37. Evidence is Trending

Faculty are increasingly looking to research on teaching and learning to make informed decisions about their practice as a teacher and the policies their institutions put into place. In today’s episode, Michelle Miller joins us to discuss recent research that will likely shape the future of higher education.

Michelle is Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications.

Show Notes

Rebecca: Faculty are increasingly looking to research on teaching and learning to make informed decisions about their practice as a teacher and the policies their institutions put into place. In today’s episode we talk to a cognitive psychologist about recent research that will likely shape the future of higher education.
[Music]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[Music]

John: Our guest today is Michelle Miller. Michelle is Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications.
Welcome, Michelle!

Michelle: Hi, I’m so glad to be here.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us.
Today’s teas are:

Michelle: I’m drinking a fresh peppermint infused tea, and it’s my favorite afternoon pick-me-up.

Rebecca: …and it looks like it’s in a really wonderfully designed teapot.

Michelle: Well, thank you… and this is a thrift store find… one of my favorite things to do. Yeah, so I’m enjoying it.

John: I have Twinings Blackcurrant Breeze.

Rebecca: …and I’m drinking chai today.

Michelle: Pretty rough.

John: We invited you here to talk a little bit about things that you’ve been observing in terms of what’s catching on in higher education in terms of new and interesting innovations in teaching.

Michelle: Right, that’s one of things that I really had the luxury of being able to step back and look at over this last semester and over this last spring when I was on sabbatical… One of the really neat things about my book Minds Online, especially now that it’s been out for a few years, is that it does open up all these opportunities to speak with really engaged faculty and others, such as: instructional designers, librarians, academic leadership, educational technology coordinators… all these individuals around the country who are really, really involved in these issues. It’s a great opportunity to see how these trends, how these ideas, how these innovations are rolling out, and these can be some things that have been around for quite some time and just continue to rock along and even pickup steam, and some newer things that are on the horizon.

John: You’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling. You just got back from China recently, I believe.

Michelle: I sure did. It was a short visit and I do hope to go back, both to keep getting involved in educational innovations there and, hopefully, as a tourist as well. So, I was not there for very long but I had the opportunity to speak at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which is a really dynamic institution that’s been around for about a hundred years. For a while in its history it specialized in things like engineering education polytechnic, but now it’s really a selective comprehensive university with very vibrant graduate and undergraduate programs that are really very relatable for those of us in the United States working in similar contexts. My invitation was to be one of the featured speakers at the Future Education, Future Learning Conference, which was a very interdisciplinary gathering of doctoral students, faculty, even others from the community, who were all interested in the intersection of things like technology, online learning, MOOCs even, and educational research (including research into the brain and cognitive psychology), and bringing all of those together… and it was a multilingual conference. I do not speak Chinese but much of the conference was in both English and Chinese and so I was also able to really absorb a lot of these new ideas. So yes, that was a real highlight of my sabbatical semester and one that I’m going to be thinking about for quite some time.

I should say that part of what tied in there as well is that Minds Online, I’ve just learned, is going to be translated into Chinese and that’s going to come out in May 2019. So, I also got to meet with some of the people who were involved in the translation… start to put together some promotional materials such as videos and things like that.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: So, you’ve had a good opportunity, as you’ve been traveling, to almost do a scavenger hunt of what faculty are doing with evidence-based practices related to your book. Can you share some of what you’ve found or heard?

Michelle: This theme of evidence-based practice, and really tying into the findings that have been coming out of cognitive psychology for quite some time, that really is one of the exciting trends and things that I was really excited to see and hear for so many different quarters I visited in different institutions… and so I would say definitely, this is a trend that is continuing and is increasing. There really does continue to be a lot of wonderful interest and wonderful activity around these real cognitively informed approaches to teaching, and what I think we could call scientifically based and evidence-based strategies. One form this has taken is Josh Eyler’s new book, called How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. This is a brand new book by a faculty development professional, and a person coming out of the humanities, actually, who’s weaving together even from his humanities background everything from evolutionary biology to classical research in early childhood education to the latest brain-based research. He’s weaving this together into this new book for faculty. So, that’s one of the things that I’ve noticed and then there’s the issue which i think is another great illustration of best-known practice which is the testing effect and retrieval practice.

John: One of the nice things is how so many branches of research are converging… testing in the classroom, brain-based research, and so forth, are all finding those same basic effects. It’s nice to see such robust results, which we don’t always see in all research in all disciplines.

Rebecca: …and just breaking down the silos in general. The things are all related and finding out what those relationships are… exploring those relationships… is really important and it’s nice to see that it’s starting to open up.

John: We should also note that when you visited here, we had a reading group and we had faculty working on trying to apply some of these concepts, and they’re still doing that… and they still keep making references back to your visit. So, it’s had quite a big impact on our campus.

Michelle: This wasn’t true, I don’t think, when I first entered the teaching profession… and even to the extent when I first started getting interested in applied work in course redesign and in faculty professional development. you would get kind of this pushback or just strange looks when you said “Oh, how about we bring in something from cognitive psychology” and now that is just highly normalized and something that people are really speaking across the curriculum… and taking it and running with it in a lasting ongoing way, not just as a “Oh, well that was an interesting idea. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing” but really people making some deep changes as you mentioned. This theme of breaking down silos… I mean I think if there’s kind of one umbrella trend that all of these things fits under it’s that breakdown of boundaries. So, that’s one that I keep coming back to, I know, in my work.

So, the idea of retrieval practice, drilling down on that one key finding which goes back a very long ways in cognitive psychology. I think of that as such a good example of what we’re talking about here… about how this very detailed effect in cognition and yet it does have these applications across disciplinary silos. Now when I go to conferences and I say “Okay, raise your hand. How many people have ever heard of retrieval practice? How many people have ever heard of the testing effect? How many people have heard of the book Make it Stick (which really places this phenomena at its center)?” and I’m seeing more hands raising.

With retrieval practice, by the way, we’re talking about that principle that taking a test on something, that retrieving something from memory actively, has this huge impact on future memorability of that information. As its proponents like to say, tests are not neutral from a memory or from a learning standpoint… and while some of the research has focused on very kind of stripped-down laboratory style tasks like memorizing words pairs, there are also some other research projects showing that it does flow out to more realistic learning situations.

So, more people simply know about this, and that’s really the first hurdle, oftentimes, with getting this involved disciplinary sometimes jargon riddled research out there to practitioners and getting it into their hands. So, people heard of it and they’re starting to build this into their teaching. As I’ve traveled around I love to hear some of the specific examples and to see it as well crop up in scholarship of teaching and learning.

Just recently, for example, I ran across and really got into the work of Bruce Kirchhoff who is at University of North Carolina – Greensboro and his area is botany and plant identification. He has actually put together some different really technology-based apps and tools that students and teachers can use in something like a botany course to rehearse and review plant identification. He says in one of his articles, for example, that there just isn’t time in class to really adequately master plant identification. It’s just too complex of a perceptual and cognitive and memory test to do that. So, he really built in from the get-go very specific principles drawn from cognitive psychology… so, the testing effect is in there… there’s different varieties of quizzing and it all is about just getting students to retrieve and identify example after example. It brings in also principles such as interleaving, which we could return to in a little bit, but has to do with the sequencing of different examples… their spacing… So, that’s even planned out exactly how and when students encounter different things that they’re studying. It’s really wonderful. So, for example he and his colleagues put out a scholarship of teaching and learning article talking about how this approach was used effectively in veterinary medicine students who have to learn to identify poisonous plants that they’ll see around their practice. This is something that can be time-consuming and very tough, but they have some good data showing that this technology enhanced cognitively based approach really does work. That’s one example. Coincidentally, I’ve seen some other work in the literature, also on plant identification, where the instructors tagged plants in an arboretum… they went around and tagged them with QR codes… that students can walk up to a plant in the real environment with an iPad… hold the iPad over it… and it would immediately start producing quiz questions that were are specific to exactly the plants they were looking at.
So, those are some of the exciting things that people are taking and running with now that this principle is out there.

Rebecca: What I really love about the two stories that you just shared was the faculty are really designing their curriculum and designing the learning experiences with the students in mind… and what students need and when they need it. So, not only is it employing these cognitive science principles, but it’s actually applying design principles as well. It’s really designing for a user experience and thinking about the idea that if I need to identify a plant, being able to identify it in this situation in which I would need to identify it in makes it much more dynamic I think for a student… but also really meets them where they’re at and where they need it.

John: …and there’s so many apps out there now that will do the plant identification just from imagery without the QR code, that I can see it taking it one step further where they can do it in the wild without having that… so they can build it in for plants that are in the region without needing to encode that specifically for the application.

Michelle: I think you’re absolutely right once we put the technology in the hands of faculties who, as I said, they’re the one to know: “Where are my students at? Where are the weak points? Where are the gaps that they really need to bridge?” and that’s where their creativity is giving rise to all these new applications… and sometimes these can be low-tech as well… or also things that we can put in a face-to-face environment… and I’d like to to share just some experiences that I’ve had with this over the last few semesters.

In addition to trying to teach online with a lot of technology, I also have in my teaching rotation a small required course in research methods in psychology which can be a real stumbling block… the big challenge course… it’s kind of a gateway course to continued progress in our major. So, in this research methods course, some of the things that I’ve done around assessment and testing to really try again to stretch that retrieval practice idea… to make assessments really a more dynamic part of the course and more central part of the course… to move away from that idea that tests are just this kind of every now and again this panic mode opportunity for me to kind of measure in sorts of students and judge them… to make good on that idea that tests are part of learning. So, here’s some of the things that I try to do. For one thing, I took time out of the class almost every single class meeting as part of the routine to have students first of all generate quiz questions out of their textbook. So, we do have a certain amount of foundational material in that course as well as a project and a whole lot of other stuff is going on. So they need to get that foundational stuff.

Every Tuesday they would come in and they knew their routine: you get index cards and you crack your textbook and you generate for me three quiz questions. Everybody does it. I’m not policing whether you read the chapter or not. It’s active… they’re generating it… and also that makes it something like frequent quizzing. That’s a great practical advantage for me since I’m not writing everything. They would turn those in and I would select some of my favorites I would turn those into a traditional looking paper quiz and hand that out on Thursday. I said “Hey, take this like a realistic quiz.” I had explained to them that quizzes can really boost their learning, so that was the justification for spending time on it and then I said: “You know what? I’m not going to grade it either. You take it home because this is a learning experience for you. It’s a learning activity.” so we did that every single week as those students got into that routine.

The second thing that I did to really re-envision how assessment testing and quizzing worked in this particular course, was something inspired by different kinds of group testing and exam wrapper activities I’ve seen, particularly coming out of the STEM field, where there’s been a lot of innovation in this area. What I would do is… we had these high stakes exams at a few points during the semester. But, the class day after the exam, we didn’t do the traditional “Let’s go over the exam.” [LAUGHTER] That’s kind of deadly dull, and it just tends to generate a lot of pushback from students… and as we know from the research, simply reviewing… passing your eyes over the information… is not going to do much to advance your learning. So, what I would do is… I would photocopy all those exams, so it has a secure copy. They were not graded. I would not look at this before we did this… and I would pass everybody’s exams back to them along with a blank copy of that same exam. I assigned them to small groups and I said “Okay, here’s your job. Go back over this exam, fill it out as perfectly as you can as a group, and to make it interesting I said I will grade that exam as well, the one you do with your group, and anything you get over 90% gets added to everybody’s grade. This time it was open book, it was open Google, it was everything except you can’t ask me questions. So, you have each other and that’s where these great conversations started to happen. The things that we always want students to say. So, I would eavesdrop and hear students say “Oh, well you know what, I think on this question she was really talking about validity because reliability is this other thing…” and they’d have a deep conversation about it. I’m still kind of going back through the numbers to see what are the impacts of learning? Are there any trends that I can identify? But, I will say this: in the semesters that I did this, I didn’t have a single question ever come back to me along the lines of “Well, this question was unclear. I didn’t understand it. I think I was graded unfairly.” it really did shut all that down and again extended the learning that I feel students got out of that. Now it meant a big sacrifice of class time, but I feel strongly enough about these principles that I’m always going to do this in one form or another anytime I can can in face-to-face classes.

Rebecca: This sounds really familiar, John.

John: I’ve just done the same, or something remarkably similar, this semester, in my econometrics class which is very similar to the psych research methods class. I actually picked it up following a discussion with Doug McKee. He actually was doing it this semester too. He had a podcast episode on it. It sounded so exciting, I did something… a little bit different. I actually graded it but I didn’t give it back to them because I wanted to see what they had the most trouble with, and then I was going to have them only answer the ones in a group that they struggled with… and it turned out that that was pretty much all them anyway. So, it’s very similar to what you did except I gave them a weighted average of their original grade and the group grade and all except one person improved and the one person’s score went down by two points because the group grade was just slightly lower… but he did extremely well and he wasn’t that confident. The benefits to them of that peer explanation and explaining was just tremendous and it was so much more fun for them and for me and, as you said, it just completely wiped out all those things like “Well, that was tricky” because when they hear their peers explaining it to them the students were much more likely to respond by saying “Oh yeah, I remember that now” and it was a wonderful experience and I’m gonna do that everywhere I can.

In fact. I was talking about it with my TA just this morning here at Duke and we’re planning to do something like that in our classes here at TIP this summer, which i think is somewhat familiar to you from earlier in your academic career.

Michelle: That is right we do have this connection. I was among, not the very first year, but I believe the second cohort of Talent Identification Program students who came in, I guess you would call it now, middle school (back then, it was called junior high) and what a life-transforming experience. We’ve had even more opportunities to talk about the development of all these educational ideas through that experience.

John: That two-stage exam is wonderful and it’s so much more positive… because it didn’t really take, in my class, much more time, because I would have spent most of that class period going over the exam and problems they had. But the students who did well would have been bored and not paying much attention to it; the students who did poorly would just be depressed and upset that they did so poorly… and here, they were actively processing the information and it was so positive.

Michelle: That’s a big shift. We really have to step back and acknowledge that, I think. that is a huge shift in how we look at assessment, and how we think about the use of class time… and it’s not just “Oh my gosh, I have to use every minute to put such content in front of the students.” Just the fact that more of us are making that leap, I think, really is evidence this progress is happening… and we see also a lot of raised consciousness around issues such as learning styles. That’s another one that, when I go out and speak to faculty audiences, 10 years ago you would get these shocked looks or even very indignant commentary when you say “Ok, this idea of learning styles, in the sense that say there are visual learners, auditory learners, what I call sensory learning styles (VAK is another name it sometimes goes by). The idea that that just holds no water from a cognitive point of view…” People were not good with that, and now when I mentioned that at a conference, I get the knowing nods and even a few groans… people like “Oh, yeah. we get that. Now, K-12, which I want to acknowledge it’s not my area, but I’m constantly reminded by people across the spectrum that it’s a very different story in K-12. So, setting that aside… but this is what I’m seeing… that faculty are realizing… they’re saying “Oh, this is what the evidence says…” and maybe they even take the time to look at some of the really great thinkers and writers who put together the facts on this. They say “You know what? I’m not going to take my limited time and resources and spend that on this matching to styles when the styles can’t even be accurately diagnosed and are of no use in a learning situation. So, that’s another area of real progress.

