to convey relationships or think through concepts. 

What are the best and worst ways for students to effectively study?

Students use a lot of techniques that are not very effective. They take a lot of time and take away from the students ability to be really productive. A very common strategy is to re-read. Another variant of this and one that's often used along with rereading or initial reading is highlighting. 

Students spend a lot of time highlighting a lot of things. The problem with a lot of these methods is it doesn't help people to rethink the deep ideas that they're supposed to be learning for an assessment. Highlighting on its own has a feeling of accomplishment because you leave this trace on the page, but it doesn't really help. 

A much better study technique is something like self testing. Self testing, may be developing a “Quizlet” or flashcards. What these techniques do is practice the retrieval of information when you need it. By taking practice tests that skill of retrieving the information when it's appropriate is being practiced. 

Retrieval is one of the reasons why talking to someone else about the topic is good too. As you start to describe the concepts you're gonna be tested on, you have to retrieve that information and then describe it in a coherent way.

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