Emotions can have both positive and negative impacts on learning. In this episode, Michelle Miller joins us to explore the relationships that exist between emotions and learning.
Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World. Michelle is also a co-editor, with James Lang, of the superb West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning.
- Miller, Michelle (2023). “Revisiting the cognition-motivation connection: What the latest research says about engaging students in the work of learning.” March 3.
- Miller, Michelle (2022). “Ungrading Light: 4 Simple Ways to Ease the Spotlight off Points.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 2.
- Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT)
- Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.
- Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219–224.
- Abel, M., & Bäuml, K. H. T. (2020). Would you like to learn more? Retrieval practice plus feedback can increase motivation to keep on studying. Cognition, 201, 104316.
- McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2020). Training learning strategies to promote self-regulation and transfer: The knowledge, belief, commitment, and planning framework. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(6), 1363-1381.
- Miller, Michelle (2019). Attention Matters. Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 86. June 19.
- Michelle Miller’s R3 Newsletter
- Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s Once More, With Feeling substack
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
John: Emotions can have both positive and negative impacts on learning. In this episode, we explore the relationships that exist between emotions and learning.
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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
John: Our guest today is Michelle Miller. Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World. Michelle is also a co-editor, with James Lang, of the superb West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Michelle.
Michelle: Oh, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here today.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Michelle, do you have some tea?
Michelle: Well, not exactly. I’ve started hydrating with fruity water today. So, I’ve got my water jug and I’m working on it.
John: And I have just a little bit of a peppermint-spearmint tea blend here. And the reason is just a little bit as this is our third podcast of the day today. So I didn’t have a chance in between them to go back to my office and get some new tea or some new hot water. So I do have a little bit to get us started here.
Rebecca: A tiny bit left from my pot of blue sapphire tea.
John: …which is much more colorful.
Rebecca: It is, but not in my cup, only in the pot.
John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your March 3 blog post, addressing the relationship between cognition and emotion. In general, how is cognition influenced by emotion,
Michelle: I’ve been interested in this connection for a while and watching the evolution from within my field of cognitive psychology and kind of moving away from the approach that I came up with when I was just starting out as a graduate student, which is I recall was this kind of oil and water conception of cognition and emotion that here on the one side, we’ve got thought processes, we’ve got memory, and so on. And on the other side [LAUGHTER], we’ve got the emotions and so on. And we’re just going to really work from in our subfield to try to get our arms around just these cognitive processes, and don’t worry about the rest of it. And now, I think that most cognitive psychology theorists in the field would say that, yeah, our cognitive processes are definitely shaped by and infused by what’s going on kind of over in the emotional processing systems of our mind and in our brain. And if I had to describe, just from my own perspective, what I see is a change over time and an evolution in our field, we’ve kind of gone from really talking about parts of the mind in this very compartmentalized modular way, where different parts do different things pretty much independently. And now you see more discussion of how these different parts have interplay with each other, how they give what I would think of as a sort of a soft input to other subsystems, or even set some constraints on what those other systems are doing without totally determining them. So I think we are moving into this more nuanced view of how those two things work together. So that, yeah, our emotions affect what we believe, they also serve as a way to almost elevate or suppress different aspects of what we’re processing so we might remember things in a particular way, or think about them in a particular way. And it’s neat to me too, as somebody in the field, because I look and I see clinical psychologists, the people in the area of psychology who work on how do we help people in therapy and help people with different disorders and challenges. They’ve known this for quite some time, but they’ve looked at it sort of in reverse. So if you’ve ever heard the school of thought known as cognitive therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the core tenets of that approach is that the emotional side of how we function, our emotions, are affected by our cognition. So what we feel, even our mood states and so on, that’s fundamentally driven by things like what we believe. And so they’ve come up with these really exciting and powerful techniques for addressing beliefs that people have and thereby affecting their emotions. So we can take a cue from that and have this more nuanced view of the interplay. So back to cognitive psychology. I also come at this really philosophically as what we would call a functionalist, [LAUGHTER] that’s sort of a lens through which I see how we address questions in psychology. So when we say, “Well, why does the mind work in this particular way? Why does it have this component or why does it do this in this way?” I would look at and say, “Well, how does that help us survive? What’s the function for helping us really survive and thrive in our world?” And when we look at things like emotions, our emotions are there for very functional reasons. I believe our emotions exist in order to kind of move us towards things that help us in our survival and move us away from things that are going to be a threat to our survival. And also they serve in this way to kind of alert us to what’s relevant. So it’s almost like a relevance mechanism. So if something provokes an emotional response in us, that may