February 26, 2021

Dear CNS Instructors,

Happy Friday! For this week’s teaching tip, I share an article suggested by Ben Clegg, Professor in Psychology.  Penny Bauder published this article in Authority magazine on an interview of Stephen M. Kosslyn, President of Active Learning Sciences and former President of Foundry College, Professor and Center Director at Stanford and Dean and Professor at Harvard University.  Dr. Kosslyn focuses on developing and disseminating evidence-based active learning approaches for online courses.  The article, part of a series of interviews, asks “what are five things you need to know to be a highly effective educator?”  In this interview Dr. Kosslyn describes his career path and current projects and makes several interesting points regarding the current state of education in the U.S.  My favorites are:

1. Learning Objectives: Educators need to define clearly the learning objectives for programs, and each individual course.

2. Universal Learner: We should develop programs for the “Universal Learner,” designed to be effective for all students.

3. Increase the status of teachers through increased pay and teaching professional development

4. We should focus at least as much on teaching how and when to use information appropriately and how to find needed information as on specific knowledge and skills.

As the key point of the article the author asked Dr. Kosslyn to describe the “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” and to share a story or example for each.

1.    Have a clear North Star: It’s common in courses to have “topics” listed on the syllabus, but it’s much better to have learning objectives. Learning objectives typically begin with a verb; instead of “Memos” (a topic), it would be “Write Effective Memos” (a learning objective). Learning objectives directly lead to learning outcomes, which are measurable. Every educational program, course and individual class session should be driven by clear learning objectives, and those learning objectives should be directly assessed. Students need to know what the point is at every level, and instructors need to know where they want the students to end up.

2.    Induce students to “turn things over in their minds”: Perhaps the single most important principle to emerge from the science of learning is the Principle of Deep Processing: The more you pay attention to and think through material, the more likely you are to remember it. To get a sense as to what I mean, I often ask people the following: At the end of the day, can you reflect back and recall the events of the day? What percentage of what you recall do you think you intentionally tried to memorize at the time it occurred? The standard response I’ve gotten, from thousands of people, is that people intentionally tried to memorize less than 10% of what they later can recall. People recall these events simply because they paid attention and thought through what was happening at the time. This is a very general principle, and to the extent that students can be induced to do this, they are likely to learn.

3.    Lead students to try again, only better: “Deliberate practice” is among the most powerful ways to learn. This isn’t just doing the same thing over and over, hoping to get better. Rather, the key idea is to produce a behavior (e.g., a golf swing, a spoken French word, a dish in cooking school), get corrected by an expert (e.g., a golf coach, language tutor, or master chef), and then try again, doing your best to reduce the difference between what you did at the outset and the corrected version. In fact, you don’t even need a human expert. I love what Benjamin Franklin did when he was learning to be an effective writer: He would select an article or essay he found well written, and try to paraphrase it a day or two later. And then he would compare what he had written to the original, noting where he had fallen short and what he needed to do to improve.

4.    Weave information into tightly organized units: We humans have a limited capacity to take in new information, and if instructors present too much they will overwhelm students (who will simply tune out). What counts as “too much”? We humans can apprehend only about four units, called “chunks,” at the same time. But, and here’s the really cool part, each of those units can contain four units, and each of those can contain four, and so on. Thus, students can absorb a huge amount if it’s organized effectively.
One of my favorite demonstrations of the power of effective organization was done at Carnegie Mellon University. The researchers recruited an undergrad to come into the lab a few times a week. At each session, they read the student a series of random digits, and simply asked him to repeat them back. At first the lists were very short, and after the student correctly repeated back the digits he got a new list that was one digit longer. The lists that the student could recall grew steadily longer over time. This process continued for a year and a half. At the end of the study the student could repeat back a list of 79 randomly chosen digits, read one per second! He was able to do this by drawing on his experiences as a marathon runner. He converted sets of digits into times for specific segments of races, and organized those segments into longer stretches. This sort of thing is standard among professional mnemonists, like Joshua Foer (who wrote Moonwalking with Einstein). In short, breaking information into small units and tightly organizing them is crucial for learning.

5.    Create and invoke associations: I often have trouble remembering names of people I meet, and thus I’ve worked out a simple technique to help me do so. If I meet someone named Rebecca, for example, I think of someone I already know who has that name. I then visualize that familiar woman’s face and consider features that she has in common with the new person, such as the shape of her eyebrows, length of her nose, or texture of her hair. I then stare at those features of the new person, and visualize the familiar person’s face morphing into the new person’s face. Later, when I encounter the new person again, I look at her face until a feature reminds me of the person I knew previously. And voila! I then recall her name.
This is an example of the power of associations. Associations can help learning at three distinct phases of the process. First, they can help you organize material so that it’s easier to store (like the associations helped the marathon runner organize digits into chunks). Second, they can help you integrate new information into what you already know. And third, they can serve as reminders, to trigger memories and help you recall. Being aware of the power of associations invites many teaching techniques, ranging from using precise analogies to creating rich narratives.

I am happy to report that the computer issues that were vexing me last week have been resolved thanks to Evan Campbell, CNSIT. I hope you finish week six strong and have a great weekend doing something fun and interesting.

Cheers, Paul

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences