I wrote this paper in September 2016 for my Educational Foundations of Education class (EDFD 203) at the University of the Philippines for my MA EdPsych course.
As a psychology major who aims to soon teach, I take great interest in the paper on Teaching of Subject Matter by Richard Mayer (2004) of the University of California. The paper examined and presented representative advances in the psychology of subject matter which included researches in learning and teaching of reading fluency, comprehension, writing, mathematics and science. I am not a teacher yet, and as of the moment, I lack the needed experience in teaching, my reactions are thus based primarily on my own experiences as a student, a parent and as a private tutor once.
Mayer indicated that the continuing development of psychologies of subject matter is consistent with trends in cognitive science, including the focus on learning as (a) a change in knowledge rather than solely as a change in behavior, and (b) as a domain specific rather than domain general activity.
In my undergraduate studies learning is almost always defined as a relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience and reinforced practice (Bustos and Espiritu, 1996), and there was never a mention of a ‘change in knowledge’. In Mayer’s paper, I am honestly surprised to note that the latter understanding is actually one of the current trends in explaining the nature of learning. The paper nevertheless fell short of clearly defining the difference of a change in behavior alone with a change both in knowledge and in behavior by not providing a practical example.
In my view, the change in knowledge focuses more on the modifications and adjustments on what a learner knows based on the new information/knowledge gained or learned. On the other hand, a change in behavior refers to adjustments or alteration on what a learner does as a result of learning. Both tasks of knowing and doing are interrelated and may or may not come together as a result of learning.
In presenting what he noted as the three views of how to promote transfer, Mayer was able to update non-education major readers on the current trends in understanding the principle of transfer. Education majors already familiar to the concept are nevertheless refreshed in order to better understand the object and content of the paper as a whole. Mayer summarized the three views as: general transfer, specific transfer, and specific transfer of general knowledge. General transfer is based on the doctrine of formal discipline which was then the dominant theory of transfer but was later proven by educational psychologist to be baseless according to Mayer. Specific transfer acknowledges the important role of previous learning in a new task but only if the new task requires the same behavior as was learned. To Mayer, this principle has been challenge because of its incompleteness.
Enter the specific transfer of general knowledge theory which states that students can apply a general principle or conception to new tasks that require the same principle or conception. This specific-transfer-of-general-knowledge approach underlines advances in cognitive strategy instruction as well as the teaching of subject matter, Mayer asserted. I agree with Mayer’s claims that the specific transfer of general knowledge theory is so far the most plausible explanation in understanding the nature of transfer, and knowing it thus serves as an important guidepost to the teacher in his craft. This principle is particularly useful in teaching Mathematics which requires students to focus on underlying numerical concepts rather than just memorizing arithmetic facts or procedures.
On the importance of cognitive tasks analysis
Teachers must be aware of what to expect from students in view of what he teaches, this is one of the reasons why we set content and performance standards as well as learning competencies in the curriculum. In this paper, Mayer proposes that prior to actual teaching of a domain specific to a subject matter the teacher must conduct a cognitive task analysis or a description of the cognitive processes that a person would need to go through in order to accomplish the task.
Mayer presented useful tables of component processes that make up teaching of each subject matter such as reading fluency, reading comprehension, writing, mathematics and science. For example, there are three important component processes in reading a word which a learner must possess and teachers must understand about his students. This involves phonological awareness, word decoding, and meaning access. In general, these component processes could also serve as the basic objectives or learning competencies in teaching students to read.
I used to tutor elementary students in reading and back then I did not know all of these principles. I thought children would easily learn to read only by forcing them to recognize letters and reading syllables, what I just realized now is that I was then guilty of mentally torturing my students. As a non-teacher, I also found it difficult to teach my son to read partly because of my inefficiency brought about by my ignorance of these component cognitive tasks.