be an old shortcut that our mind has to say, “Yes, this is something that’s important. This is something that maybe you want to remember and that you want to pay attention to.” So I see emotions as kind of a feel for relevance, and that’s something I’m sure we’ll get into in our conversation about teaching and learning. later. And all of this is a practical issue too. I tell the story sometimes about Minds Online, and writing that book, where I got to about midway through the book and literally had this crisis, I remembered it happening like in the middle of the night, there’s something huge that’s missing right around this point in the book. And that book, for those who have taken a look at it, it takes a very cognitive view of how we select and use technologies. But I came to this realization, we can’t really talk about how to maximize the effectiveness of those approaches, unless we also talk about why students are going to do them in the first place, and how we can get them motivated to do them. So, in that book, I ended up covering some very basic elementary foundational concepts in motivation and motivation theory with that idea of what are just the essentials that every teacher needs to know and how might that also get involved in how do we choose certain technologies? How do we set things up in a particular way, for example, in an online course to keep students moving and that keep them putting in that productive effort. And so that’s been around in the back of my mind for quite some time. But now I’m reading all these new articles and this wave of interesting new research that is finding yet more connections between those two sides of the mind. And so how to get students to engage in strategies that work from a cognitive perspective and how to direct that feel for relevance. And early on in my career, as I mentioned in that blog post, I look back and it seems so harsh now, like, well, how do we get students to be accountable. And now I’ve kind of shifted that along with many others towards really looking more at the support side of this and bringing in things like empathy for our students, I don’t think I’ve ever been one of those super punitive “look to your left, look to your right” kinds of teachers, nor have I ever really advised that to their faculty. But I’m realizing that in this really critical case that I’m looking at this relationship in new ways, and I’m excited to share that.
Rebecca: So there’s been a lot of discussion about student motivation and engagement…, a crisis in it. [LAUGHTER] A lot of faculty have reported students being less engaged or less motivated. How can we, as faculty, address some of the challenges that people are experiencing at this moment?
Michelle: And it is such a pressing question, and that’s another thing that’s just really been registering as I’ve had my antenna up about what are people talking about right now? What are they bringing into conferences, and so on? And first off, as a little bit of a skeptic, I have to say, “Well, I think that we still need some more information to nail down exactly what the extent and the nature of the engagement crisis is.” And I think all three of us are attuned to what I guess you can call the fallacy of “students these days.” [LAUGHTER] So as so many people have observed, it’s so tempting to have that filter on of like, “Well, back when I was a student, I was always intrinsically engaged in my classes, I didn’t miss assignments, and so on and there’s a downward trend.” So there’s something about that. I put on my skeptic filter when I see that. But that said, we do have these experiences. And I don’t think regardless, even if we look back and say, “Well, maybe this wasn’t really part of a bigger trend as we thought.” Even if that were to happen, are we gonna look back and say, “Well, we shouldn’t have worried so much about engaging our students, we can almost always stand to engage them more.” So with that big caveat, I think that we should also be really reflecting on and separating out, as much as it’s really possible to do so, disengagement from other related things like prioritizing. I don’t have the capacity to cover all that I need to as a student, and perhaps also as a family member, a parent, a worker, and so on. So here’s how I’m going to go at it, or even just straight up overwhelm, and I think we can look at that from our own perspective, too, and say, “Well, right.” I think we’ve also seen quite a few faculty professional development directors and others who work with other faculty to say, “Oh my gosh, I put up a half a dozen workshops, and I’m having trouble filling them. So we too, as a lot of our demands have converged over the last couple of years, and as we’ve coped with those stresses, we too. It’s not that we’re disengaged from what we’re doing, but we’re having to make some different choices out of necessity. We have the economic costs of college and that whole dynamic that’s going on as well. I’m no expert in that. But I think we all know that students today are working more jobs, succeeding at every single course and getting through as quickly as possible is an economic necessity and so on. So the stakes are very, very high for students, and students are dealing with that. And so that’s one also very important thing to think about when we’re looking at this. So with that, though, have students been more disengaged? I mean, my experience immediately coming back to in-person teaching, I found myself that students were really excited. At the risk of sounding very strange here, it was like a box of excited puppies: Oh my goodness, we’re all here in the classroom together. And I felt the same way in some ways too. But really directing that in some, again, productive ways is what we have to do as the leaders of our classes. Now to practical tips for what can we do. If there’s a disengagement, students are elsewhere, they’re not doing the work, or they’re all excited but they don’t know how to manage that. But here’s a couple things that I think are very practical. So I’m a big advocate these days for flexibility and approachability in what we do. So I wrote a piece last year titled, “Ungrading Light…” I think that was the catchphrase in the title… which talks about “Okay, without sort of throwing out grades and say, ‘Well, students have the wrong motivation when it’s all about the grades.’” If we’re still going to have grades, what are some positive ways to keep students really focused on the learning and engaged with the learning and not just like, checkpoint, checkpoint, how do I get through this? And I do think that even some basic changes to policy can help here. So things like I really have gotten very flexible on deadlines. The caution here that this is going to look very different for people with different course sizes, section sizes, different disciplines, what the learning objectives really are in your course. So I don’t want to imply that everybody just can do this in the same way. And as I also mentioned in the piece, things like very flexible deadline policies can present a professional risk for people who do not have the security of, for example, tenure, and people who are historically minoritized, and are going to elicit different kinds of reactions from students to play out on things like end-of-semester evaluations. So for example, faculty of color. So with those big cautions in mind, now, here’s been my experience is I communicate with students… I say, “I want to be approachable,” I want to really show them and not just tell them that if you come to me and say, “I was pulling double shifts all weekend, and I need to do this paper draft, and I know that, but I need another two days,” that I’m not going to come down on them in a harder, personal way. And if they do that, just not all the time, I will say, “Yeah,” and then my catchphrase right now is, “Take the time, you need to do your best work.” And that turns out actually to be really good for my motivation, too, because I would really rather read what they put together [LAUGHTER] with a little bit of more time, that’s all about I want to do something I can be proud of in this course, and actually walk away with great knowledge. It’s more geared towards that and less geared towards “Oh my gosh, didn’t come in until 11:58 when it’s due at midnight, and I sort of just checked that box again. So that is something as well and other ways to be approachable, that can also elicit more engagement. How do we know students are engaged? Well, when they reach out to us. And so, here again, different individuals have to decide their appropriate comfort level and parameters. But I have a syllabus statement that says here are all the different ways to get in touch with me. If you’ve got a long question, and we need to talk, I’ve got a scheduling program, you click a button, and boom, now you have access to my calendar, and you can get on my calendar the same way my colleagues can. And that’s good. If you have a really quick question like, “Oh my gosh, there’s one thing I need to do in order to finish this assignment and actually be successful, then you can text me or send me a message in a program such as Remind, which can kind of buffer so we’re not trading phone numbers. But, that immediacy, it has not really resulted in this giant pile up of lots of inappropriate communications, which is what I was always warned about when I was coming up as a teacher. But instead, students get the question answered and then they can kind of stay engaged with the flow of what they’re doing. So just basic ideas, but ones that I think can help move us back towards a more engaged setting where students are excited to be there and so am I. If I could add one other thing here, too, we can also take a page out of the transparency philosophy. So if you’re familiar with Transparency in Teaching and Learning, the TILT framework, it’s so powerful. And it’s all about giving more explicit directions to students, as well. What you may read as disengagement or not caring, might be “I don’t know where to start and now, I really am feeling either alienated, overwhelmed, or something in between.” And I think that’s another we can all relate to is, we’re a lot more likely to take the first step down the path and keep going if that first step is lit up, or maybe if the whole path is lit up. So taking that little bit of extra time to say “And here’s where to start and if you get stuck, here’s what to do.” That can also help.
John: I’ve been observing the same sort of issue that many people have reported of students not completing work. I’ve seen students being much more excited to be back in the classroom, and they tend to be fairly engaged in classroom activity. But what I’ve been seeing and what a lot of faculty have been saying is that students aren’t doing the work outside of class at the same rates that they used to do. And one of the concerns in terms of making your classes more flexible, in some cases, you can do that really well and I do allow that with many of the assignments. But in classes where the material builds from week to week, if students start getting behind early in the semester, they’re going to be struggling a lot more later. So I have different policies depending on whether they’re producing something, some type of educational project… a podcast or something similar… as they do in some of my classes, then they can have more time. And I give them as much time as they need to do that with multiple iterations. But with other things like reading the materials online, where there’s some embedded questions, and so forth, there, I do insist that they get it done by a certain time, because then when they come into class and they’re asked clicker questions, some of which they’re graded on, they’re not going to be successful in that if they haven’t done the basic reading. And that’s where I’m seeing a lack of engagement, outside of class. I’ve had many fewer students complete the readings before class, or even weeks after they were due, they’re still not completing some of those readings. And that’s the concern that I’m having. And I have to say that I’ve also observed some of this with faculty too, that attendance at professional development workshops have been a lot lower this year than in the last couple of years. And some of it may be because of burnout after the pandemic. And I should note that on my campus, we’re also transitioning to a new learning management system. And a lot of people have been struggling with that, which takes up a lot of their time, reducing the amount of time they have to learn other new things while they’re struggling to learn the new system. But this issue of engagement does seem to be impacting the amount of learning that I’m seeing, at least in my large intro classes, I’m not seeing it so much in my upper-level classes. But I’m wondering if some of this may be because we have students who’ve spent a year or two with remote learning in schools that often had very few resources to do that, well and students may have just gotten out of practice with doing a lot of work, because in many school systems, students were just passed on to the next grade level without necessarily learning very much in many classes.