Rebecca: What I am hearing is not just progress here in terms of cognitive science, but a real shift towards really thinking about how students learn and designing for that rather than something that would sound more like a penalty for grade like “Oh, did you achieve? Yes or no…” but, rather here’s an opportunity if you didn’t achieve to now actually learn it… and recognize that you haven’t learned it, even though it might seem really familiar.

John: Going back to that point about learning styles. It is spreading in colleges. I wish it was true at all the departments at our institution, but it’s getting there gradually… and whenever people bring it up, we generally remind them that there’s a whole body of research on this and I’ll send them references but what’s really troubling is in my classes the last couple years now, I’ve been using this metacognitive cafe discussion forum to focus on student learning… and one of the week’s discussions is on learning styles and generally about 95 percent of the students who are freshmen or sophomores (typically) come in with a strong belief in learning styles… where they’ve been tested multiple times in elementary or middle school… they’ve been told what their learning styles are… they’ve been told they can only learn that way… It discourages them from trying to learn in other ways and it does a lot of damage… and I hope we eventually reach out further so that it just goes away throughout the educational system.

Rebecca: You’ve worked in your classes, Michelle, haven’t you to help students understand the science of learning and use that to help students understand the methods and things that you’re doing>

Michelle: Yes, I have. I’ve done this in a couple of different ways. Now, partly, I get a little bit of a free pass in some of my teaching because I’m teaching the introduction to psychology or I’m teaching research methods where I just happen to sneak in as the research example will be some work on say attention or distraction or the testing effect. So, I get to do it in those ways covertly. I’ve also had the chance, although it’s not on my current teaching rotation… I’ve had the chance to also take it on as in freestanding courses. As many institutions are doing these days… it’s another trend… and what Northern Arizona University, where I work, has different kinds of freshmen or first-year student offering for courses they can take, not in a specific disciplinary area, but that really crossed some different areas of the student success or even wellbeing. So, I taught a class for awhile called Maximizing Brain Power that was about a lot of these different topics. Not just the kind of very generic study skills tip… “get a good night’s sleep…” that kind of thing… but really some again more evidence-based things that we can tell students and you can really kind of market it… and I think that we do sometimes have to play marketers to say “Hey, I’m going to give you some inside information here. This is sort of gonna be your secret weapon. So, let me tell you what the research has found.”

So, those are some of the things that I share with students… as well as when the right moment arises, say after an exam or before their first round of small stakes assessments, where they’re taking a lot of quizzes… to really explain the difference between this and high stakes or standardized tests they may have taken in the past. So, I do it on a continuing basis. I try to weave it into the disciplinary aspect and I do it in these free-standing ways as well… and I think here’s another area where I’m seeing this take hold in some different places… which is to have these free-standing resources that also just live outside of a traditional class that people can even incorporate into their courses… if say cognitive psychology or learning science isn’t their area… that they can bring in, because faculty really do care about these things. We just don’t always have the means to bring them in in as many ways as we would like.

John: …and your Attention Matters project was an example of that wasn’t it? Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Michelle: Oh, I’d love to… and you know this connects to what it seems to be kind of an evergreen topic in the teaching and learning community these days, which is the role of distracted students… and I know this past year there just have been these one op-ed versus another. There’s been some really good blog posts by some people I really like to follow in the teaching and learning community such as Kevin Gannon talking about “Okay, do you have laptops in the classroom? and what happens when you do?” and so I don’t think that this is just a fad that’s going away. This is something that the people do continue to care about, and this is where the attention matters project comes in.

This was something that we conceptualized and put together a couple years ago at Northern Arizona University with myself, and primarily I collaborated with a wonderful instructional designer who also teaches a great deal… John Doherty. So, how this came about is I was seeing all the information on distraction… I’m really getting into this as a cognitive psychologist and going “Wow, students need to know that if they’re texting five friends and watching a video in their class. It’s not going to happen for them.” I was really concerned about “What can I actually do to change students minds?” So, my way of doing this was to go around giving guests presentations in every classes where people would let me burn an hour of their class time… and not a very scalable model… and John Doherty respectfully sat through one my presentations on this and then he approached me and said “Look, you know, we could make a module and put this online… and it could be an open access within the institution module, so that anybody at my school can just click in and they’re signed up. We could put this together. We could use some really great instructional design principles and we could just see what happens… and I bet more people would take that if it were done in that format. We did this with no resources. We just were passionate about the project and that’s what we did. We had no grant backing or anything. We got behind it. So, what this is is about a one- to two-hour module that, it’s a lot like a MOOC in that it there’s not a whole lot of interaction or feedback, but there are discussion forums and it’s very self-paced in that way… so one- to two-hour mini MOOCs that really puts at the forefront demonstrations and activities… so we don’t try to convince students about problems with distraction and multitasking… we don’t try to address that just by laying a bunch of research articles on them… I think that’s great if this were a psychology course, but it’s not. So, we come at it by linking them out to videos, for example, that we were able to choose, that we feel really demonstrate in some memorable ways what gets by us when we aren’t paying attention… and we also give students some research-based tips on how to set a behavioral plan and stick to it… because just like with so many areas of life, just knowing that something is bad for you is not enough to really change your behavior and get you not to do that thing. so we have students talking about their own plans and what they do when, say, they’re having a boring moment in class, or they’re really really tempted to go online while they’re doing homework at home. What kinds of resolutions can they set or what kind of conditions can make that that will help them accomplish that. Things like the software blockers… you set a timer on your computer and it can lock you out of problematic sites… or we learned about a great app called Pocket Points where you actually earn spendable coupon points for keeping your phone off during certain hours. This is students talking to students about things that really concern them and really concern us all because I think a lot of us struggle with that.

So, we try to do that… and the bigger frame for this as well is this is, I feel, a life skill for the 21st century… thinking about how technology is going to be an asset to you and not detract from what you accomplish in your life. What a great time to be reflecting on that, when you’re in this early college career. so that’s what we try to do with the project…and we’ve had over a thousand students come through. They oftentimes earn extra credit. Our faculty are great about offering small amounts of extra credit for completing this and we’re just starting to roll out some research showing some of the impacts… and showing it in a bigger way just how you can go about setting up something like this.

Rebecca: I like that the focus seems to be on helping students with a life skill rather than using technology is just a blame or an excuse. We’re in control of our own behaviors and taking ownership over our behaviors is important rather than just kind of object blaming.

Michelle: So, looking at future trends, I would like to see more faculty looking at it in the way that you just described, Rebecca, as this is a life skill and it’s something that we collaborate on with our students… not lay down the law… because, after all, students are in online environments where we’re not there policing that and they do need to go out into work environments and further study and things like that. So, that’s what I feel is the best value. For faculty who are looking at this, if they don’t want to do… or don’t have the means to do something really formal like our Attention Matters approach, just thinking about it ahead of time… I think nobody can afford to ignore this issue anymore and whether you go the route of “No tech in my classroom” or “We’re going to use the technology in my classroom“ or something in between… just reading over, in a very mindful way, not just the opinion pieces, but hopefully also a bit of the research, I think, can help faculty as they go in to deal with this… and really to look at it in another way, just to be honest, we also have to consider how much of this is driven by our egos as teachers and how much of it is driven by a real concern for student learning and those student life skills. I think that’s where we can really take this on effectively and make some progress when we are de-emphasizing that ego aspect and making sure that it really is about the students.

John: We should note there’s a really nice chapter in this book called Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology that deals with these types of issues. It was one of the chapters that got our faculty particularly interested in these issues… on to what extent technology should be used in the classroom… and to what extent it serves as a distraction.

Michelle: I think that really speaks to another thing which I think is an enduring trend… which is the emphasis on really supporting the whole student in success and what we’ve come to call academic persistence… kind of a big umbrella term that has to do with, not just succeeding in a given class, but also being retained… coming back after the first year. As many leaders in higher education point out, this is as a financial issue. As someone pointed out, it does cost a lot less to hang on to the students you have instead of recruiting more students to replace ones who are lost. This is, of course, yet another really big shift in mindset of our own, because after all we did used to measure our success by “Hey, I flunked this many students out of this course” or” Look at how many people have to switch into different majors…our major is so challenging…”

So, we really have turned that thinking around and this does include faculty now. I think that we did used to see those silos. We had that very narrow view of “I’m here to convey content. I’m here to be an expert in this discipline, and that’s what I’m gonna do…” and sure, we want to think about things like do students have learning skills? Do they have metacognition? Are they happy and socially connected at the school? Are they likely to be retained so that we can have this robust university environment?

We had people for that, right? It used to be somebody else’s job… student services or upper administration. They were the ones who heard about that and now I think on both sides we really are changing our vision. More and more forward-thinking faculty are saying “You know what? Besides being a disciplinary expert, I want to become at least conversant with learning science. I want to become at least conversant with the science of academic persistence…” There is a robust early literature on this and that’s something that we’ve been working on at NAU over this past year as well… kind of an exciting newer project that I like very much. We’ve started to engage faculty in a new faculty development program called Persistence Scholars and this is there to really speak to people’s academic and evidence-based side, as well as get them to engage in some perspective-taking around things like the challenges that students face and what it is like to be a student at our institution. We do some really selected readings in the area we look at things like mindset… belongingness… these are really hot areas in that science of persistence… in that emerging field. But, we have to look at it in a really integrated way.

It’s easy for people to say just go to a workshop on mindset and that’s a nice concept, but we wanted to think about it in this bigger picture… really know what are some of the strengths of that and why? Where do these concepts come from? What’s the evidence? That’s something that I think is another real trend and I think as well we will see more academic leaders and people in staff and support roles all over universities needing to know more about learning science. There are still some misconceptions that persist, as we’ve talked about. We’re making progress in getting rid of some of these myths around learning, but I will say… I’m not gonna name any names… but, every now and again I will hear from somebody who says “Oh well, we need to match student learning styles” or “Digital natives think differently, don’t you know?” and I have to wonder whether that’s a great thing. I mean, these are oftentimes individuals that have the power to set the agenda for learning all over a campus. Faculty need to be in the retention arena and I think that leaders need to be in the learning science arena. The boundaries is breaking down and it’s about time.

Rebecca: One of the things that I thought was really exciting with the reading groups that we’ve been having on our campus… that we started with your book, but then we’ve read Make it Stick and Small Teaching since… is that a lot of administrators in a lot of different kinds of roles engaged with us in those reading groups, it wasn’t just faculty. There was a mix of faculty, staff, and some administrators, and I think that that was really exciting. For people who don’t have the luxury of being in your persistence scholar program, what would you recommend they read to get started to learn more about the science of persistence?

Michelle: I really, even after working with this for quite some time, I loved the core text that we have in that program, which is Completing College by Vincent Tinto. It’s just got a great combination of passionate and very direct writing style. So, there’s no ambiguity, there’s not a whole lot of “on the one hand this and on the other hand that.” It’s got an absolutely stellar research base, which faculty of course appreciate… and it has a great deal of concrete examples. So, in that book they talk about “okay, what does it mean to give really good support to first semester college students? What does that look like?” and they’ll go out and they’ll cite very specific “Here’s a school and here’s what they’re doing… here’s what their program looks like… here’s another example that looks very different but gets at the same thing.” So, that’s one of the things that really speak to our faculty… that they really appreciated and enjoyed.

I think that as well we tested good feedback about work that’s come out of the David Yeager and his research group on belongingness and lay theories, and lay theories is maybe a counterintuitive term for kind of a body of ideas about what students believe about academic success and why some people are successful and others are not and how those beliefs can be changed sometimes through relatively simple interventions and when it happens we see great effects such as the narrowing of achievement gaps among students who have more privilege or less privileged backgrounds… and that’s something that, philosophically, many faculty really really care about but they’ve never had the chance to really learn “Okay, how can I actually address something like that with what I’m doing in my classroom, and how can I really know that the things that I’m choosing do have that great evidence base…”

John: …and I think that whole issue is more important now and is very much a social justice issue because, with the rate of increase we’ve seen in college cost inflation, people who start college and don’t finish it are saddled with an awfully high burden of debt. The rate of return to a college degree is the highest that we’ve ever seen and college graduates end up not only getting paid a lot more but they end up with more comfortable jobs and so forth… and if we really want to move people out of poverty and try to reduce income inequality, getting more people into higher education and successfully completing higher education is a really important issue. I’m glad to see that your institution is doing this so heavily and I know a lot of SUNY schools have been hiring Student Success specialists. At our institution they’ve been very actively involved in the reading group, so that message is spreading and I think some of them started with your book and then moved to each of the others. So, they are working with students in trying to help the students who are struggling the most with evidence-based practices …and I think that’s becoming more and more common and it’s a wonderful thing.

Rebecca: So, I really liked Michelle that you were talking about faculty getting involved in retention and this idea of helping students develop persistence skills, and also administrators learning more about evidence-based practices. There’s these grassroots movements happening in both of these areas. Can you talk about some of the other grassroots movements that are working toward, or efforts that faculty are making to engage students and capture their attention and their excitement for education?

Michelle: Right, and here I think a neat thing to think about too is just it’s the big ambitious projects… the big textbook replacement projects or the artificial intelligence informed adaptive learning systems… those are the things that get a lot of the press and end up in The Chronicle of Higher Education that we read about… But, outside of that, there is this very vibrant community and grassroots led scene of developing different technologies and approaches. So, it really goes back for a while. I mean, the MERLOT database that I do talk about in Minds Online has been trove for years of well hidden gems that take on one thing in a discipline and come at it from a way that’s not just great from a subject-matter perspective but brings up the new creative approaches. In the MERLOT database, for example, there’s a great tutorial on statistical significance and the interrelationship between statistical significance and issues like simple sizes. You know, that’s a tough one for students, but it has a little animation involving a horse and a rider that really turns it into something that’s very visual… that’s very tangible… and it really actually tying into analogies, which is a well-known cognitive process that can support the advancement of learning something new. There is something on fluid pressures in the body that was treated for nursing students by nurses, and it’s got an analogy of a soaker hose that this is really fun and is actually interactive. So, those are the kinds of things. The PhET project, P-h-E-T which comes out of University of Colorado, that has been around for a while… again, faculty-led and a way to have these very useful interactive simulations for concepts in physics and chemistry. So, that’s one. CogLab, that’s an auxiliary product that I’ve used for some time in like hundred psychology courses that simulates very famous experimental paradigms which are notoriously difficult to describe on stage for cognitive psychology students. That started out many years ago as a project that very much has this flavor of “We have this need in our classroom. We need something interactive. There’s nothing out there. Let’s see what we can build.” It has since then picked up and turned into a commercial product, but that’s the type of thing that I’m seeing out there.

Another thing that you’ll definitely hear about if you’re circulating and hearing about the latest project is virtual reality for education. So, with this it seems like, unlike just a few years ago, almost everywhere you visit you’re going to hear that “Oh, we’ve just set up a facility. We’re trying out some new things.” This is something that I also heard about when I was talking to people when I was over in China. So, this is an international phenomenon. It’s going to pick up steam and definitely go some places.

What also strikes me about that is just how many different projects there are. Just when you’re worried that you’re going to be scooped because somebody else is going to get there first with their virtual reality project you realize you’re doing very very different things. So, I’ve seen, for example, it used in a medical application to increase empathy among medical students… and I took a six or seven minute demonstration that just was really heart-rending, simulating the patient experience with a particular set of sensory disorders… and at Northern Arizona University we have a lab that is just going full-steam in coming up with educational applications such as interactive organic chemistry tutorial that is is just fascinating. We actually completed a pilot project and are planning to gear up a much larger study next semester looking at the impacts of this. So, this is really taking off for sure.

