Studies have shown the benefits of asking students to attempt to solve a problem before teaching them how to do it. Similarly, tests that require students to fill in a gap strengthen memory more than the mere selection of an answer from a list of possibilities. The process of generating the answer is the important thing. Students search through their memory for related knowledge, consider what the answer might be, and get creative in guessing a possible solution. Without realising it, they have created connections to this unknown piece of knowledge, a gap that will soon filled when they subsequently go over the answers. This type of learning is known as “generative learning”.
An Example of Generative Learning
Imagine asking a student the name of the largest ocean on Earth. She might consult her memory: Atlantic... Pacific... Indian… Arctic. Then she might visualise each of these on the world map. Since the Arctic runs all the way around the bottom of the planet, maybe it’s the largest? This is a creative, effortful, engaging process. When she learns the correct answer, hopefully by going and searching for it herself, it is likely to stick nicely into the web of her prior knowledge she has now opened up.
Another benefit of eliciting answers like this is that it makes student care about the answer – it builds “emotional resonance.” When they have made a guess at an answer, they are far more interested in what the answer is than they might have been if they were merely told it right away.
I’ll end with a note of caution here: when presenting students with problems they don’t yet know how to solve, never make them feel bad for not knowing how to do it. Let them know that guessing ‘wrong’ is not only acceptable, it’s great (see The Rightness of Being Wrong, p.xx). After all, the more generation they can do, the better.
Oh, and the answer is not the Arctic Ocean.