Michelle: Yeah, I’ve seen this dynamic, actually even at my upper levels as well became rather glaring the first time that we went back to an in person symposium, it was the kind of capstone experience in this class was to bring some research to the symposium. It’s a wonderful experience, but it dawned on me partway through the semester to step back and just say, “Okay, how many of you have never done a presentation like this before?” And yeah, previously, most of the class would have had some experience either in an in-person research lab that they were in, or in a methods class or something like that. It was one of those head slapping moments, at least for me, feeling, “Of course, of course they don’t know.” And I try to come at it like, “Well, this is the time to do what I probably should have always done for what was previously a small group of students. But it’s still an important group of students who are sitting in the back going, ‘Oh, my gosh, I feel lost. I don’t want to even raise my hand. I don’t know what she’s talking about with the poster or participation or even things like what to wear.’” And so I did, I went back and dusted off and created a few stopgap materials. I found some things out on the web that actually demonstrated a poster presentation that was in progress and what to do and not to do. So it can be an opportunity to do more of that transparency and kind of scaffolding and bringing everybody up. But yeah, it can be shocking to stand back and say, “Okay, who has not actually done this thing that I kind of always assumed would be the case by this level,” regardless of what that is.
Rebecca: I’ve experienced this, even with graduate students, this lack of knowledge of certain kinds of academic experiences, in part because they were learning online or not doing things in person, and now they’re in in-person classes and having any in-person experiences. So I had the same experience, Michelle, but with graduate students, and needing to really build in some transparency there that maybe didn’t need to be there before because in their undergraduate experience, they were very likely to have had a similar experience.
John: And as you said, Michelle, giving students more structure and more support is something that we probably should be doing anyway. We just finished a reading group on Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan’s book on inclusive teaching. And that’s the message at the heart of that book: that giving students support will help all students at least some and will especially help those students who come from backgrounds that provide less preparation for success in college. So to the extent to which we as faculty all learn that lesson, that giving students more support is useful, it’ll be a better environment.
Michelle: I agree and what seems implicit in that., how you’ve put that too is, instead of like, “Oh my gosh, another thing I have to cram into the semester” …for our motivation and our engagement is to say, this is part of one of the most noble pursuits that we can have as educators, to give it that meaningful frame. So yes, a hearty I agree with that book, in particular, and their framework. And for me, that helps me kind of say, like, “Okay, yeah, this is not just an extra add on, this is what we’re here for.” And if I’m trimming back a few extra articles, or chapters, and I have done that, to some extent, in favor of being able to go more deep and into content, and be more supportive in these positive ways, I think that’s a win.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that I’ve noticed or experienced recently with students is high engagement in class, high engagement in the subject matter, but we’ve had really interesting conversations about procrastination or not doing things outside of class, largely due to a lack of confidence, or striving for perfection that doesn’t exist. And there’s a lot of that emotion around that. And so a lot of my students have talked about that, or shared that with me, which I’m grateful that they’ve shared that with me. But that’s what’s preventing them from getting started.
Michelle: Absolutely. And I think folks who follow the research on procrastination out there, it’s not as much in my specialty area, but I do think it’s fascinating. And it’s another one of these touch points between what we believe, what we feel, what we’re motivated to do, and then in turn, what we remember and what we learn. So I think that for people who are interested in this whole topic of procrastination, why does it happen? What are some really good ways to talk about it, and address it, there’s new stuff coming out. And it’s a good thing to talk about with students as well, I think years back, it was almost a taboo subject. But now from what I hear you saying, you just bring it up with students, and we can all talk about it not as like, “Oh, that’s some terrible thing that other people, bad students, are doing. This is all of us, right? [LAUGHTER] We live in a world of abundance, but also abundant distractions, and so many things competing for our time. So I like this idea of opening up that line of communication, saying, “What do we all do to tackle this when it occurs?”