But, I think there are some caveats here. We still really need some basic research on this… not just what should we be setting up and what the impacts are but how does this even work? In particular, what I would like to research in the future, or at least see some research on, is what kinds of students… what sort of student profile… really gets the most out of virtual reality for education. Because amidst all the very breathless press that’s going on about this now and all the excitement, we do have to remember this is a very, very labor intensive type of resource to set up. You’re not just going to go home and throw something together for the next week. It takes a team to build these things and to complete them as well. If you have, say, a 300 student chemistry course (which is not atypical at all… these large courses), you’re not going to just have all of them spend hours and hours and hours doing this even with a fairly large facility. It’s a very hands-on thing to guide them through this process, to provide the tech support, and everything else.

So, I think really knowing how we can best target our efforts in this area, so that we can build the absolute best, with the resources we have, and maybe even target and ask the students who are most likely to benefit. I think those are some of the things that we just need to know about this. So, it’s exciting for somebody like me who’s in the research area. I see this as a wonderful open opportunity… but those are some of the real crossroads we’re at with virtual reality right now.

Rebecca: I can imagine there’s a big weighing that would have to happen in terms of expense and time and resources needed to startup versus what that might be saving in the long run. I can imagine if it’s a safety thing that you want to do a virtual reality experience, like saving people’s lives and making sure that they’re not going to be in danger as they practice particular skills, could be a really good investment in these… spending the resources to make that investment… or if it’s a lot of travel that would just be way too expensive to bring a bunch of students to a particular location… but you could virtually… it seems like it would be worth the start-up costs and those are just two ideas off the top of my head where it would make sense to bend all of that resource and time.

John: …and equipment will get cheaper. Right now, it’s really expensive for computers that have sufficient speed and graphics processing capability and the headsets are expensive, but they will come down in price, but as you said, it’s still one person typically and one device… so it doesn’t scale quite as well as a lot of other tools or at least not at this stage.

Rebecca: From what I remember, Michelle, you wrote a blog post about [a] virtual reality experience that you had. Can you share that experience, and maybe what stuck with you from that experience?

Michelle: Right, so I had the opportunity, just as I was getting to collaborate with our incredible team at the immersive virtual reality lab at NAU… one of the things I was treated to was about an hour and a half in the virtual reality setup that they have to explore some of the things that they had… Giovanni Castillo, by the way, is creative director of the lab and he’s the one who was so patient with me through all this. We tried a couple of different things and of course there’s such a huge variety of different things that you can do.
There’s a few things out there like driving simulators that are kind of educational… they’re kind of an entertainment… but he was just trying to give me, first of all, just a view of those… and I had to reject a few of them… I will say, initially, because I am one of the individuals who tends to be prone to motion sickness. So, that limits what I can personally do in VR and that is yet another thing that we’re gonna have to figure out. At least informally, what we hear is that women in particular tend to experience more of this. So, I needed, first of all, to go to a very low motion VR. I wasn’t gonna be whizzing through these environments. That was not going to happen for me. So, we did something that probably sounds incredibly simplistic, but it just touched me to my core… which is getting to play with Google Earth. You can spin the globe and either just pick a place at random or what Giovanni told me is… “You know, I’ve observed that when people do this, when we have an opportunity to interact with Google Earth, they all either go to where they grew up or they’ll go to someplace that they have visited recently or they plan to visit. So, I went to a place that is very special to me and maybe it doesn’t fit into either one of those categories neatly, but it’s my daughter’s University… her school… and I should say that this is also a different thing for me because my daughter goes to school in Frankfort, Germany… an institute that is connected to a Museum. So, I had only been to part of the physical facility… the museum itself… and it was a long time ago… and part of it was closer to the holiday. So, this is my opportunity to go there and explore what it looks like all over… and so, that was an emotional experience for me. It was a sensory experience… it was a social one… because we were talking the whole time… and he’s asking me questions and what kinds of exhibits do they have here… and what’s this part of it. So, that was wonderful. it really did give me a feel for alright, what is it actually like to be in this sort of environment?

I’m not a gamer. I don’t have that same background that many of our students have. So, it got me up to speed on that… and it did show me how just exploring something that is relatively simple can really acquire a whole new dimension in this kind of immersive environment. Now the postscript that I talked about in that blog post was what happened when I actually visited there earlier in the year. So, I had this very strange experience that human beings have never had before… which is from this… I don’t know whether to call it deja vu or what… of going to the settings and walking around the same environment and seeing the same lighting and all that sort of stuff that was there in that virtual reality environment… but this time, of course, with real human beings in it and the changes… the little subtle changes that take place over time, and so forth.

So, how does it translate into learning? What’s it going to do for our students? I just think that time is going to tell. It won’t take too long, but I think that these are things we need to know. But, sometimes just getting in and being able to explore something like this can really put you back in touch with the things you love about educational technology.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that I’m hearing in your voice is the excitement of experimenting and trying something… and that’s, I think, encouragement for faculty in general… is to just put yourself out there and try something out even if you don’t have something specific in mind with what you might do with it. Experiencing it might give you some insight later on. it might take some time to have an idea of what you might do with it, but having that experience, you understand it better… it could be really useful.

John: …and that’s something that could be experienced on a fairly low budget with just your smartphone and a pair of Google cardboard or something similar. Basically, it’s a seven to twelve dollar addition to your phone and you can have that experience… because there’s a lot of 3D videos and 3D images out there on Google Earth as well as on YouTube. So, you can experience other parts of the world and cultures before visiting… and I could see that being useful in quite a few disciplines.

Rebecca: So, we always wrap up with asking what are you going to do next?

Michelle: I continue to be really excited about getting the word out about cognitive principles and how we can flow those in to teaching face-to-face with technology… everything else in between. So, that’s what I continue to be excited about… leveraging cognitive principles with technology and with just rethinking our teaching techniques. I’m going to be speaking at the Magna Teaching with Technology Conference in October, and so I’m continuing to develop some of these themes… and I’m very excited to be able to do that. I’m right now also… we’re in the early stages of another really exciting project that has to do with what we will call neuromyth… So, that may be a term that you’ve turn across in some of your reading. It’s something that we touched on a few times, I think, in our conversation today… the misconceptions that people have about teaching and learning and how those can potentially impact the choices we make in our teaching. So, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with this amazing international group of researchers who’s headed up by Dr. Kristen Betts of Drexel University… and I won’t say too much more about it other than we have a very robust crop of survey responses that have come in from, not just instructors, but also instructional designers and administrators from around the world. So, we’re going to be breaking those survey results down and coming up with some results to roll out probably early in the academic year and we’ll be speaking about that at the Accelerate conference, most likely in November. That’s put out by the Online Learning Consortium. So, we’re right in the midst of that project and it’s going to be so interesting to see what has the progress been? What neuromyths are still out there and how can they be addressed by different professional development experiences. We’re continuing to work on the Persistence Scholars Program on academic persistence. So, we’ll be recruiting another cohort of willing faculty to take that on in the fall at Northern Arizona University. I am going to be continuing to collaborate and really work with and hear from John and his research group with respect to the metacognitive material that they’re flowing into foundational coursework and ways to get students up to speed with a lot of critical metacognitive knowledge. So, we’re going to work on that too… and I like to keep up my blog and work on shall we say longer writing project but we’ll have to stay tuned for that.

Rebecca: Sounds like you need to plan some sleep in there too.

[LAUGHTER]

John: Well, it’s wonderful talking to you, and you’ve given us a lot of great things to reflect on and to share with people.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you for being so generous with your time.

John: Thank you.

Michelle: Oh, thank you. Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure, an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance from Nicky Radford.

33. The Marmots of Finance

In our ongoing coverage of wildlife in the classroom, we can’t help but ask: How does a marmot become a mascot for a finance class? In this episode, Alex Butler, a Professor of Finance at Rice University, joins us to discuss how rich imagery can be used to help students make connections and deepen their understanding.

Alex received the Rice University Presidential Mentoring Award and the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching in 2018. He is also the recipient of the Jones School’s Award for Scholarship Excellence in 2011 and 2012.

Show Notes

  • Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP)
  • Medina, J. (2011). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. ReadHowYouWant.com.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Alex’s web site at Rice

Transcript

Rebecca: In our ongoing coverage of wildlife in the classroom, we can’t help but ask: How does a marmot become a mascot for a finance class? In this episode, we’ll discuss how rich imagery can be used to help students make connections and deepen their understanding.

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Alex Butler, a professor of finance at Rice University. Alex received the Jones School’s Award for Scholarship Excellence in 2011 and 2012. Alex teaches financial markets and corporate finance in the undergraduate MBA, MBA, and PhD programs. Sometime in the latter part of the last century, Alex and I spent three summers teaching introductory economics to highly gifted middle school and high school students at the Talent Identification Program at Duke University.
Welcome, Alex.

Alex: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me, John.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Alex: I am not drinking tea…. just water at this point.

Rebecca: Another one… epidemic.

John: My tea is ginger peach white tea.

Rebecca: I’ve Prince of Wales today.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you normally teach?

Alex: Sure. I have, over the years, taught almost every course that we have… either here or at other schools. Right now what I teach (and I’m glad to finally have settled into a group of classes that are my classes year in and year out) and those classes are the undergraduate business finance class and PhD courses – one in corporate finance, and one that’s a topics class on causal inference. I really enjoy teaching the undergrad business finance class in particular because I was an undergraduate student here at Rice many, many years ago, and so it’s fun to be back and be on the other side of the podium teaching the students. One of the things that I really like about teaching the undergraduates here is that they are able to appreciate my dorky sense of humor.

Rebecca: …which is indeed a very important thing.

Alex: Agreed. For years, I tried to suppress my dorky sense of humor in the classroom… ad tried to teach the course sort of straight up and dry, and it made everybody miserable… the students…. me… and so, eventually over time, as I grew more and more confident teaching, I started incorporating more and more jokes here and there… and then I allowed them to become more elaborate, and then before you know it, I’ve developed a full-blown dad sense of humor and full-on dork mode.

John: That’s actually why we invited you here. We read a little bit about that in a teaching award you just received. What do students expect the course to be about when they take an introductory finance course?

Alex: At Rice, the students have a good grapevine of information about what courses are about and so, at this point, the students come in with pretty solid expectations that line up with what the class actually is… and whereas some students are hoping that I’m going to teach them how to become millionaires in the stock market, what the course mostly is about is that’s very hard to become a millionaire investing in the stock market and how to make decisions in a corporate setting that will maximize firm value.

Rebecca: So you mentioned that some students come in with this misperception of becoming a millionaire. What are some of the strategies that you use to dispel that myth?

Alex: I should say this class is one that is a fairly standard course that’s taught in lots of different business schools all over the country, all over the world. One way that I do it differently is in the order of material that I cover… and so the very first week of class, I talk about market efficiency. That’s the notion that it’s very difficult to earn abnormal returns in the stock market. In other words, you can’t beat the stock market very easily, unless it just happens to be by luck… and so I come in the first week talking about the reasons why it’s very difficult to beat the stock market… and the reason why is because there are literally tens of thousands of people who have more money and more resources and who are faster and are doing this as a full-time job who are also trying to find the stocks that are mispriced… and so unless you are the investor who is faster, and smarter, and has more money to throw at the trading strategy that you think of, it’s very very difficult to beat the other 10,000 people… and so I spend the first week of class introducing this concept and then providing copious amounts of evidence… research that highlights how difficult it is for lay people to earn abnormal returns in the stock market. That sets the setting for the rest of the course, which is this notion of how competition affects prices and how that feeds through to other applications and the corporate domain as opposed to the financial markets domain.

Rebecca: What made you switch the order?

Alex: What I realized after teaching this class for a long time is that most of corporate finance, most of business finance, is about discounting cash flows back to the present at some appropriate discount rate, and I found I was having a hard time getting the students to understand the notion of what interest rate, what discount rate, should be used to make these cash flows that are spread through time to get a present value equivalent. I figured if I started with some aspect of that, where that rate comes from, where those prices come from. but that would make the rest of the course easier for them to understand as we go through. So, that’s why. Most people wait until after they’ve introduced things like: “oh, portfolio theory” and “capital asset pricing model” and other asset pricing concepts before they talk about market efficiency… and so I just sort of turned that around backwards… and I open the course with that. So, point number one is pedagogical, and point number two is that the lectures that I do on market efficiency are really fun, and so I really like starting the course off with something that’s really fun. So, we can talk about stories of insider trading, and we can talk about stories of surprise announcements and how that affects stock returns, and we can talk about “oh, so you think you’re going to beat the market, well let me explain to you how hard it is and the reasons why …” also were very fun. So, we can spend the first week talking about fun stuff. It’s a giant bait and switch.

[LAUGHTER]

I lure them in with fun stuff and then beat them to death for the next fourteen weeks with discounted cash flow analysis.

Rebecca: It also sounds like it’s a good way to motivate students. Not only is it fun, but it gets students motivated and interested and they buy into the class, which I wouldn’t discount that. I think that’s an important task.

Alex: Oh, absolutely.

John: …discounting in a different sense, but…

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, sorry… I’m a designer

John: …but it also starts a class by dispelling that myth that they’re going to learn tools that will allow them to become really wealthy in financial investments and so forth. So, you’re setting it up by getting rid of that myth and they’re ready to start actually learning without having that at the background.

Alex: Correct.

Rebecca: I really like the idea of just meeting students where they’re at. If this is where some students are coming with, and maybe they’re super motivated in some ways but not in others, that you just tackle both of those in one week.

Alex: That’s right.

Rebecca: Cool.
You recently won a 2018 George R. Brown Award for superior teaching, and the Georgia R. Brown Awards are based on an interesting selection process. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Alex: Yeah, so what the university does is they solicit feedback from recent alumni, people who graduated, I think, it’s two and five years ago. Now, they have graduated and they’re looking back what teachers would they want to see when these awards… and so, it’s really a neat honor, because once the students are two, three, four. five years out, they’re not responding to the short-term incentives that some professors used to gain teaching evaluations and things like that, they’re looking back and they’re actually remembering what the course was, what the professor was like, and whether it was meaningful to them. It’s really been just a phenomenal honor, and one that I honestly thought that I would never win. So, it’s been really special to have gotten that award.

John: It’s a really interesting idea to have an award given in that way, because it focuses on that long-term learning, that you’ve taught them something that’s going to benefit them later rather than, as you said, something that people do short term. I know some faculty, when we’re doing course evaluations, will give out cookies or other things just to boost their short-term course evaluations. But, that’s not going to pay off very much two to five years after graduation.

Alex: That’s correct. I went through the cookies and brownies phase myself years ago and decided that that just wasn’t who I wanted to be, so…. Now, we’re on to just just the pedagogy at this point.

Rebecca: I think there’s a couple of interesting things that I see about those awards, too, and one is that is more meaningful probably to win it because you can feel the impact but two it meshes really well with what we know about evidence-based practices in that students generally don’t like them while they’re happening, but they have longer-term effects… and that students tend to learn that material and transfer that material later on.

Alex: That’s absolutely correct, and I’m a big subscriber to that basic view that students often don’t like things that make them uncomfortable, and learning new and difficult things is uncomfortable. I think one could make students happier in the short run by giving them lots of little assignments where they feel like they’re making progress every day but they’re not actually being challenged, they’re not actually being pushed, and so instead holding them to very high standards for demonstrating their mastery of material while that is very uncomfortable for some of them, it is that that makes them better students and better scholars of that topic.

John: It reminds me of Bjork and Bjork, in their writings on “desirable difficulties.” that the most learning occurs when students are faced with feasible challenges… that if things are too easy, they get bored, and they may be happy with the course if they don’t have to struggle much… but they learn the most when they’re struggling but they see it’s possible.

We’ve heard that this award, though, based on some of the write-ups we’ve seen at your institution, may somehow be tied to marmots, wolves, and The Princess Bride. What do they all have to do with finance?

Alex: Several years ago, I was reading some books I thought would be…. some I thought it’d be helpful for my teaching, some that I just thought would be helpful for me, and one of the books was a book called Brain Rules by John Medina, and it’s basically a book that tries to take cognitive science, brain science, down to a level that lay people can understand and gives several rules of thumb of how the brain works and why the brain works the way it does… and as I’m reading this, reading it mostly for my own consumption so that I can be a better researcher and more thoughtful person, smarter, that sort of thing, I realized “Gosh, a lot of the rules here applied very directly to teaching, at least in the lecture format that I use in most of my courses…” and so one of the things that really stood out to me is how people learn better, remember better, I guess I should say, when they see images images that relate to whatever the topic at hand is. So, text maybe a PowerPoint slide with text, and you remember X percent but if you see an image, you remember much more of that material later on… and so this gave me just a license to, all of a sudden, start having fun on a completely new dimension. Reading this book and sort of embracing the notion that I could maybe help students remember the material better simply by infusing my lecture slides with some relevant images, was just eye opening for me… because now I could take my completely dry, boring slides with words and numbers and equations and now I can have fun with them…. and have this entire new dimension, a degree of freedom, to play around with what the slides are gonna look like and how the students are going to experience them. So, that’s sort of the extensive margin. The first part is: “Hey, I need images…” so the intrinsic margin is “what kind of images do I need?” “what will work best?” and Brain Rules comes to the rescue there again… and it says people respond to images that are faces, that are things that are scary, things that they can eat, things that might want to eat them, and things that they might want to mate with. Well, that last one’s kind of out for most of my lecture slides… [LAUGHTER] I can’t really incorporate that very directly. But it got me thinking “okay, what’s scary?” So, I started looking around for images of things that are scary to people… and I found this great image of this really, just terrifying, snarling wolf. I’m like “Ah, I’m gonna use that to get people’s attention…” But, as I started thinking about it, I wanted to lead into the wolf a little bit… and so the main prey of wolves in North America are marmots… yellow-bellied marmots… and so I found this great image of a little cute yellow-bellied marmot sitting on a rock somewhere in the mountain somewhere… and now when I come in to teach what could be the absolute driest lecture of the entire course which is time value of money and understanding how to discount cash flows (it’s the tool that everything else builds on, so it’s incredibly important to get it right, but it’s also potentially incredibly technical and boring)… and so I start that lecture not with an equation not with numbers but with a giant image of a marmot filling the entire computer’s projection screen…. and I just leave it up there… and the class is all looking at it… and I look back at them… and I pick someone at random. I cold call… and I say: “So, Charlotte, what do you think?”

“What do you mean what do I think?”

“What is it?”

… and we go through a series of guesses, and the guesses range from just ludicrous things: “it’s a gopher.”

“No, no, clearly it’s not a gopher. Gophers are a lowland creature. This is obviously in the mountains.”

“It’s an otter.”

“No, no, no. Otters prefer marine habitats, and this is clearly not there.”

… and go through this for a while until usually somebody recognizes it as a marmot. I say “Yes, very good. Alright..”

…and so then on to the next slide and the next slide is this picture of George Soros with no caption, no explanation, but again filling the entire screen, here’s this giant picture of George Soros… and so I go back to the first person: “Charlotte what do you think about this one? You didn’t get the marmot, how about this one?” …and so invariably somebody will eventually guess it’s a hedge fund manager.

I say: “Yes, very good. That’s George Soros, a famous hedge fund manager.” then the next slide is the wolf, the snarling wolf, and so at this point the captions on the slides read “This is a yellow-bellied marmot,” “This is a hedge fund manager” … and then it’s obvious what the wolf is. People get that right away. So, Charlotte gets to redeem herself at that point.

[LAUGHTER]

“This is a wolf, one of the main predators of the yellow-bellied marmot,” and then the next slide is another picture of a marmot but this one looking somewhat quizzical and the caption here is: “Why do wolves eat marmots, but not hedge fund managers?” …and the answer that I propose is because hedge fund managers understand the time value of money, but marmots do not. Now, that obviously doesn’t actually follow, but the correlation is there… that part is true… and so I just sort of lean into that and the ridiculousness behind that statement and from there on the marmot becomes our time value of money mascot… and so every time throughout the course I introduced a new application of time value of money then I bring in another image of a marmot to sort of tie all that together. iIt’s hard to see that the tie that binds everything together is time value of money and so the marmot, the mascot, is the visual cue, that “oh, this isn’t special, this isn’t different, this is just another application of the same technique we’ve been doing over and over again.

John: That notion of using visual cues goes back to the Greeks who use it to remember long stories before there was much printed word, and one of the arguments is that it’s because visual imagery developed much earlier than the use of language and the things you described in terms of things that might eat you may be tied back to our evolutionary adaptation, and so we’re tying into things that evolve fairly early in the evolution of human beings.

Rebecca: …and it also is just that emotional response.

John: Right, when you trigger an emotional response and fear is a major one…

Rebecca: Yeah. mm-hmm

John: Do the wolf’s chase the Princess Bride? I don’t remember that…

Alex: Well no…. So, the Princess Bride lecture is where I talk about decision rules using discounted cash flow techniques…. and so this sort of standard playbook for any finance professor anywhere as you talk about net present value and internal rate of return and payback period and maybe a few other rules as well, you just sort of go through the… whatever they have in the book in the order in the book, and you talk about each one in turn. But, it’s a lot more fun if you can personify those.. and so that’s what I use the characters from Princess Bride to do… and so the main character, which is net present value, is personified as Wesley / (there’s a spoiler alert here – so you haven’t seen the movie Wesley is the Dread Pirate Roberts). I always show my kids my lecture slides and when I showed them that one my older daughter was mortified that I would ruin the Princess Bride movie for students by revealing that Wesley and the Dread Pirate Roberts are one and the same… and so from there, I personify the different rules based on the different characters in Princess Bride… and so internal rate of return which is sort of flashy and useful but has some flaws as Inigo Montoya; the payback period which is sort of a blunt instrument is Fezzak the Giant, and so forth… modified internal rate of return is the Cliffs of Insanity.

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So, the important thing to ask then is do you have the spoiler alert at the beginning of your lecture.
AEX: I do now.

[LAUGHTER]

John: How old was your daughter at the time when she reacted to that?

Alex: About ten years old.

John: Okay. So, by the time students are in college, they’ve probably either seen it or they may be less likely to, so it probably doesn’t do quite as much damage.

Alex: I hope so, and in fact I even now encourage them to watch the movie before that lecture without really telling them why. So some of them do. Some of them ask around and figure out why, but that makes it more fun.

Rebecca: That was gonna be my follow-up… is that homework?

Alex: It’s the best homework they’ll ever have.

John: So, how have students responded to this? Do they remember this later?

Alex: Yes and no. for the Princess Bride lecture I believe that the students sort of uniformly enjoy that…. but I don’t have a good sense of how much that actually impacts the depth of their learning. For the marmots, it’s a completely mixed bag… some of the students really love it, and I really do lean hard on the fact that this is the mascot… this is the thing that ties it all together… and this is the visual cue so you will now recognize that when we do bond pricing “oh, here’s a marmot, that means it’s just time value of money…” “oh, when we do net present value, here’s a marmot showing up alongside our Princess Bride character it’s just time value of money” and so forth. Many of the students really enjoy that and grab on to it and some students, they’re not having any of it. They want boring… they want dry… and I’m afraid they’ve come to the wrong place. Been there and done that. I don’t do that anymore.

John: But that use of imagery is really common. People who work on developing memory… the memory palace type things where you tie specific concepts and bundles of concepts with chunks of item to key images, helps people remember things long term. I can see how it would be really effective.

Rebecca: I also could see that one of the things that students often struggle with when information is new to them is making those connections. So providing that visual cue like “here’s time to make a connection…” it’s actually really helpful, because those are the kinds of things that might seem really abstract and very separate if you’re not making an explicit. So, I like that you don’t even have to say explicitly like “this is the thing” you have by putting the image up there, and you’re prompting the students to predict what that connection is or challenging them to think of it on their own before you reveal what that connection is.

Alex: That’s right, and so what started off as just a fun way to get attention: “Hey, class is starting let’s all key in… Here’s a scary wolf.” So, now we’re all paying attention to the scary wolf because that’s how our brains are hard-wired. It’s now grown into this entire thing where throughout the entire class is a continuing callback.

Rebecca: It sounds to me like you must have some pressure every semester to have to have something new that you introduce into some sort of lecture so that there’s some anticipation.

Alex: I’ll be the first one to say that I shamelessly recycle all of my jokes…

[LAUGHTER]

… and so I’m always sort of terrified when I have a student who started the class last year but had to drop at the 6 week mark or the 8 week mark because whatever was going on their life, and then they’re back the next year. Like “oh man, you’re gonna get the exact same jokes with the exact same timing, the exact same patter.” It mostly seems to work fine, and I do continually try to incorporate new things. One of the nice things about teaching finance, although some of it is very static… the basic concept of time value of money is going to be there for basically forever and I won’t need to change the actual examples in those slides really ever… but a lot of the other material changes very rapidly. So, the notion of what does market efficiency mean? who can beat the market and win? what is the evidence? But for topics like market efficiency, for topics like financial markets, for topics like investment banking, those areas transform rapidly… and so I’m continually changing those lectures year after year because one of the big topics that I cover in my course that is not really traditional for an undergrad business finance class is how firms raise external capital. The reason why is because it’s one of my main research interests, and so I have lots of ideas of what I want the students to know, and lots of research that I can tie into the lectures that I give. For the past five or ten years financial markets, the regulation of financial markets, firms’ ability to raise external capital, has changed tremendously as regulation has changed and so I’m continually revamping that portion of the course basically every time that I’m breaking it out.

Rebecca: One thing that I can’t help but think is that you and John have some similar backgrounds in terms of content, so the time value of money that you keep referencing probably makes sense to you but I feel like our listeners might not know exactly what that is so maybe we should just take a minute and give a quick cap of that so people know.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. So, if you have $100 and you invest it earning an interest rate of 5% per year, in a year how much money will you have?

Rebecca: One hundred and five?

Alex: One hundred and five dollars.

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s not a trick question, right?

Alex: No, No, it’s not…

[LAUGHTER]
… and so, as you invest money it earns some rate of return and so then money in the future you have more, because it earns some positive rate of return, and conversely, would you rather have $100 today or $100 in a year? Well, the answer is $100 today, because you could invest that for that year and have the hundred dollars plus some additional return. So, you’d have a hundred and five dollars one year from now instead of the: “oh, I’m going to give you a hundred dollars a year from now” and that’s all the time value of money is.. and then it’s application of that over multiple cash flows and multiple periods where people start to lose track that it’s just math.

John: That’s the fun part.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah.

John: I also ask my students have they ever burned their mouth on a slice of pizza, and why don’t they just wait? ..and it’s one way of introducing the notion that we prefer things now to later. It’s a fairly important concept in economics and finance and it’s at the basis of finance.

Alex: Oh, absolutely… and I like the way of framing it as how patient you are. Are you willing to wait or are you impatient? …and so the way that I sometimes describe that in class is if you have a low discount rate that means that the future is worth about the same as the present and so you are patient. If you have a very high discount rate well then the future and the present are very different, so high discount rates → impatient, low discount rates → patient.

Rebecca: You realize that the irony of this whole thing is that I have these conversations with my husband all the time because he’s in finance, right? Yeah….

[LAUGHTER]

John: Ok, well, does that help explain it?

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. I’ve had it explained to me many times.

[LAUGHTER]

I figured our listeners would need it.

Alex: Well, since we’re talking about the things that our students do, I’ll just share one example that I use in class that I continue to use even though it completely does not work with undergraduate students. It’s when I’m trying to introduce the concept of sunk costs… and so a sunk cost is some amount that you have paid… a cash flow that has happened in the past perhaps… and so once that is paid, you can’t get it back …and so it’s like the notion of “should he throw good money after bad” is another way of phrasing it… and so, what I used to say is, “Well, you go to a movie, you pay your fee to go in, and you decide it’s a terrible movie, should you keep watching to get your money’s worth or should you leave? and then a student pointed out to me one year that well, actually, if you go and you complain you can get your money back from the management.

[LAUGHTER]

Okay, different example. This is the one that never works on the undergrads. You go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and you have a choice of do you buy one plate for this amount or do you pay a little more to get the all-you-can-eat buffet and you decide to go for the all-you-can-eat. You pay the $10 for the all-you-can-eat instead of the $7 for the single plate… and you go and you fill up your plate and you eat… but you decide you’re full after just your first plate… but you’ve already paid that all-you-can-eat price. Should you go back for more? …and the intellectual scholarly answer is “Well, no, because the marginal benefit of eating more food is negative at this point because you’re full. Even though the marginal cost is zero.” But, for the students, the undergraduates, the marginal benefit of eating more food is always positive.

[LAUGHTER]

They view it as a sport. Dinner’s not over until they kick me out.

Rebecca: I think that’s really important to consider your audience and what works. So, I think that’s a really good demonstration of knowing your audience and why something might not work for a particular audience.

Alex: Yes, nonetheless, I still use that example… but I tell them ahead of time “I know this is not going to make sense to you. You’re going to push back on me. Nonetheless, I want to talk it through with you so that we can think about who has marginal benefits and marginal costs of what amount.”

John: Just last semester I used exactly the same thing of asking them how many of them would leave a movie theater if it was clear that they weren’t enjoying the movie and this time I had some people argue “I do that all the time.” So, yeah…

Rebecca: Movie theaters? Don’t you just have Netflix?

[LAUGHTER]

John: Okay, that’s actually a relevant point. In terms of the Princess Bride, we’re moving into a generation where many of your students might not have seen that. Do you have any other movie references that you might substitute in the future?

Alex: You know, I haven’t found the right one yet and, honestly, even if I found a good substitute, I’d really want to keep the Princess Bride, just to give them the incentive to watch that movie.

[LAUGHTER]

It is such a classic and such a gem. I really would like for them to all see that movie.

Rebecca: It’s an investment you’ve made.

[LAUGHTER]

Alex: That’s right.

Rebecca: How have faculty responded to the methods that you’ve been using?

Alex: Faculty are not surprised that I do the things that I do.

[LAUGHTER]

John: They’ve known you for a while.

Alex: They’ve known me for a while and I really lean into the corny pun bad jokes big time in class…. and I really I’m quite shameless about it.

John: That’s not new… I seem to remember that back at Duke when you were still in college.

Alex: …and it’s just a question of do I try to suppress that innate desire or not?