On teaching reading fluency, reading comprehension and writing
On the topic of teaching of reading fluency, Mayer stated that students need to know that words are composed of sound units which students need to be able to hear, produce and manipulate. This is called phonological awareness and that children tend to develop this skill through the primary grades. Teachers must understand that this is a prerequisite to learning to read. However in the succeeding pages about it, Mayer devoted time only on the testing of the hypothesis covering phonological awareness and not on how teachers could develop the skill among their students.
Decoding and accessing word meaning are the two other important component cognitive task of learning to read. Success in both tasks relies mainly on completion of phonological awareness. Mayer mentioned that direct instruction and immersion are two effective way of developing access to word meaning. It is true in my experience with my own children, for they are able to build up their vocabulary by reading and being able to use the words in their everyday experiences.
With regards comprehension, I am more struck at the task of using metacognitive knowledge in reading. I would like to say yes in answering Mayer’s question whether children can be taught to monitor their comprehension. Critical thinking can be developed in children with proper facilitation. I remember my son being able to recognize inconsistencies with my statements only that it is not directly about him being able to read.
In teaching of writing composition, planning is identified as one of the component tasks and important in letting students write better essays. Similarly, in my experience as a student, I am being able to write well and better if I am being able to plan well and that adequate time is provided for translating and reviewing.
On teaching Mathematics
I would like to take on two of Mayer’s statements regarding the teaching of Math: that students benefit from training aimed at helping them learn to translate a word problem into a situation model and that student’s attitudes can influence their problem solving strategies.
First, it is indeed important to build mental representation of the situation being described in the problem in order to understand better the problem to be solved. In some situations, reading comprehension is also an issue. Poor readers are also poor problem solvers, I would opine. I remember my high school teacher in math who once told us that the first problem about problem solving isn’t really about math being difficult but that students are not well grounded in their reading ability. If a student does not understand the problem, he would find it really hard to solve.
Second, I agree that student’s attitudes can influence their math learning, but this statement is incomplete. Teacher attitude also greatly affects student’s learning (Mill, 1960). As a student, I have found only a handful of teachers who can really be called facilitators- those who help students love math and solve problems. I do not understand why most math teachers I knew chose to pose themselves to be either ‘terror’ or ‘poor’ teachers. The terror teachers elicit fear first and foremost rather than inspiration among students, they tend to make students feel that they are ‘pitiful’ if they cannot follow. Some teachers are poor that they cannot even explain very well their subject matter. In my opinion, good math teachers facilitate better student learning even if the student was once tagged as ‘poor’ in math. My experience is a testimony.
On teaching Science
Lastly, on teaching Science, I am convinced that the component tasks of recognizing an anomaly, creating a new model, and using a new model are important in making students appreciate science as a subject matter better.
Mayer was right in saying that people actually enter the science classroom with mental models of how the world works, and often their mental models are incorrect. There are many misconceptions about various scientific laws which may be corrected by experimentation. Sadly, classroom experiments are pre-determined. Students are expected to yield same results in their experiments; you may even find it confusing to call them experiments at all. Even the manner how experiments are facilitated is poorly conducted, sad to say by many teachers. My elementary school, a public school, was also ill equipped, so that I never had the chance to use a microscope my entire elementary life. I concur that scientific reasoning can be taught, and Mayer was able to present many research evidence to support it. Teachers and students must be given better opportunity and science equipment to advance science learning in the classrooms.
It is understandable that this paper is of western origin and that the studies presented herein are almost American and Western studies. Still, I lament the fact that there is very little local study to support the teaching of subject matter. More researches conducted locally and by local educational psychologist are gravely needed by our education sector; I am sure there are many local studies about this topic only that even our education system is too dependent on Western literature.
As Mayer noted, the key to better teaching subject matter is in the diligence of the teacher to identify and understand the component processes in each specific task in teaching. Individual differences and learning styles (which is also debatable) must also be considered in teaching the subject matter. We may have a single understanding of what component process make up one domain, but teachers must not forget that his student’s capacity, attitude, and ability are as varied as their numbers in the classroom. Knowing each student and their individual differences is essential to preparation for facilitating, structuring, and validating successful learning in the classroom for all students (Guild as cited in Gresham, 1994).