John: Dan Ariely had a paper a number of years ago, where he did an experiment in class, I think it was an economics class, actually, where students wrote papers. And he and some co authors had two sections of the class, where in one section, students had three papers with fixed due dates spread evenly through the semester. And in the other section, students were able to pick their own due dates. And there was a penalty in either case of one percentage point a day for each day the work was submitted late. And what was found in that study is that the students did best who either had fixed due dates, they had higher quality papers, and higher quality work, and so forth, they wrote more, and the quality of the work was much better when they had fixed due dates, or when they chose evenly spaced due dates. From an economist’s perspective, the rational thing to do would be to put all three due dates on the last day of class, because then you could still plan to do it evenly throughout the semester, but you would have no cost of doing that. So if something came up, you could postpone it. But what happened is the people who put all their due dates at the end of the semester ended up procrastinating, turning in work later, the papers were shorter, they were lower quality, and in general, they didn’t do quite as well. So that’s one study, I often will cite to students when we talk about due dates and deadlines, and so forth. But it’s an interesting study. And I haven’t seen anything else in economics journals, at least, related to that, but I’m sure there’s more that I haven’t seen in the literature.
Michelle: Fascinating stuff from across the disciplines.
John: One of the things you talk about in your blog post is that the strategies that students use for learning are not the strategies that evidence tells us are most effective. Students tend to use strategies that provide some short-term benefit, and seem to be easier, rather than the strategies that require them to struggle a little bit more with the content. One of the things you talk about are some ways that we could encourage students to adopt strategies that may not feel quite as good in the short run, but result in more learning. How can we motivate students to use evidence-based learning strategies?
Rebecca: …motivate them to struggle? [LAUGHTER]
Michelle: Right, but that is really what we’re talking about here. And I do want to go into this… big qualification here… I don’t think that students are just out there wanting to get the best grade and for the least effort necessarily, that’s just not a narrative about students that I buy into. So, I don’t think students are trying to do low-effort strategies. But, just like the rest of us, we don’t have a very good or accurate view always, a very empirical view, of what actually pays off in terms of learning. It’s pretty rare that we sit down and actually kind of do the math and say, “Well, I did this, I systematically changed the approach in this way, and here’s the outcome.” So we don’t come at it that way. So no wonder that over time, we end up with kind of a distorted view of what actually does work. So that’s a big piece of it. And it is true at the same time that these strategies we’re talking about… well, let’s take one, for example, of blocked study. Now this is a term that I also want to unpack a little bit too, it’s not super intuitive. So this has to do with the principle of interleaving, which I always say it doesn’t always apply in all studying, but to cases where you’re learning how to apply different problem solving strategies and you have to choose from several when you’re having to categorize and learn to discriminate among categories. So that is a subset of what students are sometimes learning. And the thing is, we have this great powerful line of research that shows that actually mixing it up in an unpredictable way, the different problem types or category types, means it’s going to be a lot more memorable when you actually work through those practice problems or practice sets. And if that’s the case, the unpredictability of like, well, something’s gonna pop up categorizing different painting styles, I have no idea [LAUGHTER] if it’s going to be a Renoir or a Monet, what could be next? It’s that unpredictability. So people sometimes confuse it with just like mixing up topics or having variety, but it really refers to the systematic principle. Now, when students are offered the opportunity to structure their own study, what do you know, they tend to go with blocked study, and again, it’s not because there’s some dispositional factor, they don’t want to do their homework or something like that. Really when you look at it intuitively, it’s like an illusion, block study feels so effective. I’m going to work through all of this one painter or all of this one way of solving a statistics problem. And then I’ll go into the next and our textbooks are organized that way, too. So students have seen that, and so that’s what they fall back on. And there’s some recent work that I’ve talked about in that blog post and in a few other places, that has really studied in a very granular fashion… it’s presented students with different alternatives, like here’s a blocked study schedule. Here’s an interleaved one. We don’t use the technical terms, we show them both options, and say, “Okay, let’s pretend you have a math test coming up. Which one of these do you want to do? And why?” And yeah, students, they gravitate towards the blocked one. And they say, I perceive that this is going to be easier, first of all, and that’s fine. We want to use the most efficient strategy. So they say, this is gonna look easy and also, it feels more effective. Because I feel like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got it.” But as we all know, sometimes that’s a false sense of security. So that’s the example as it lays out in that one case, and I think that that is a larger kind of big dynamic, that we do have to be aware of what