[LAUGHTER]

…and I’m at the stage in my career where “nope, not anymore.” You’re just gonna let it all out. My colleagues are not really surprised, but interestingly, one of my colleagues has adapted her lectures quite a bit to embracing this notion of adding images into the slide decks… and that’s my wife. She teaches business law and regulation of business. She was an attorney by training and I described her as a born-again economist because when she started teaching regulation of business she had to teach herself basically all of public choice economics. So, she got a couple of high-level textbooks and worked through them all but she and I regularly discuss teaching techniques and so she now has gone down the rabbit hole of finding that perfect image to highlight the point that you want to make… to have that really stretched metaphor that you can then call back throughout your course. So, it’s been a lot of fun to have her as a sounding board to go back and forth with.

Rebecca: I appreciate that you’ve brought design into the process.

Alex: Yeah.

John: Excellent. It’s something we all should probably do more of and think about more and certainly much more effective than those PowerPoint bulleted lists that are so common.

Alex: Yeah, a little bit of both actually goes a long way.

Rebecca: You’ve won some awards for your research. How do you maintain a balance between teaching and research?

Alex: It’s difficult. There are some ways in which research can feed directly into the teaching… and so my research that touches on market efficiency, some of that can come into the classroom. My research that touches on how firms raise external capital, some of that can come into the classroom. Now when I teach my PhD courses, those are heavily flavored by my research interests and preferences, but when I teach the undergraduate core finance class there’s not a whole lot that can flow back from that teaching into the research. So, that’s one of the downsides of teaching that class as opposed to perhaps a class that is more specialized or an elective or something that’s a little bit further downstream from the core class.

Rebecca: But at the same time, if it’s something that you teach routinely then the prep isn’t as difficult.

Alex: Absolutely. That’s true. It is hard to overstate how useful it is to teach a class a second time, or a third, or a fourth, or twentieth. Nonetheless, every single year, even though it’s the same class and mostly the same topics, I go through every slide, every lecture from the beginning every year.

Rebecca: But, I remember teaching a bigger selection of classes and one of the things that I’ve liked about my position at Oswego is that that suite of classes has gotten smaller… and then there’s a little less I’ll keep on top of to make sure that you have all that fresh information and what-have-you for classes.

Alex: Absolutely, and I’ve done the same thing. I’ve taught a variety of courses over the years and it’s been nice… as you describe it that suite of classes narrows, so that you have the same core group of classes that you’re teaching over and over again and you can start to specialize. You can really invest the time to get over the fixed costs of finding all those right images for the slides… to going through and taking time to invest in the design aspects of the lectures. That if you had four different courses every term, it would be incredibly difficult to find the time to do that effectively.

John: While you’re working with PhD students, you must do quite a bit of mentoring of them. How do you see the role of a faculty member as a mentor for graduate and undergraduate students?

Alex: Faculty vary widely on their views of how much mentoring PhD students should have… and so you have one model where it’s sink or swim… the PhD students are some of the smartest people in the world… they’re good students… they’ll figure stuff out… just point them in the right direction and let them go, and they’ll get there. That’s not the view that I subscribe to. Because I think we frequently overestimate just how much the doctoral students know, particularly about how the profession works. There’s no book for that. They can’t just go down to the library and find a textbook on how to be a good assistant professor or… there are books on how to write a dissertation but that only gets you so far, because it really needs to be very field specific. So, I tend to go very much the other way, which is a lot of sort of high-touch mentoring. I write co-authored papers with many PhD students, one of whom is now your colleague there at Oswego in the Finance Department in the School of Business, and it’s enjoyable for me. It is a good learning experience for the students and I think it helps them to learn how the profession works much more efficiently, because when it comes time to write a paper and they might put together some tables and say I want to structure the introduction this way. Oh, no, no, no, no, we can’t do that… because if you do that then it’ll make people be concerned about this issue here. So, instead, we need to twist it around this way and start with this… start with the big picture, not what your paper does but what your paper’s about. That sort of thing. That’s hard to learn on your own.
PhD students are PhD students because they are extraordinarily good students and they’re really good at learning. Though, that’s not the job for academics. The job is not the learning, the job is creating knowledge… and the transition from being a consumer to a producer of knowledge is scary, and it is the road that has very few signs or roadmaps to help them get down. It’s a transition of going from a consumer to a producer of knowledge… is very profound for a lot of people.

Rebecca: What’s interesting about what you’re hearing is you know my field the terminal degrees in an MFA a Master of Fine Arts, and the undergraduate degrees are really professional degrees. But, it’s the creators of cultural content ,and so that struggle happens at the undergraduate level too, of going from being that consumer of culture to a producer of culture. It’s really not that much different… just what they’re creating is a bit different.

Alex: That’s right.

John: I remember when I was working on my PhD, one time, where up until that point I had been meeting with my advisor every month to talk about my research, and at first I was just asking him questions… and then he was asking me questions and I realized suddenly that I knew more about the topic than he did… and that’s I think that sort of transition that’s sometimes difficult… because when you’re working on your research you’re mostly going out and finding all these earlier studies and so forth but you get to some point where suddenly you become the expert in the field and that’s a tough transition to make. It’s scary, as you said.

Alex: It is. It’s quite the watershed moment when you realize… when you are presenting your research to a room of 30 presumably learned scholars that maybe collectively they know more about the topic than you, but you know more than any individual person in that room… and becoming that expert and then owning it, so that you can write confidently is, I agree, a very tough transition

Rebecca: I like the emphasis on the owning it part. I think that’s key.

Alex: Yeah, imposter syndrome is real.
[LAUGHTER]

John: Everywhere.

Rebecca: So, we usually wrap up by asking “what are you gonna do next?”

Alex: Well, that’s a good question. I really wanna keep doing what I’m doing, making my class better year on year, teaching PhD students and training them year on year and working on research, hopefully research that people will actually find interesting and useful.
I have a sabbatical coming up.

Rebecca: When’s your sabbatical? What’s the countdown?

Alex: Well, the sabbatical is a year from now and in between then, one of my colleagues with whom I co-teach a doctoral seminar, he’s on his sabbatical. So that PhD course, that normally I teach half of, I’m now teaching the entirety of next fall. So, I think the first thing I’m gonna do is prep the rest of that class.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Deadlines make a difference.

Alex: Yes, indeed.

John: That procrastination thing… and that time preference…

Well, thank you!

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

Alex: Thanks.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

17. Online learning

Enrollment in online classes has grown steadily over the last few decades. Today, over 30% of college students enroll in at least one online course. In this episode, we discuss the evolution of  and possible future directions of online learning with Greg Ketcham, the Assistant Dean of the Division of Extended Learning at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

Books used for SUNY-Oswego reading groups (referenced by Greg):

  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press. (one of the books used in a reading group at SUNY-Oswego)

Transcript

John: Enrollment in online classes has grown steadily over the last few decades. Today, over thirty percent of college students enroll in at least one online course. In this episode, we examine how online learning has evolved, and is continuing to evolve, to better serve student needs.

Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Today our guest is Greg Ketcham, the Assistant Dean of the Division of Extended Learning at SUNY Oswego. Greg focuses primarily on programs serving adult learners. Greg is actively involved in Educause, the Online Learning Consortium, and the University Professional Continuing Education Association. Welcome, Greg.

John: Welcome.

Greg: Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you, John.

John: So today, our teas are…

Rebecca: English Afternoon.

Greg: Actually we were just joking about this before we started that I think we have to change the name of the show to “Coffee for Cognition.” So, I’m drinking coffee.

John: …and I am drinking Harry and David’s Bing Cherry tea.

Rebecca: It sounds like a mouthful.

Greg: Well, if you’re going to be giving a plug, I have to give a plug then to Recess Coffee because it’s my favorite coffee roasting vendor in Syracuse.

Rebecca: I say it’s a nice, local, upstate…right?

Greg: Absolutely.

John: So you’ve been involved in online education for quite a while… since sometime last century…

Greg: You’re making me feel really old, thank you.

John: …both as a student and as an administrator. From your perspective, how has online education evolved over that time period?

Greg: Sure. That’s a really good question. Now granted, I really was not there at the dawn of time of online learning, I want to be clear about that. But, actually, as an outside casual observer… well, maybe I was…at least in terms of the late twentieth century…. because if we really think about what distance learning looked like before the advent of the internet, it was really what I refer to as ITV, Instructional Television. Sunrise Semester being probably the most famous example of that, that I think is still in production and out there for years and years and years out of New York City. And obviously, at the advent of time based on the technology, there was a one-way transmission of knowledge. To say that it was really education, It was not a bidirectional experience in any way. Moving forward into the 90s, with the advent of the Internet and shortly thereon, the World Wide Web, suddenly we begin to move into something that becomes much more bidirectional and I love these acronyms because nobody remembers them anymore: MUSHes, MUDs, multi-user domains that were largely text based, that kind of go back to the Adventures of Zelda, in a way, if we go back and remember that far back in terms of what an interactive game experience was like. So those were text based and as we begin to scroll forward, really to where we are today, the changes in the underlying technology change the kinds of interactions that we can have.

So, largely speaking, when I started, which was thirteen years ago here, we were really looking at online learning in a purely asynchronous form and really, of course, we said that was for learner convenience… which I think is still true. I think that’s the reason why it is asynchronous, because the typical online learner is an adult and is a part-time student… is juggling many things in his or her life and learning is a part of that… so, it has to be based on when it fits into their time budget. So where we are, compared to again let’s say 2005. 2005, we had limitations in our learning technology. It was largely text based so the forms and interaction between instructor and student were predominantly text based. Today, we’re at a point where those kinds of interactions can truly be multimedia. We can incorporate audio… we can incorporate video… we can have online chat sessions together… video sessions together. So we’ve really broadened our palette in the ways in which we can interact and communicate and create those learning spaces. That to me is a really big deal and I think I’ve become much more of a convert to these sort of multimodal means, being a student again.[Laughter]

Yeah, eating my own dog food as they say, right?….being the continuing adult learner… I’m actually a part-time learner in a doctoral program and it’s always good, actually, to flip the equation, if you can, right? To go from instructor to student and remember what the student experience is like, first of all. To be in an online course and go, “Oh God, really? This is what it’s like?” Now, that’s not true of all my online courses so far, I just want to be clear about that. But what I did experience was the fact that we injected group work into one course and, of course, I’ve never personally loved the idea of group work, period. But leveraging Google Hangouts, leveraging Google Docs, it was transformative in the sense that it really was creating a sense of community. That’s something we’ve always strived for in online learning and moving outside the bounds of that purely asynchronous construct– it was just truly transformative to me in my thinking about it. And as we move forward, I think we have these opportunities to leverage the technology and not be so trapped in the box of the tools.

Rebecca: What I’m hearing is… early on, even when it was online, it was still traditional correspondence classes, right? So, you’re corresponding… but now, it’s community…

Greg: RIght.

Rebecca: …and I think the difference in those two words is really powerful… and even just thinking about what they mean.

Greg: I think that’s true, and it’s interesting because you’re seeing this right now in our media. I want to say “the media,” about our media that we consume about higher ed. Western Governors University, being on the leading edge of doing competency based education, it tends to subvert our notions of what online learning is…. maybe not necessarily true for Western Governors, but in some models, you’ve got kind of a pay-one-price, consume-all-you-can… it’s not bounded by the conventions of a semester. It’s not in the normal control functions of an instructor helping to manage the students ‘learning. So conversely then, the Department of Education at the federal level is saying, “You know what? This looks like a correspondence course, and if this is a correspondence course, then it doesn’t qualify for financial aid.” So there’s a lot of implications in there for us, in terms of thinking about the design of learning…. unfortunately, secondary effects that impact the student in terms of their financial ability to take the course. But, to your point Rebecca, I think the difference again between correspondence and community…. because traditional, fully asynchronous learning is always sort of time modulated and time delayed. It does look more like the conversation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, right? There’s a lot of thought going on and there’s a lot of reflection going on, based upon reading which you’ve said, “I’m going to come back with a response,” but it isn’t necessarily dialogue…. and dialogue, I think, is part of a community because it’s really of the moment. Things build… things are reactive. I think that’s a potential change. Yes.

Rebecca: Seems like a way that you might be able to build mental models more effectively because the learners are interacting with each other much earlier on and they probably have more similar mental models then an instructor….

Greg: Right.

Rebecca: There’s a different relationship there that I could see how that could be really beneficial to help overcome some of the misconceptions and things that students might have because they come out a lot sooner.

Greg: Exactly.

John: But also with the introduction of more group work in online courses, even if the course is designed to be fully asynchronous, the work within the groups does not have to be, so that the student, as she said, could be using Google Hangouts soon or other tools and working collaboratively at times that they arrange within the group.

Greg: Right, and again, I think what you’re looking at is you’re beginning to model work flows in collaborative strategies that our students would use out in the world once they graduate. All of us do things across time and space that are outside the university with other colleagues. In how we approach that are those very same tools. So, why not expose them to your students early on? …and say “This is how it works. You don’t have to get together in the library every day… You really don’t have to.” The challenge tends to be when you’re blending a group of learners…. between the target audience, those adults who aren’t here, and our traditional students who are here…. because when you do propose an assignment to the students… it’s group work… what do they do? They say, “OK, let’s get together in the library at three.” ….and the student who’s not here has to speak up and say: “Excuse me, I’m a hundred miles away. I really can’t do that. Let’s think about some other method to make this work.”

Rebecca: I’m definitely a strong proponent of capitalizing on the idea that these are professional skills to develop. So, even in my non-online classes, I use tools like that for group work: Slack, and things for group discussions and things… and I think that when you frame that for students and help them realize that it is a professional tool and a professional opportunity, they do buy in… and so I think there’s a real positive in this online environment to encourage small groups and things to start using these tools because then they’re seeing how it’s going to benefit them in the future. Obviously, non-traditional students would catch on to that much sooner. We have to be probably a little more explicit with more traditional-age college students about the benefits, and that it is a professional skill.

Greg: I think so. I do think we have to move beyond the culture of the familiar uses of social media, which most of our traditional age students are very proficient in, into more professional uses of those kinds of technologies. So, it’s not just dropping “LOLs” all over the place [LAUGHTER], it’s communicating in a more meaningful and deep way…. and I think those are the skills that we’re helping them to learn in these kinds of online environments.

John: A lot of faculty, when they first start teaching online — and I started teaching online a couple decades ago… sometime last century, too… when they first do it, they tend to try to replicate what they were doing in the classroom, and then they discover that doesn’t work very well… and there are these rich tools out there that can make interaction much more effective. How do you work with faculty to try to transition them to alternative teaching methods, and things that work better online?

Greg: Right, when I did faculty development, in working with instructors who were new to online learning, I would pose a scenario something like this to them: “Okay, you’re very comfortable with standing up in front of your class and delivering the content and doing a lecture. Now imagine your students are next door behind a wall… they can’t see you…. they can’t hear you…. How are you going to teach them?” What you’re doing is you’re imposing those barriers of time and space right away to begin to reframe the conversation. and in reframing the conversation, one of the things that I found initially to be very helpful… It was pointed out to me by one of our colleagues here that I was actually espousing a very well-known design theory which is called backwards design (from Wiggins and McTighe, I believe)….and the notion is that we begin the conversation by talking about: “What are your students supposed to do at the end of this course? What is it that they’re able to do?” I rarely use the phrase learning outcomes because that sounds rather abstract, but if you put it in a concrete observable frame of “How do you know that they’ve learned what they’re supposed to learn?” “What are those artifacts?” is my favorite phrase. If we can start with: “What are they supposed to be able to do? How do they show me that they can do it? What are the artifacts? What are the outputs? Oh, those are the outputs?” Those are the actual learning activities. How do we scaffold them to those learning activities? What are the instructional materials and activities that precede that?

