Teaching Tip: Research on learning, or why we have two hands

Making sense of learning research is not for the faint of heart.  This week as I was reviewing the article “25 learning principles to guide pedagogy and the design of learning environments” to find some helpful hints, I realized that some of the principles on that list seemed to be contradicting others on the same list.  Hmmm….so here’s how I tried to make sense of them. Warning: includes occasional cognitive psychology/education jargon.

On the one hand……

Include cognitive challenges and promote cognitive flexibility

Cognitive disequilibrium happens when students encounter obstacles like information that contradicts their current beliefs or competing explanations that lead them to uncertainty and impasse.  This unbalanced state can lead to deeper learning by requiring students to study, critically reason, explore and attempt to resolve conflicts or problems. Presenting students with multiple divergent viewpoints also promotes cognitive flexibility, which is vital to being able to think creatively and deeply about a topic.

But on the other hand:   Know your audience and what they need

Levels of cognitive challenge too far beyond the students’ current stage can induce frustration, confusion, and anger; learning does not occur under those conditions.  We know instinctively that you can’t teach freshmen the same way you teach senior majors or graduate students, but we don’t always pay enough attention to those differences.  You can use a pre-test or knowledge survey to find out where your students are as the semester begins, and then use the Goldilocks principle (more formally known as Zygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development) to find the “just right” balance between challenge and support (aka scaffolding) for your class.  Of course, the ZPD really applies to individual students, and the inevitable differences that exist among students in any classroom mean that even if your class is optimal for most students, some of them will need extra support and some will need more challenge. To me this is one of the greatest challenges we face as instructors, so more on that later.

On the one hand……

Present information using multiple modalities

Information is more readily encoded and remembered when it is presented through multiple modes. Combining lecture/discussion with media clips, audio (e.g. podcasts) and/or pictures is more effective than using only one method.  Providing the same information using multiple modes is one of the foundations of universal course design, which aims to create equitable classrooms for all students.   Universal Course Design

But on the other hand:  Avoid distraction

Plan the order and amount of new information that is to be presented in digestible chunks so you don’t overwhelm students with too much too fast.  When using multiple channels, keep them “congruent” e.g. present similar information over different channels.  Otherwise, students will attempt to process both channels simultaneously, which leads to cognitive overload for many of them.  Avoid distracting elements such as animations, pictures or other add-ons that do not directly connect to the material to be learned; your intent may be to attract attention but the result may be lack of learning.

On the one hand….

Use active methods and deep questioning

There is a robust body of research that indicates that students should be doing things with the information and processes we want them to learn.  What kind of things?

  • Outlining, organizing, synthesizing, re-stating in their own words and/or applying information to new examples rather than just re-reading material or listening.  For example, have students create their own study guides or chapter outlines and give them feedback.
  • Combining information gleaned from texts, lectures, discussions or other resources into a single product.  Try using a different approach or order of topics in class than your text uses, then require students to integrate the two.  Have them combine what they saw in a video with what the text says about the topic in writing. These activities require students to take more time and effort, and lead to better learning.
  • Ask good questions to promote increased comprehension and deeper learning.  Good questions also get students into the mindset of thinking deeply about material as the course progresses, in anticipation of the questions they will be asked.  What are good questions?  The traditional “who, what, where, when” questions do not lead to as much learning as “why, how, what if or what if not” questions.  Students will require more time and thought to answer these questions, especially at the beginning.  They benefit from the opportunity to think or write about questions first, discuss them in small groups and then engage in a whole class exploration.

But on the other hand: Sometimes direct instruction is necessary

Especially for novice learners (including yourself when you are learning something new), unsupported inquiry or totally independent active learning is not the most effective way to go.  Novices need supports which may take the form of worked examples, explanations, and detailed formats and directions (there’s that scaffolding again).  New learners often need direct instruction in metacognitive skills such as how to study, how to tackle difficult reading materials and how to regulate their learning.  When you are assessing student knowledge, it may also be helpful to assess their understanding of how to learn as well.  As students progress through their programs, direct instruction should be less prominent and less support should be necessary, but once again, individual differences play a big role here. .

I’ve really just touched the surface of these principles that are at the core of good learning and teaching.  It would be so helpful to hear about some of the things you are doing in your classrooms that illustrate how you are trying to maintain the balance between challenge, activity and complexity on the one hand, and direct instruction, simplicity and support on the other.  Where is it working for you, and where would you like some new ideas to try?

Principles drawn from:  25 Learning Principles to Guide Pedagogy and the Design of Learning Environments


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