looks easy, what feels easy, what looks effective, what feels effective. Sometimes, your brain is kind of playing tricks on you. And that becomes very serious when it is the case that things like interleaved study are more effortful, but they’re going to pay off more for the time invested. Retrieval practice, which I and a lot of other folks in the space talk about so much, that’s another that it’s gonna require a different level of effort and engagement to close my book and say, “Alright, instead of rereading this chapter, what did I actually get out of it, or maybe I can seek out a quiz.” And to me, I also think it’s not just the effort involved, and research, by the way, it’s also showing students also to look at this and go, “that looks difficult.” It also kind of emotionally, I mean, I was feeling okay about this chapter, and now, I can’t really kid myself any more. So to the extent that students might be kind of saying, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got it, I’ve got it.” …like, we might all do this, this will kind of bust that unjustified optimism, and that doesn’t always feel great in the short term. So if that’s the case, I mean, we can set up these wonderful learning activities, and if students aren’t going to do them, then they’re not doing them or us any good or any benefit. So, that’s the case as well. And so if they have a sense of the value, and a lot of these strategies that maybe we can touch on, do have to do with exposing and revealing and convincing about the value, and finding ways to draw students into exactly those techniques. So just because these are difficult, I do want to make sure everybody doesn’t get this terrible impression of like, “Ah, studying is going to be this miserable slog, no pain, no gain,” …it’s more subtle than that. And they really do work, you really are gonna get so much more out of the time that you put in and for students who really are stretched really thin as we’ve touched on. That’s an important powerful message.
Rebecca: You mentioned a number of specific examples in your post, do oyu want to dive into some of those and share something like the snowball effect or self-determination theory, or some of your other really awesome examples?
Michelle: Oh, thank you, I appreciate that. And, after all, the big philosophy and approach matters, but let’s get down to the actual techniques. So I’ve referenced something called the “snowball effect,” and this is just my informal term, but really, the more you know, the more that you want to know. And the more that you know, because of the way memory works, the more you know about a particular domain or subject area, the easier it is to acquire new facts. And like I always throw out the example of folks we know who are just really committed to some hobby or area of interest, the sports fanatics and so on, they can run into a fact one time and boom, they’ve got it, they’ve maybe got it for life, and they don’t have to study [LAUGHTER] or do anything like that. And so there is that snowball, or rich get richer effect, just because of some factors about how memory is set up and how it works. From a very practical angle, like I ran into this really intriguing study. And it’s not one where we’ve got piles of research yet, but this really got me thinking. So they did a study where they had students through retrieval practice, learn some basic facts about an area that they picked. And they were able to systematically track that when students did learn this foundational information more solidly, then when they had the option, “Oh, would you like to know more about this subject?” …students were more likely to say yes. And that’s totally voluntary. And that’s the sort of thing that makes our hearts go pitter pat, as teachers we want students leaving and going, “Oh, my gosh, now I really want to read that next reading that Dr. Kane assigned, for example.” And like when you were talking about, students are coming into class, and we’re trying to get them into the next level of conceptual stuff and exciting things they can do, if they don’t have the facts, it’s gonna be really, really tough, so it also really points up the importance of doing that. And it also, I think, addresses one of these big myths about memory. And this is one that I’ve talked about in some of my recent workshops, and so on, and I mentioned in my last book, this big myth that if we do focus on having students concentrate on remembering foundational information, we’re going to turn them off of learning: “Oh, it’s going to be this sort of these nightmare of drills.” And, “sure, they’ll know it for the test, but they’ll walk out and they’ll never want to be engaged with the subject again. So it’s a big loss, [LAUGHTER] right?” And this is really calling that into question, saying that sometimes knowing some of these cool initial facts can start to set you down that path and then maybe someday, you will be that expert who can hear a fact one time in this area and we’ve got it. Why? Because we already know so much about it. So again, that whole Interplay there. There’s also the role of choice and autonomy. And this is one that I think a lot of really intuitive, committed, teachers really hit on early, even if they never really have some of the more formal terminology for it. So when there’s choice, not only are students more invested in what they’re doing, there’s possibly a role of curiosity here. So I talk about, in this blog post, this sham lottery study, it was one of these, where if you look at it on the face of it, you’re like, “What are they doing?” But as a psychologist, I’m like, “Ah, that’s really clever.” So basically, they had research participants going through this little pretend lottery of like, “Okay, you’re selecting out of this bucket of red balls, and so on. And what do you think it’s going to come up?” And the one twist that they put in there, is sometimes people chose which of these two little buckets, there are these little random drawings, that