You deconstruct. You deconstruct what faculty think they understand about their teaching process. Faculty come in, many times, with the frame of thinking… truly about content delivery, which is perhaps not doing yourself justice in terms of your skills and what you really bring to the classroom, but if you think of yourself as simply as an amplifier and conveyor of content, then one of the things we do is begin to change that around… and discuss what a facilitator does versus a pure instructor. I think that’s part of it too.

Rebecca:I would imagine that you also have many conversations about audience… that we don’t necessarily have in more traditional face-to-face classrooms…. thinking about who are your learners? what do they come to the table with? and what are their other life responsibilities and things? To find that balance and how things might work.

Greg: Right. You do try to interject… to talk about what the audience looks like… and I think also Rebecca, to your point about audience behaviors and audience constraints we can discuss things that we are now gleaning from research. So, for instance, you may say to me: “Well, you know, Greg, I’m just gonna record my 55-minute lecture that I do every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday… and we’re good to go.”

John:…and a lot of faculty come in planning to do that.

Greg: Sure… sure… There’s my favorite animation out there… which still exists and I forget the acronym of that that animation program… there was like these little furry creatures and the professor comes in talks to the instructional designer and says: “Hello (in this very cultured British accent), I am going to teach my course online. I have recorded all of my lectures.” …and you have to break that down and you have to say: “Well, current research shows us that the attention span of what people are looking at, it’s probably about in you know six to ten minutes.”

John: Actually, we just did a podcast on that. We recorded it just a couple days ago, and it will be released just a week before yours. That research turns out not to really exist or not to really show that.

Greg: Can I retract that statement?

John: …but people have been saying that for decades. So, it’s one of those myths, like learning styles…

Greg: Right.

John: …and that Dale’s Cone of Learning….

Greg: Oh, yes…

John: ….that people just keep recreating.

Greg: …and you know how much I love Dale’s Cone of Learning. That’s just a fantastic fabrication… two things that are mashed together…

John: …including citations that don’t exist…

Greg: Mm-hmm. Exactly.

John: …and articles that were never created in journals that weren’t there.

Greg: Exactly.

Rebecca: Yeah. So, apparently the attention span stuff is too.

Greg: This is something, that I think, we have to all be aware of… that we’d like to refer to these things… and obviously I’m guilty of this too…

John: …and I have too.

Greg: ….without going out and stopping and asking ourselves: “Well, is this still true? Is this still current?” ….and we all know many people who will talk to us about learning styles and you just want to go: “Okay. Stop right there. Don’t say another word. Let me hand you this article from Daniel Willingham.” We do have to be careful about that, but I also think you have to look at it in the construct of, for instance… now I am doing this all the time at a personal level all the time…. I find this… and it probably says something about my mental state and how it’s devolving… but if I am watching even a Netflix video I will often throw it into 1.5 speed or 2.0 speed. I will do this with podcasts, and if anyone out there is listening right now, feel free… speed me up. I won’t sound any more articulate, I’ll just go faster… but we do this compression, because potentially we’re time challenged… potentially our attention spans are impacted. So, I do think we need to look at those kinds of behaviors. You can look at the log behaviors on the learning management system, and students are popping in and out… popping in and out…. popping in and out…

John: Which is good if they’re engaging in spaced practice.

REG: Right.

John: …but that’s not always the case.

Greg: …may not be.

John: and there are issues. Even if there’s no magic attention span issue, there are issues with cognitive loads.

Greg: Right.

John: …and that chunking things into smaller more manageable chunks, especially for beginning students is really effective, and that’s where a lot of the online classes tend to be focused.

Greg: Exactly. Let’s go back to the typical statement about multitasking… multi-processing… A lot of the research on that is really much more granular in terms of the kinds of parallel tasks that can be effectively executed with multiple inputs versus this notion of “I’m facebooking and I’m in my course and I’m listening to a podcast….” because there’s obviously multiple inputs and we process all those things differently. So you can’t just crunch that and make a blanket statement about it. But, you can find fascinating things coming out there… out of cognitive science research… that says, for instance (I won’t get this right because I would have to go back and listen to this story)… but they measured the effects of retention of white text on a black video vs. black text on a white video, and there were significant differences. So, looking at that as an input and informing design-based practices when you’re creating this media is incredibly important….

John: …and part of the issue is when things are harder to read, students have to process it more and they end up recalling more of it. There’s even studies that show that if you use, and…

Rebecca: Stop!

[Laughter]

Rebecca: Just stop!

John: …if you use a really hard to read font, students will recall more of it later.

Greg: That’s fascinating.

John: It may not be a desirable difficulty, but it does result in more retention.

Greg: OK. So….

Rebecca: so but they might not read the whole thing, because it’s difficult to read….

Greg: So, conversely, are there any studies measuring the effect of…. let’s say, an easy friendly format that’s easier to read… and I’m thinking Comic Sans, obviously. What’s the impact there? Do we know?

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, actually…

Greg: Can we do a study on that, ‘cause I would love to. [LAUGHTER] I would love to build a whole course in just Comic Sans.

Rebecca: There are some studies about Comic Sans, but they’re always in these isolated situations.

Greg: Yeah.

Rebecca: So, yes, the letter forms are more identifiable.

Greg: Certainly.

Rebecca: So, it actually does help some students for certain kinds of cognitive disability, because…

John: …including dyslexia.

Rebecca: Yeah, because the shapes and letters are really quick to identify so there’s a legibility that can come out…. However, does that help most students? Not necessarily… and does it help with a lot of content? Not necessarily… right because it might be okay for a small amount. As a designer, I just want to die.

Greg: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting…

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: None of those studies are done with design in mind at all… and so they’re really in these isolated situations. So, I would really love to see some of these cognitive science studies related to visual design with an actual visual designer… to see whether or not some of the things are actually beneficial.

Greg: I think that would be really interesting… and so to loop back on this… what we are trying to do is, in essence, create a learning environment for students that is: 1. easy to navigate… again, to the point of design, easy to find your way… find your way back again.. Will you re-enter that particular unit or module… and package it in such a way that it provides sort of a continuity of experience for the student? Beginning, with as we used to refer to him, high father Robert Gagne… Gagne’s “Nine Events of Instruction”… One of the things you do is, of course, you state what the learner is going to do… the advance organizer.. and the advance organizer helps focus the students’ attention as to what is about to occur in this learning module. This week, we’ll be covering this particular topic. You’re going to read this. You’re going to do these learning activities. By the way, this builds upon what we did last week by adding this. That last part is often what’s missing in an advance organizer.

John: …to create those connections.

Greg: Right. ….and that’s one of the things we sort of point out… because if you go back, and I recently read this… my world is shattered… people are just calling names… and saying Gagne was just an out-and-out behaviorist. Well, of course he was. I mean… in the context of the times, much of what instructional design theory looked like was based on the principles of behaviorism, because instructional design kind of goes back to World War II. It really emerged, I think, immediately after World War II, but given the needs of having to train multiple thousands of soldiers in a brief timeframe, it became obvious that there had to become a systematized way to develop and produce instruction.. . and that sort of behaviorist mindset carried through…really, I think, up until about the time when I was in graduate school somewhere in the 90s. There was this revolutionary… shocking… special journal that came out that posited that we should really be incorporating social constructivism… not just at the learning theory level but at the instructional design level too… and I think you sort of see that today, still, in this sense of community… in the sense that we now think truly of learning as socially mediated. It occurs within a group… so we think about what that looks like… and how we support that group of learners…. and that tends to be, I think, a transition point… a pivot point for us. Somebody was slamming poor Ben Bloom the other day. …again, because we’re really quantifying and proscribing what learning looks like in terms of those domains. The struggle, of course, is that we need to somehow define learning such that we have uniform measures of evaluation. If you took a purely constructivist standpoint… yeah, I think you would look at it and say: “Well, whatever you did was great, and if it doesn’t work… so.. well when we’ve got to put somebody on a continuum of a grading scale… and so that’s that’s the challenge. I think we always try to mediate.

Rebecca: We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about the role of instructional designers. Could you just take a couple minutes to explain what an instructional designer is, and maybe explain a little bit about what faculty could learn from instructional designers?

Greg: Sure. Instructional designers are somewhere between a unicorn and potentially a dodo. One of the fun things in life, if you actually are an instructional designer, is to go out into any kind of social setting and do the cocktail party meet and greet: “Hi, what do you do? I’m an instructional designer….” and people just look at you very very blankly and then you have to find ways to elaborate out in some way that makes sense to them. What does that mean? …and I had this problem with my parents… I had this problem with my children…. My children would go into school and they would say: “My dad works on computers, and he helps teachers learn how to use computers.” As an abstraction, it’s pretty close… pretty close…. but but not quite. My daughter… now actually, being a teacher, we now speak the same language. Yeah, she now goes: “Oh my God, that’s what you were talking about all those years…” like, yes, now you see… now you see… When I talk to you about Bloom’s taxonomy, you know exactly what I’m talking about… and…. so, really, instructional designers are, I would say…. one way to describe this… I’m not super fond of this description… is to say that they are learning technologists. We could say they’re learning specialists… we could say they’re learning engineers… we could say they’re learning designers… The focus, I think, is the fact that they are knowledgeable about the science and theory of learning. So, what an instructional designer brings to the equation, in working with a faculty member, is that perspective on evidence-based practice in learning. This is what the research tells us…. Oh, that research about video we’ll throw that out, okay… because you’re not up to date… but largely we try to stay up-to-date on the research… to say to faculty: “You know these are really the best practices if you’re going to engage in, let’s say, online discussion.” Because, back to what you said earlier, John, we may not be able to replicate the classroom, but let’s create an equivalent learning activity, right? Exactly.

Rebecca: …or a learning community.

Greg: …or a learning community, Yeah.

John: …and we should note that most faculty, especially those in older cohorts, were never trained in learning theory. They picked up what they saw their faculty do, and they come out of grad schools often where there’s very little or no emphasis on teaching or effective teaching… and they’re often told: “Don’t waste your time worrying about your teaching, focus on your research.” ….and having that sort of support can be really useful for faculty.

Greg: Right, and to be honest, it’s a very delicate conversation to have when you’re looking at someone who is, as we always say, you are the subject matter expert. I really know next to nothing about your discipline… but what I do know is I do know how people learn and I do know how to create effective learning experiences online and that’s what I’m here to help you understand. So we move away from any fears, any concerns that we’re here to challenge your notions of what you do in your discipline, because I don’t what you do in your discipline. By the time we’re done working together, I will know substantially more, which is the tremendously fun part of the job. You get to learn everything that everyone does here. Who gets to do that? We get to do that!

John:…Or if you’re doing podcast you can… and it’s fascinating….

Rebecca: It is.

Greg: It is fascinating. It’s so much fun. I just ran across, last week, this great study from a group called Intentional Futures, and they were really kinda trying to quantify what an instructional designer is… and they broke it down, I think, into four quadrants which I thought was incredibly useful to just share this out. So, the four primary roles of an instructional designer are: to help design learning experiences; to actually manage that production process of creating online courses or units of learning; to actually train the faculty, whether it’s discussion around pedagogy as we’re talking about here today or whether it’s the specifics of a tool set that the faculty wants to use; and most importantly, there’s the sort of Maytag repairman element that there honestly is ongoing support for faculty, continuing weekly… not just at the beginning of the semester… not just at the end when everybody’s trying to figure out why their grades don’t look right in Blackboard. [LAUGHTER] …although that happens. That’s right. We know that. We know when the peak calling times are, based on faculty work, but…. an ongoing effort to continue to help faculty throughout the semester and their teaching practice. So, that’s what happens. There’s a lot of one-on-one consultation with faculty, which again, is just fantastic in terms of creating relationships and getting to know people and getting to understand that subject matter…
JOHN :…and one other thing I think we could talk a little bit about is… we’ve been focusing mostly on online instruction and the role of instructional designers and learning new tools there, but there’s often a feedback effect that works to affect how people teach their face-to-face classes. The division between face-to-face and online is no longer quite as clear as it was thirty years or so ago.

Greg: That’s very true, John. In fact, I think, as we attempt to define the spectrum of technology enhanced learning, or technology supported learning, even those initial divisions that we created are really arbitrary today. Because, we would say… “Well, there’s ‘web-enhanced learning.’” I don’t even really know what that means…. but it means that somehow you’re doing something other just having students read out of a textbook, right? …and you’re doing something beyond just lecturing that somehow incorporates some instructional technology into that mix… and in the middle between web enhancing and fully online there’s this idea of blended ….which we like to call hybrid here, because we just want to be different… I don’t know… but most of the world refers to it as blended learning and in the K-12 domain they like to call it “flipping the classroom” because it sounds… I don’t know… you’ve got a psychomotor thing going on in there… it’s kinetic… I don’t know… but it’s the same thing… it is finding the correct balance between what occurs in the classroom and what occurs online and what we’ve seen… John, you’ve probably said this to me over the years… many faculty have said this to me over the years, unprompted… that they bring these things back into the classroom… and it isn’t necessarily just the technology of the affordances of the learning management system, but how you think about constructing that learning experience.

John: When I first taught online, I was using many of the same things that were very common at the time: these text mini-lectures and tests, and so forth… with weekly quizzes and discussion forums and because it was fairly new, there were a group of people in economics who decided maybe we should do a research project on that and we did… and we found that students really didn’t learn very much. In fact, they did a bit worse in the online courses than they did face-to-face. So, that forced all of us… but.. well a couple of the people there stopped teaching online in response, but others went and looked a little bit further into perhaps what might work. I attended some workshops. it was one actually given by Michelle Miller down in Orlando. I think you may have been there, too… at one of Carol Twigg’s workshops…

Greg: Right… right… right… I was in with you. Yeah.

John: She was using low stakes quizzing… and I started doing more research on that… and I introduced that in my online class and it worked really well, and student performance went up dramatically… and I’ve been doing it in my face-to-face classes ever since… and there’s a wide variety of things that I first tried in some of my online classes that have moved their way over…. and there’s not that much of a difference between the way I teach my face-to-face classes and my online classes.

Greg: Right, I mean it really begins to break it down and you begin to hopefully ask yourself the question: “Well, why am i standing up here spending the first half class restating the readings that my students should have read? Why shouldn’t I put up a quiz ahead of time to confirm that they read it?” ….but more importantly, and more valuably… use that as a diagnostic to find those fuzzy points in the reading and then let’s talk about that in class.

John: So you can do some just-in-time teaching. You don’t waste time on things that they do understand and you can spend more time on the things they don’t.

Greg: Right.

John: …and along those lines, one of the reasons for that issue that you mentioned about… going over things that they should have learned in the reading is that faculty who lecture primarily, often get into this situation where they tell students to do the reading… students come to class and they ask them questions about the reading and they find students haven’t done the reading… and in response they end up going over the reading… and then students realize they don’t have to do the reading, because it’s going to be gone over in class anyway… and then the faculty realize that they’re never doing the reading so they have to do it in class….

Greg: Yes.

John: …and we get this vicious downward spiral in terms of expectations of both students and faculty — where students end up not learning as much as they could be if that time outside of class was more productively used.

Greg: Right. You see this, as much as you can take rate my professor with a salt mine, where the salt… one of the themes that you can find in there, is that many times students will say “you don’t need to buy the book, because the professor will tell you everything you need to know in class.” It’s exactly what you just described, John.

John: …which is generally a much smaller subset of the content that we’d like them to learn.

Greg: Right.

Rebecca: I wanted to follow up a little bit. We’ve been talking a lot about evidence-based teaching and the role of instructional designers, but how about the role of administrators? What role do they play in helping advocate for evidence-based teaching on campuses?

Greg: Well, I do think… given in our particular frame… in our particular world… we’re a comprehensive college, so presumably our primary focus is teaching and learning. Presumably, we are creating culture here that really values and places teaching and learning first… and I do think, honestly, what you both have done here… in terms of creating reading groups… in terms of bringing in outside, evidence-based, yet eminently readable texts for a faculty to examine together…. to go out and try those strategies together… I think that’s incredibly valuable that we are doing that… and then we have a culture that actually supports us doing that. I do think if we could shift the frame a little bit more in terms of faculty activity… not just simply publishing to publish within your domain, but perhaps publishing to show the effects of teaching and learning strategies in your domain connects it all together better in a way.

John: ….the scholarship of learning and teaching.

Greg: Exactly… and I just say that somewhat selfishly because I think we need more of that within the disciplines. Because we need to recognize where there are disciplinary differences and where certain strategies may be more effective than another is… and I think reframing the conversation at the administrative level about expectations for faculty in terms of publication could help us in that. That’s very easy for me to say since I’m staff and not faculty, so I can come up with all kinds of crazy ideas that exist outside of the culture… but recognizing that providing incentives locally to create actual research opportunities in the scholarship of teaching and learning, as John says. For instance, doing things with open educational resources… if we can then turn around and measure the impact in terms of learning… and we’ve actually seen quite a bit on that happening out there at the community college level so far. Can we replicate that? The challenge for us to replicate it, frankly, is that we have to create materials and learning experiences at the upper division level. It’s really super easy, I shouldn’t say that, it’s easier. It’s easier to create foundational course materials because they can be more widely shared and it’s much more difficult when you move into money and banking or other specialized economics topics, because… what’s the audience that you’re constructing it for beyond your own local audience? You have to assess the cost-benefit analysis of doing that… but I mean those are ways we can engage in that… if I ran the world.

[LAUGHTER]

John: Where do you see online education going in the next five years?

Greg: We know it’s not going away. I think that’s the easiest thing to say. We know it continues to grow. I think one of the things that we’ll see change more rapidly, at least I hope so, is to bridge the gap between how we are engaging learners in this construct… this horrible walled garden of the learning management system versus the learners’ world — which is mobile, and its social — and given the fact that our students are always on… always connected… always mobile… how do you move from the learning exchanges that are best played out on a big screen and the keyboard, If I want to break it down to the technological problems? I had this conversation a week or so ago. A learning management system vendor was asking me: “What do you want to see? What do you want to see in the learning management system in the future?” …and I said I would really like to see a way for you to think about this problem of mobile first… and if we can still think of discussion as a valid construct of engaging in critical thinking, then I want a way for students to easily do voice-to-text in that environment. It’s things like that. It’s things like thinking about how do we situate that, and how do you situate it if I’m in my car an hour every day each way? ….and that’s lost time for me in a sense. I can listen to our podcast which is really cool, and I can listen to other podcasts, but what if I could actually be interacting with my course while I’m in the car in some way? or if I was on the train? We have to really rethink what that delivery looks like and how we interact with things… and are there ways that augmented reality can be brought into this mix… again, through our phones… they’re with us…. they can do this overlay…. What can we do with that? Those are like the new frontiers.

Rebecca: In design, it’s actually an old frontier…. but it’s just applying it to this context. It’s user centered design.

Greg: It is and it’s totally understanding your user behaviors… the environment in which they live in and interact in… and it’s not a new concept.

John: But the technology has changed quite a bit… because now both iOS and Android operating systems have AR kits built in to make it easier to record and to implement AR.

Rebecca: …and really new. The AR kit on the iPhones just came out in the last few months.

John: …and similarly the Android one has just come out.

Greg: Yeah, and you know overlays like that… your voice assistance that we all have on our phones… are there other ways that those can be integrated in too? I think these are more interesting things… how you look at the challenge. The fact that you can create adaptive learning that works pretty well in an app. Duolingo is a pretty good and often cited example of an adaptive learning app for language acquisition. The challenge there, of course, is that that is one silo.

John: …and we don’t see as much of that. Carnegie Mellon was doing some great work on this over the last few decades.

Greg: Yeah.

John: …but there aren’t that many implementations. There’s cog books and one other publisher who started bundling some of these in packages but there’s not that many courses developed yet, and there’s still a ways to go.

Greg: Right.

John: …but that offers a possibility of having customized learning paths for students where they work on the things they don’t understand as well… and they build in all the best practices of learning… and we can get people to learn more efficiently once those tools are there. But, it’s still an early time for that.

Greg: It is an early time, and it’s somewhat beyond my skill set and your skill set to go out and just create that. It’s like saying I’m gonna go build an airplane. I have a friend who built an airplane, but before he retired he was an engineer, so he had the skill set to do that.

John: Cogbooks… and Acrobatiq (I believe is the other company)… have provided a framework for instructors to build that. But there’s still a lot of time… because you have to think about what area students might have problems with… and then build materials to get them past those problems… and there’s some pretty high fixed costs for doing that.

Greg: There are. That understanding a particular domain and understanding how you remediate in those weak areas. Whether or not AI can really, through machine learning, get there with us, I think is another thing. Because I tend to be a person who doesn’t subscribe to the model of the brain in a purely computational model. I think there’s a lot more, in the sense of mind, than just thinking about storage and retrieval. So, it is, I think, one of those great challenges to get through… and I do think, while you can build specialized apps that do that. the problem then becomes… as we know, what we deal with a lot is command and control as instructors… and by command and control, I really mean being able to understand and manage the learning… but having visibility into the learning and being able to assess the learning, where human judgment combined with some rubric development is necessary. So, centralizing all that together… one colleague argues that the worst thing they ever did in growing the learning management system was to add a grade book. Because you and I evaluate things differently, even if we live in the same world… even if we’re in the same domain… So, my grading schema doesn’t look like your grading schema… and you build this horrible, horrible, horrible, layer of complexity into the grade book to try to accommodate everyone’s variations… and so there’s one argument that says maybe we just need an app that’s just a grade book… and it just sucks in the data from all these apps that do what they do really well. That potentially… maybe… is part of what’s known as the next generation digital learning environment.

John: We’ve been hearing about that for decades.

Greg: Right… right?

John: Yeah.

Greg: …and it’s been another forever… I had conversations somewhere 8…10 years ago… very parallel to that… that was being framed as the learning management operating system at that time… and we were thinking about this sort of decentralized approach, loosely coupled, that through other structures and other communication methods like LTI… blah, blah, blah ….I won’t go down the rabbit hole with all these acronyms… but ways in which you could move the data around and share it across these varying systems… and we’re back to that conversation… and what the learning management system developers do with these inputs is the big question.

Rebecca: So, you have some pretty interesting visions for the future. What are you gonna do next?

Greg: Well, I really hope to complete my doctorate before I retire… that’s my major life goal.

John: That’s a great program, by the way. You’re in the program in Buffalo?

Greg: Yes. University of Buffalo… The acronym is CISL [pronounced sizzle]. Yes. Curriculum, Instruction and the Science of Learning… and I think that’s really fascinating that we’re now seeing programmatic titles that put the words learning and science together. So we’re really emphasizing that indeed you can draw upon evidence-based practice… you can examine the research and inform practice. It happens to be the only fully online doctoral program that SUNY offers. So, as a matter of convenience for somebody like me, it’s fantastic…. and it’s been a great experience… and it’s kind of brought me around to, again, examining some of these logical fallacies that we continue to carry around and when we’re done, I’ve got to go back and I’ve got to read up again on video and attention.

John: Neil Bradbury, by the way, is the person who did that, and I believe that will be released in mid-February.

Greg: Okay. Sometimes I get questions from on high in administration: “What is the most appropriate size for an online course in terms of seats?”

John: Five?

Greg: Yeah, well… it depends… in a graduate course in a seminar… yeah… probably five is right [LAUGHTER]… frankly… because it depends upon…. the context is everything.

John:… what they’re doing.

Greg: Right. When you break down and you try to do a literature analysis on class sizing, context is everything. So you can’t provide a universal rule or even a sliding scale to Deans and Provosts and say: “Well, it looks like this.” Not necessarily… but you take other constructs that again we tend to look at and know when our received assumed wisdom: effective discussion is three posts… the student engages in the question and they engage with two other learners. Well, why? What makes that effective? What does that have to do with anything? That’s an arbitrary number that somebody invented to generate activity. So, looking at what are the constructs that have been defined to actually promote critical thinking… and if we break critical thinking down into elements… into certain specific responses…. Couldn’t we create a better grading rubric that supports the evidence of that? ….and that’s kind of where I am Rebecca. I’m finding these new things to kind of come back and shake the tree with everybody… and where it’s most fun is shaking the tree with fellow instructional designers… who also teach…. and what do they say to me? They go: “I know what critical thinking looks like in my course.” I’m like… Really? Really? You’re saying that? Aren’t we beyond that? Actually, I had the discussion once here… way back when…. I won’t say what department… I won’t say who… but we were discussing the utility of rubrics in grading and the response I received was: “I don’t need a rubric. I know what learning looks like in my students.” Yeah, that’s fantastic…. really objective…. not subjective at all. That’s great…

John: …as long as students share that vision….however it may happen to exist at that time in that person’s head.

Greg: Exactly… Exactly… so I think what is next for me… I think it’s continuing to look at these things… continuing to examine what’s happening in research and bringing that back into our practice so that we continue to evolve as a community here.

John: It’s an exciting time. There’s so much going on out there.

Greg: It is. Definitely.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us today, and taking some time out to talk instructional design with us.

Greg: Thanks for having me. Thanks for the coffee

John: That’s right…. we did have coffee here. But that’s because we had an early meeting prior to this. We normally don’t have coffee in our office.

Greg: You might want to think about a name change for the podcast… I’m just saying… [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve been getting that sorta feedback recently.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Well, thank you.

Greg: Thanks again.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

16. Student attention span

Have you ever been told that to keep students engaged you should chunk lectures into ten minute segments? Neil Bradbury, a Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies at the Rosalind Franklin University of Science and Medicine, investigated the origins of this myth. In this episode, Neil joins us to discuss his review of the research on student attention spans.

Show Notes

  • Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • Bradbury, N. A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more?. Adv Physiol Educ, 40, 509-513.

Transcript

John: Have you ever been told that to keep students engaged you should chunk lectures into ten minute segments? In this episode, we examine the origins of this myth about student attention.

Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist,

John: and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guest today is Neil Bradbury. Neil is a Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies at the Rosalind Franklin University of Science and Medicine. Welcome, Neil.

Neil: Thank you. Nice to meet you.

John: Nice meeting you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for joining us. Today our teas are

Neil: Today I’m going to go with Lapsang Souchong.

Rebecca: Sounds like a great choice.

John: Very nice, I got some of that, too. I have to keep it separate though because it has a smoky smell and it blends with the rest.

Neil: Yes it does have a strong, smoky smell.

Rebecca: And today I have vanilla chai.

John: I have Yorkshire Gold tea.
Your two thousand and sixteen paper on student attention span has gotten quite a bit of interest on a number of email lists and professional development groups and that’s where I first saw it. What prompted your interest in this topic? It’s a bit different than your usual research.

Neil: It is a little different. I have gone to various teaching institutional days and I had been told of this ten-minute rule, and naturally I accepted it because that was what the elite was telling me. And then shortly before I started looking into this, our medical school, like many medical schools in the country, was revising its curriculum entirely over the entire four years… and it was in a meeting with the Dean going through the new curriculum where he mentioned again, “I now have to stop because I’ve been talking for 10 minutes and so I need to do something different…. and I thought to myself “Well, that’s interesting, I wonder where this notion comes from?” …and I decided I was going to find out, because everyone told me ten minutes is the rule, ten minutes is the rule, but no one knew where it came from… and so I decided that I would have a look at this and if indeed it was the case I should be taking notice of this when I’m teaching… if it’s not the case, where did it come from? Where did this apparent educational myth arise? So that was really what started my interest in this… looking for where the source of this myth was.

John: I have the same sort of thing… I just took it as given, I’ve seen that said so many times and seen it in so many books and papers and recommendations, that I also took this as given. One of the things I’ve always used to judge the quality of someone’s presentation on teaching and learning is whether they start mentioning learning styles, or they put up a picture of Dale’s Cone of Learning, because those are myths that are pretty well known and pretty well established, but this one I think a lot of us had taken as a given…. there must be some research on… or we wouldn’t keep hearing it so much, and we should have known better. So what did you find when you began to investigate this? Where did this rule come from?

Neil: When I was looking through this, as you say, it’s often repeated, and people make the statements and then refer to a paper that was published many years ago… and when I eventually tracked down all the references, I did eventually come to a paper that was published in the fifties… and much to my surprise, the paper actually didn’t mention attention span at all in any of the words, which was a little curious since this is the basis that everyone uses for the ten-minute attention span. And what I found was that, in actual fact, the paper does not describe attention at all, but rather note taking…. and even more curious is that a subsequent publication by these authors even stated that they felt that note taking was no basis for discerning attention span anyway. So I think the whole propagation… and to be fair it’s the original authors, they did not say that this was looking at attention span… but somehow it’s got changed over the years… saying that they were looking at attention span of ten minutes, and that got propagated through the literature, and propagated by people who were looking not at the primary literature, but at someone else’s interpretation of the literature and it just propagates without anyone actually going back to the primary literature.

John: It’s nice that you did. It’s about time someone did and thank you for doing that.

Rebecca: I think it’s so important in the day we’re really focused on the idea of evidence-based teaching that we do remind ourselves that we should be looking at the evidence and not just taking things for granted.

John: And in your paper you also mention that there were some potential flaws in some of the early studies on note taking. What were the major flaws in some of that early work?

Neil: I think that some of the major flaws were really in experimental design. As a scientist, I spend a lot of effort pre-planning my experiments, often taking more time to plan the experiment than to do the experiment, and I found that a lot of these lacked really rigorous planning. So, for example, one study involved two lecturers that went in to observe a class, and in the paper, they stated that more often than not at least one person turned up to investigate attention. Well, if you’ve only got two people looking at student attention and only one of them occasionally turns up, it’s hard to take anything seriously that comes out of that study. So, a lot of things like that. One of the things that, as a scientist, I particularly have to take notice of is statistical rigor and we have to take care to provide instruction in what statistics we’re using and whether or not our statistics are valid. Many of the studies just state categorically, “our results were statistically significant” with no indication as to what those statistics were but then that gets repeated by the next person who just blithely states “oh, well this person states that it was significant” and just the takes that for granted, and so it gets propagated.

John: …and it might have been significant at the sixty percent level or something similar, if they don’t specify…

Neil: We don’t know because, it’s never mentioned in the papers.

John: …and one of the things you mention, in one of those early studies of note taking was that it may have been perhaps more of a measure, I think, of the content of the presentation rather than student attention.