they were going to focus on? And then it’s like, okay, well, we can either just move on with the study, or you can see how it came out? Well, they want to know how it came out when they chose… even this incredibly arbitrary [LAUGHTER] low-stakes situation. So I think that’s also another kind of natural, emotional process, motivational process, that we can tie into… setting up curiosities or questions, but also having students say, “Well, which of these two projects do you want to do?” These days I offer options whenever I can. Would you like to write a term paper? The sort of formal paper? Or would you like to put together a slideshow that you can narrate and share? Big learning objectives are probably similar, but students can pick and I always present in practical terms, I say, “Well, if you are going to graduate school next year, and you need a writing sample for your portfolio, this is a great opportunity to do that orr if you’d like to stretch your skills with oral presentations, maybe because of the last few years, you haven’t gotten to do that as much, then you can choose this,” …but simply by having them make a choice, the research would predict that they are going to be more invested, and they’re going to be involved in these more effective things. So that’s one and oh, I’m really excited to see what’s coming out in this whole sub area of “Okay, we’ve done all the research we know that things like retrieval practice and interleaved study, all this engaged stuff. We know it works. We put it on a tip sheet, we gave it to students, nothing happened.” Uh oh.[LAUGHTER] Now what? So not just the like, “Okay, what should students be doing?” But “how do we get them to do those very things?” And, boy, if there was ever a time when we realize, yeah, my ability to just sort of exhort you and make you do things because I say so is limited, this is the time. Because I don’t get to go home with students [LAUGHTER] and say like, “Alright, that whole thing about quiz yourself. And so now you really have to do it.” So there’s this relatively new framework that’s come out too from some cognitive psychologists that I really admire, Mark McDaniels and his team. The knowledge, belief, commitment, and planning approach, KBCP. So this pulls in from some other research on intentional behavior change that’s also been perking along just all on its own for years and years. We know so much about how people set a course and decide to change their behaviors. And study skills are, after all, kind of an entrenched pattern of behavior for many students by the time they get to us. How do we go in and change it? And yeah, it’s absolutely not through my least favorite technique, which is put together a list of random tips and hope for the best. So they say, alright, knowledge is the first step. So just telling students like, “Hey, there’s all this research that shows that if you close the book and quiz yourself, you’re going to get more out of this. If you do the reading quiz that I set up for you, and do it as many times as you possibly can, that’s going to help you retain the foundational information.” I’ve told them, I’ve shared it with them, or something like interleaved study, if you’ve got different problem types, mix them up. But it doesn’t stop there. That’s only the first step. So the next step is belief. And that means changing beliefs, which means persuasion. So we kind of dust off a whole bunch of other things out of the psychologist’s toolkit. How do you persuade people? Well, you show, don’t tell. So this team proposes doing things like “Well, let’s run a head-to-head comparison, like a Pepsi Challenge, in class. Sure, your brain tells you that you learned a ton just from reviewing, but did you? Let’s try it.” And this takes some time. I mean, this is not easy. But this is one of the things they propose: commitment. So now that I’ve persuaded you that this is the way to study, now, what’s your next step? So getting your students to say, “Yeah, I actually authentically believe this. And I see how it’s going to help me and I’m going to try it.” And then of course planning. So instead of just like, “I will do this,” right? Those of us who are veterans of New Year’s resolutions of yor [LAUGHTER] know that that is not the way to go. So yeah, saying “Okay, but here’s what I’m going to actually do. So I’ve got a test coming up, I’m going to maybe set up a study schedule, instead of just cramming it all in the last minute, which is [LAUGHTER] a really good empirically grounded strategy. I’m going to find these practice quizzes, or maybe I’ll get together with a study group and do that. So here’s my plan.” And then if possible, circling back and say, “Well, did it work.?” And hey, if we’re right, then students will actually try it, they’ll say, “Wow, in less time, I knocked the top out of this test that I was really worried about.” And that is going to feed that virtuous cycle of going right back to those effective strategies. So KPCB, I love it too, because I’ve been doing something similar in the Attention Matters Project that I think I’ve talked about on some previous episodes as well, which is all about having students themselves come in and see how their attention is limited, learn about the effects of things like distraction on their learning. But we don’t stop there. We give them a few rudimentary tools as well, we say, “Okay, what is going to be your plan if things are dragging in class and your mom is texting you? That’s tough. How are you going to get through [LAUGHTER] that without then checking out of your class? What are you going to do if your neighbors are watching who knows what on their laptop or they’re texting and it’s bothering you? What is going to be your plan?” So getting students to really think ahead to those things, commit to doing them in a way that works for them, and puts that newfound knowledge into practice. So those are some of the things that I’m really experimenting with and excited about right now.