Neil: Yes, I think it’s important when we’re considering lectures as to really fundamentally what the purpose of a lecture is, and I clearly don’t think that the purpose of a lecture is to have students take notes as the end result of a lecture. The notes should be something that the student refers to at the end of the lecture to remind them of what was covered. Now certainly note taking is important, but we don’t take notes on everything. So, for example, when I’m giving lectures I’m trying to convey a certain concept that may be difficult or it may be easy, but I try and give some illustrations of how that concept can be applied to real-life situations. Often, as it turns out, one of the things I like to do is discuss how my concepts can be applied to understanding how people use different drugs to murder people.

[Laughter]

Neil:

Now I don’t really expect students to take copious notes on how to murder someone they don’t like.

[Laughter]

Neil:So, that may be… the students would not take notes on, that’s just a little bit of fun and interest. The physiology underlying that? Then yes, that’s important to take notes on. So, you need to think about what’s being discussed. Is it important to take notes on that? Other things? No, it’s not important to take notes on. So I think there’s a balance there… that you can’t just take notes across the entire lecture, it’s really what’s being conveyed by the teacher at that particular time as to whether the notes are worth taking or not.

John: …and students could be very engaged, but not taking notes, because they are actively processing the information and making connections. And there may be no need for notes if that part of the presentation is very clear and doesn’t give them new information they need to transcribe somehow.

Neil: Absolutely agree… and just staring at a teacher or writing notes doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re focused on what they’re doing.

Rebecca: …especially if the content of the notes aren’t really being evaluated, right? It could be notes on anything!

Neil: Well, I think we’ve all done that at some point. I think we’re all guilty of that, but you’re absolutely right, just taking notes for the sake of taking note has no intrinsic value either.

John: …and in one of the studies, you mention that the students were keeping track of their level of attention where they were periodically polled and they had to indicate their level of engagement, but that was done with two different classes: one with first-year students and the other with fifth-year students, but they didn’t hold constant the instructor. So, the results were very different across instructors.

Neil: I think that that’s true broadly ,that we have all experienced instructors in our own life that have been really wonderful and engaging, and we really enjoy going to. We’ve also had instructors that we really did not want to go and listen to. So, I think there is certainly a large component of the instruction that makes a big difference in how they present. I think the other difference is that when comparing a first year with a fifth year is a huge difference. A first year really does not have any basis for knowledge, they have very little understanding of what’s going on, and so any new knowledge that they get is a huge increase. Compared to someone in the fifth year, where they may be really not learning new things, but they’re adding to what they already know, and it’s a lot easier to learn when you already know things.

John: You have more connections there.

Neil: Trying to fit things into a model that you already have to further strengthen that, that’s really not that hard to do, compared to learning a concept from the start. So, I think there’s a big difference there, between first and fifth years on a lot of levels.

Rebecca: Why do you think note taking was conflated with attention in the first place?

Neil: I think it’s conflated because it is really hard to assess attention, and we all know that when we go to lectures, we’re supposed to take notes. I think that was conflated because note taking is something obvious that we can see. We think of attention and people paying attention to what’s going on… that goes on inside the brain and you can’t really see what’s going on inside the brain; whereas you can see people writing notes. I think that was just used as a surrogate because it was something that could be measured, not necessarily because it was a valid measure of something that was going on.

Rebecca: What were your biggest takeaway is from the survey of literature that you did?

Neil: I think the biggest thing that I’ve taken away is that, as a teacher, I don’t need to worry about keeping things as ten minutes. I can focus on a concept. I was thinking about this as I went with my family to the latest Star Wars movie. I was thinking “What if I watch Star Wars only in ten-minute segments? and that those segments were not connected with each other?” I don’t think anybody would go and see that movie. So the ten minutes attention span really doesn’t hold up for that… no other experience in life do we have or do anything that’s only ten minutes. Why would it be any different from a lecture? And so I have freed myself from having to worry about going in ten-minute blocks, and I can focus more on providing a conceptual framework for what I’m trying to cover.

John: Students don’t have any trouble watching an hour and a half or two and a half or three hour movie or sitting at an engaging video game for hours at a time, and they often require lots of learning and so forth… and we don’t really worry about the amount of time it takes on those activities. When I’ve gone to talks, there have been some talks I’ve been at that, within thirty seconds, I’d like to bolt for the door (or fall asleep) and there’s been others where I’ve been fascinated for an hour or more at a time.

Neil: I think it’s the latter that we’re trying to go for… and it would be nice if a student suddenly looks at that watch and says “Oh I’ve been here for two hours …where’s the time gone? It’s been so engaging.” That’s what I, as an instructor, am really trying to aim for… is not to have a student worrying about what they’re going to be doing in the next two minutes but to realize Wow, the lecture is over. It’s been worthwhile. I’ve learned something and I’m not really bothered what the time is.”

John: That’s always great when that happens, I wish it happened more often, but it’s great when students want to stick around and find out more and they’re not ready to leave at the end of the class.

Rebecca: Sounds to me like a lot of faculty probably need to spend more time figuring out how to make their lectures more engaging and to captivate their audience, rather than simply trying to break things up into smaller pieces, right? So you might not take communication style or things like that as seriously, but perhaps something that we need to invest more time in.

Neil: I agree, I think one of the questions that I always try and ask myself is “Why is what I’m teaching important? Am I teaching it because it’s there in the textbook or am I teaching it because it really is important?” …and if it’s important, I should be able to describe why it’s important… why you need to learn this…. and it shouldn’t be abstract, it should have application to what the students are to be doing. You need to learn this because it means that you can understand what’s coming next. Since I’m teaching a lot of medical students, why it’s going to make an impact upon health care of the patients you are going to be seeing. If I’m talking to chemistry students, you need to know this is what’s important because it’s going to dictate how you design your chemistry experiments. So, no matter what you’re teaching, I think you have to come up with reasons for why what you’re teaching is important, convince yourself it’s important, and then try to convince the students it’s important.

John: That’s a point that Ken Bain made in his book What The Best College Teachers Do. He suggests that you should start with the key concepts in each class, explain to students why those are really important… you explain to them they need to be able to do these things to be able to answer those big important questions that matter to them in some way. You mentioned before that first-year students often don’t have as rich of a network of concepts, and as a result there’s perhaps a bit more cognitive load that they have to deal with. Might there be some advantage of breaking up a presentation though into small chunks and then having them actively engage with the material before moving on to the next concept — in terms of keeping the cognitive load manageable?

Neil: I think there is some merit to that. I think it should be dictated by the material, rather than a clock, and so we can look at things and see where are the boundaries that make a unit of knowledge a reasonable unit… whether you can cover that in six minutes or fifteen minutes, I don’t think that matters, but can you have a coherent unit that can stand on its own that you can put together with other things. So, content is more important than the time allotted to it.

Rebecca: I think what you said about content is really important and as a designer there’s a methodology called “content first,” and it makes sense in a classroom setting too… where you decide what the content is and then design around that, right? There’s some things are going to make more sense to do hands on, some things that are in going to make more sense to provide a lecture on… and if you let the content dictate what it is that you do, it makes a lot of sense.

Neil: …and certainly, when you’re thinking about how you’re going to organize a lecture, you have certain content that you need to cover. But the order of that content is really important. You need to start out with the foundations before you can go to the building, and to start with those foundations, that may be small chunks. I agree that can be time limited, and that you could work on, and then as you getting more knowledge more content, you start building that up into a logical, coherent molecule. But, you’ve got to start with the basics first and then you can build onto larger structures.

Rebecca: It gets funny that, as experts in a particular topic, we forget that there’s building blocks and foundations because our mental models are so much more complex. So, I think although sometimes these things seem obvious, we need the reminders to take a step back and remember what it’s like to be a novice at something.

Neil: I agree. Most of my research is focused on cystic fibrosis and I’ve been doing that for many years, but I realize when I’m teaching that to students, they don’t have the decades of experience that I have. They are not going to become experts in an hour. What I’m trying to convey to them is the broad concepts and if they get those broad concepts, they don’t need to know the minutiae that intrigues me on a daily basis. But, they have to have the broader picture and so I have to put myself in a student’s position and understand from their position what they need to learn and even what they’re capable of learning at an early stage

John: Now, have you shared these results with your colleagues and how have they responded? Has this affected how they’re teaching?

Neil: As you might expect, it’s been somewhat of a mixed reaction. Some have really liked it, some have not really been that embracing of it. I remember we had a speaker from another institution who were discussing their new curriculum and they had designed their entire curriculum around 10 minutes… and I had the temerity to ask why that was the case and the response I got was “Well, everybody knows the attention span of students is only 10 minutes.” …and so… it happens, and it’s propagated, and I think most people really appreciate the fact that there really isn’t a lot of basis for this 10 minutes, but they don’t know that. They’ve heard and been told over and over again… it’s ten minutes. It turns out that’s not the case, so we don’t worry about, this is not something that you need to worry about. Plenty of other things to worry about when you’re teaching, but this is not one of them… So, don’t worry.

John: About ten years ago here, we had a guest speaker, whose name I won’t mention, but he gave a brilliant hour and fifteen minute talk on how a lecture is ineffective…. and later at a reception I went up to him and said “that was an incredibly good lecture… it was really engaging and dynamic and everyone seemed really interested,” and he did appreciate a little bit, I think, the irony of that comment.

Neil: Yes, I agree. I think the question is, “What is the point of a lecture?’ And I don’t think a lecture is really the place for student learning. That’s not where students learn. The point of a lecture is to convey information the students can learn later, but I think there also is an important point of inspiration. It should give students an understanding of why this is important and an appreciation for students to think “this is exciting, this is really fun stuff to learn.” If I can help students make their own decision that this is fun to learn, then I don’t have to worry about making it fun to learn. They’ve decided it’s fun and they’re going to invest effort in learning it themselves. And so part of my role as an instructor and a lecturer, is to get the students to appreciate something, that I think is true, is that learning is a lot of fun… it’s a fun thing to do and that it doesn’t matter what I’m learning… whether it’s the material I’m interested in or something completely different… it’s fun to learn… and if we can convey to students it’s fun to learn, they’ll be more than happy to learn things no matter what the instructor does.

Rebecca: Such a great point.

John: It is, and I also feel the same way about faculty. That we all got into this because we were among those students who found it fun to learn, but sometimes people forget that once they’ve been teaching for a while and it would be nice if we could also encourage each other to share that enthusiasm for learning.

Neil: Yeah, I think it’s important for faculty to go and visit each other’s lectures… how we can learn from each other. I’ve been working on my lecture style for many years, I doubt very much whether is the best lecture style going. It seems to be appreciated by the students, but I can always learn and improve. I only see it from one perspective, having faculty and colleagues come to my lectures, me going to their lectures can be of huge benefit in improving everybody’s teaching.

Rebecca: Is there something specific that you’re working on right now as a lecturer to improve?

Neil: With the new curriculum that we’re bringing in, there has been a large change in how we teach, and so that’s reflecting a lot on the content that we teach, and so I’m trying to come up with ways that integrate a lot of material across a lot of different disciplines. Which is proving to be a little bit of a challenge. As a physiologist, I’ve been teaching physiology. Trying to bring in other disciplines into the classes is proving to be a little bit of a challenge, but it’s also exciting and has a lot of opportunity that I can bring a lot of different aspects in. And I think that I’m going to learn a lot and hopefully that will be conveyed to the students… that we can all learn together something that we may not have covered before.

Rebecca: Sounds exciting but also very challenging.

Neil: That’s why we’re educators, we like challenge and those go together as educators.

Rebecca: Do you think after studying attention span in this way that it’s worth more study and to have others investigate attention or is it something that we’re spending too much time thinking about?

Neil: I think there is some basis for looking at other aspects. Most of what we’re focused on so far obviously is the lecture, but as we know now, the lecture is not the only teaching modality that we use. We have small groups, we also have lab practicals, we have discussions, and so far this attention span has only really focused on lectures. I think it would be informative to also look at other ways in which we teach, look at small group learning, look at peer learning, look at practical learning. I think that is going to be an interesting avenue to explore… is what is the attention span, by whatever criteria the define attention. Is that different from those modalities than a lecture? Is it the same? Is it different for each modality that we look at?

John: …and might it also vary by the topic you’re looking at? That some topics for many students would just be more interesting than others and that, I would assume, would vary quite a bit across students as well.

Neil: I think you’re right. Not everything that we cover is exciting and interesting. There are some things we just have to do because you need that knowledge, not because it’s exciting. But, that it allows you to get the exciting parts. So again coming back to knowing fundamentals and getting that basic groundwork that allows you to do the fun stuff later.

John: …and explaining to students why they need to know those basic, less fun, things helps provide them with a bit more motivation to work through it because they see where it’s going and how it’s connected.

Neil: Yes, you always have to have an endpoint… why this is important. It’s important because we’ve got to get to this position and this provides a pathway to get there, and once we’ve got there, a whole bunch of things will open up to you that you didn’t even realize.

Rebecca: Are you planning to do any more work on attention span or are you attention spanned-out?

Neil: Well I was thinking about it, but I got bored.

[LAUGHTER]

Neil:I’m really interested in looking at these different teaching modalities to see where that applies to different avenues, because we’ve only focused really on the lecture and that certainly has been a dominant component of education at the institution. We’re moving away from that… lectures are still important, but we’re also incorporating small group learning… peer learning…. and I think it’s going to be instructive to discover whether or not attention is really critical there. How can we get students, when they’re doing peer learning, to take this into account to make sure no one’s just falling off the edge and not learning anything. So I think it’s going to be exciting to increase our understanding of how students learn, how they’re attentive, how they’re focused on what they’re doing.

John: In your review of the literature, did you think of any good ways of addressing the question of attention span? Or is it, by its nature, impossible to measure well?

Neil: I think it’s a really difficult thing to measure because it is something that is going on inside people’s brains and that’s always a hard thing to measure. Certainly, we can put people into CAT machines and MRIs. But that’s probably not a good learning environment for anything. So I think it’s nebulous by its very nature. I think the important point is: “Are the students learning anything.” I don’t think necessarily what we’re covering in the lecture is the be all and end all. Some of the experiments that were performed, that I discussed in my paper, were evaluations of what students learned that were taken immediately after the lecture. But as I pointed out, no one ever does an examination immediately after the lecture… and so those kind of studies are really, to my mind, fairly meaningless. The question is, downstream a couple of weeks later, when we examine the students on the content of that material, have they learnt it then? And, I think, that’s when we really get to assess whether they were paying attention… not by looking at whether a student is taking notes during a particular lecture, not by asking them questions immediately after the lecture, but whether they’ve really spent time going over that material, and again, and again so that they can adequately answer questions two or three weeks later when we examine them on the material.

Rebecca: So it almost might be whether or not they’re engaged and motivated enough to want to continue pursuing that information, so that they can pass those exams and things a couple weeks later… and not really whether or not they’re paying attention in the moment that it’s introduced.

John: …and that ties back to the inspirational role of lectures that you suggested earlier.

Neil: Yes, we should inspire students to want to learn. We can never just force feed students information… it’s just gonna bounce back. We have to inspire students to want to learn for themselves, and that’s what effective teachers do. They don’t teach, they get the students to learn themselves because they’re excited about learning.

John: Very good. Well thank you, this was fascinating.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

Neil: Well, I enjoyed it and thank you for this opportunity to discuss the paper, I really enjoyed it.

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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.