Rebecca: So in that approach, it seems really necessary to help set up a structure for students and then circle back and have a reflective piece so that maybe they will do that on their own next time.
Michelle: And there’s some exciting suggestions from research here, too. I mean, I know it’s easy sometimes as faculty, especially at the end of a long year, like this one, to say, “Ah, well, did it actually stick with them?” But there’s a couple of different projects out there that have kind of converging on this idea that once students really do see something like retrieval practice, active studying, and so on, and once they really experienced that, as part of the structure of one course, they absolutely will run with it. So they will go into the next class, whether in your discipline or not, and say, “Well, from now on, I’m actually going to have a study plan that’s set up in this particular way and I’m going to do this.” So I personally find that very, very encouraging that “Yeah, it takes some work to do this stuff, but the payoff, even if you personally don’t see it right in front of your eyes, the payoff is likely there.”
John: And so the more faculty you start doing these things too, the more likely it is that students will adopt new approaches. So spreading this more widely is helpful.
Michelle: Yes, yes, a hearty I agree to that statement. And I can test on my own campus, I’ve seen more faculty bringing in more structure, things like online reading quizzes, I have noticed that, so I guess that’s a counterpoint to the “Wow, my lived experience is telling me that there’s these issues in engagement. Maybe so, but my lived experience is also telling me that students are coming to me more ready to be proactive about their study, they need a little less persuasion to do things like reading quizzes, because they at least they’ve seen them before. So yeah, I think it absolutely can work that way you’re describing.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?
Michelle: Wow, well, these days, I’m working a lot on my substack newsletter, it’s called the R3 Newsletter. And I think this is the mechanism by which we connected on some of these new topics. So I love that it’s already starting these great dialogues. And if you haven’t seen substack at all, it’s a bit of a blogging platform. And my substack is free, some subtasks are paid, but mine is definitely free. And so, for example, if you’re interested in this topic, I would definitely tell your listeners to check out Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s substack, as well, it’s called “Once More, with Feeling” and I also want to affirm that she is and her work are really at the forefront of this whole topic of motivation and emotion and particular in learning so a great other substack to follow it and buy her book, Spark of Learning is also just an absolute modern classic in this. So I decided to get in the fray since I saw these wonderful thinkers around me also doing this. And this has been a really good platform, and a way to structure for myself something that I felt needed a refresh, which was my reading of the literature that’s coming out. So what I do is twice a month, approximately, I’ve been putting out discussions of research that I’m reading. My little heuristic is anything that was published in approximately the last year, really privileging the new stuff. And I’ve historically just seen that then when I really get into the nitty gritty of the research and what it says and what it doesn’t and parsing that for folks, especially those who may be outside of social sciences, that’s where I get the most affirmation from folks and people saying, “Yeah, this was really helpful.” So I decided to run with that. And so that’s a big project ight now. I’ve been really happy with the reception and just working on that. I’ve been writing and thinking more about this topic of motivation and cognition. So as we mentioned at the top of our conversation, it’s one that goes back to kind of my initial ponderings, thrashing around as a beginning graduate student of like, “How does this all work?” Coming back to that, and really finding new ways that I can share that with my fellow faculty. So getting the word out there. I have a few new projects that I’m working on that tie back to that attention issue. So that’s another perpetual area of interest for me. So I have a few new writing and research projects that are going on with that and kind of in the development phase. And this summer, I am going to be catching up on a stack of books, just an epic number of these great books and works that are coming out. Seems like every week, there’s a new thing that goes on that list. So I look forward to a few weeks or more to really concentrate on that.
John: And we should note this is the second podcast that has come out of things we’ve seen posted on your substack blog.
Michelle: Oh, wonderful.
John: One other thing. Sarah Rose Cavanaugh has a new book coming out that we were fortunate enough to get a draft copy of and it should be out this summer: Mind over Monsters, if you’d like to see more about this topic.
Michelle: Oh, absolutely. Alright. It’s on the stack now.
Rebecca: That pile keeps growing.
Michelle: Yes, it does.
Rebecca: Better add on another week. [LAUGHTER]
John: We could all use an extra week or summer.
Rebecca: Right? Yeah.
John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you, Michelle.
Michelle: Oh, my pleasure, you as well.
Rebecca: Thanks, Michelle.
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.