Case study – Omelettes and Cognitivism

1774_making_summer_sausage_omelette

If you have actually got as far as reading this first paragraph, there must have been something in the title that caught your attention. Perhaps you were simply curious as to how these three words are connected, or maybe one of the words relates to something you are interested in?

Whatever the reason, you have begun to process information and so engage in cognition, put more simply, you have started to think.

Making an omelette

But first a question, take a moment and think about how you make an omelette? ……….Then in your own words, explain how you would do this? ………. As you might imagine this is not about the omelette but the process you went through in order to answer the question.

The process – There was clearly an element of memory and recall as you thought back to the time when you last made an omelette, you would also have needed to direct your attention to the event itself and use strong visualisation skills, to see yourself actually whisking the egg, adding the salt and pepper etc. However so sophisticated is the human mind you can actually create images of making an omelette based on your knowledge of scrambling an egg! The point being, you have the ability to visualise activities of which you have no or little experience. The mental processes outlined above go some way to explaining Cognitivism. Cognitivism in learning is the study of how information is received, directed, organised, stored and perceived in order to facilitate better learning. Cognitivist believe that mental processes should be studied in order to develop better theories as to how people learn.

Case study is higher level

As you progress up the exam ladder the style of examination question changes. It starts with relatively simple activities that require you to recall something already taught e.g. what is the capital of France? It then moves to questions that test understanding, e.g. explain why Paris is the capital of France? At higher levels you will ultimately come across, Application, Analyse and Evaluation, and it is these higher level skills that a case studies often requires you to master.

I have written about case studies before, firstly, Putting the context into case study and secondly Passing case studies by thinking in words. Here I want to explore how by understanding how people think  (Cognitivism) you can develop strategies to help you answer what seem to be impossible questions.

Application of knowledge

Imagine you have been given a case study that has a large amount of information about the company, the people and the financial position. You have been asked to offer advise as to how the company should improve its internal controls within the HR department. Even though you may not think you know the answer, the process outlined above will give a framework to follow.

  • Firstly, focus your attention on the key words – internal controls and HR deportment
  • Secondly, recall any information you have about internal controls and HR departments
  • Thirdly, deploy strong visualisation skills, seeing yourself in that company, bringing in as much detail as possible to give context, and then use common sense
  • Finally write out your answer – Say what you see, talk through how you would do it, mention some of the problems you might experience and outline the possible solutions

These are cognitive strategies developed from learning more as to how people think, why not give them a go?

And here is how to make an omelette from my favourite instructor, Delia – yet another practical tip, remember last month it was how to make toast.

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Reflections on Understanding ……Brexit

great briitain leaves european union metaphorI have to admit in the last few months I have spent a fair bit of time looking into the facts behind the EU and checking on some of the statements made by both the remain and leave sides, attempting to discover truths or otherwise so that I could make a more informed decision. It proved difficult; much was opinion dressed up as fact by using numbers open to interpretation. Another technique used on the face of it to offer clarity, but in reality did just the opposite, was to state the “facts” forcefully, with conviction and repeat them often, giving the impression that what was being said was not only true but believed to be true.

But this blog is not really about Brexit, well kind of, I couldn’t let the most important decision made in this country for over 40 years go without some mention.

Following the announcement of the results on Friday the 24th of June I found myself going through what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described as the five stages of grief. Denial, no that can’t be true. Anger, WHO was it that voted like that, they must be MAD or words to that effect. Bargaining, let me break down the statistics and find out who voted and what group they came from, old/young, North/South, maybe they could be persuaded to change their minds, or better still perhaps we will have a second referendum. Depression, we are all doomed, and finally Acceptance, it is what it is, we now need to make the most of it.

Reflection

What I have described above is not simply the ramblings of a disgruntled and disenfranchised supporter of the in campaign but goes some way towards illustrating the process of reflection, one of the most important components of learning and a key technique in developing a deeper understanding.  It was David A Kolb who in 1984 put forward the argument that we learn from reflecting on our experiences.

KolbModelStep one in Kolb’s learning cycle is to have the experience. Step two, reflect, think back on what we have experienced. Step three, conceptualise, generate a hypothesis about the meaning of the experience, what is it we have learned, and step four, test that the hypothesis is supported by the experience, does it confirm that what we have learned is correct.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. Confucius

Reflection – purposeful thought

Getting students to do this consciously is however difficult, in fairness I didn’t reflect consciously myself, it was part of a process in trying to understand why I was feeling the way I did. I felt angry but on one level didn’t know why, so I had to reflect on what had happened to find out.

The point being simply asking a student to complete say a reflection log, no matter how much you state the value of keeping one, will probably result in little more than blank pages. You need to have a reason to reflect, this might be to identify the cause of an emotion as was the case for me or to answer a question, which may be as simple as, “thinking back on the last essay you submitted, what have you learned?” it just needs to have a purpose. Of course the reflection log may still remain blank but that is more to do with motivation than the power of the exercise.

One simple technique to help with reflection is to think back on what has happened, identify the impact that it will have today on the present and what the implications will be for the future.

Lessons learned

So having passed through the stages of grief, rather too quickly I am sure some will say and reflected on the experience, what have I learned? Well, some has been confirmation of what I already knew. Firstly, that Politicians will make statements that they may or not believe at the time but will back away from after the event. This can be achieved whilst still retaining an internal level of integrity by pointing out that they never used those exact words, standing in front of a bus that has them blazoned across it, is not the same. Did anyone really believe that £350m would be spent on the health service or that Europe would not trade with us at all, after Brexit. Secondly that I like democracy as long as it comes up with the answer I want, but not when it doesn’t. Thirdly, the electorate does not make decisions using in-depth analysis and reflection but by deep held beliefs built up over time, often reinforced by the people closest to them. And lastly that the status quo is not sustainable and that happiness is a comparative process thus making change inevitable and with change comes risk.

Will it be for the better, only time will tell, we will have to wait for the historians to reflect on what the UK looked like in 2016 and whether it was better in 2026, as you can see reflection has many uses!

Let me leave you with my favourite quote of the campaign, not from one of the leading politicians involved, but Abraham Lincoln.

 “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

 

 

 

Currywurst , apples and the £33,000 a year boarding school

currywurst

Currywurst fast becoming the most popular dish in Berlin

I have three relatively unrelated stories this month.

Berlin

The first follows a trip to Berlin this weekend and the obligatory city tour. Just of Unter den Linden you will find a sunken glass plate between the pavement that provides a view into a room full of empty bookshelves, sufficient to house the 20,000 books that were destroyed on this site on the 10th of May 1933. Some 70,000 people, many German university students gathered to burn books with “unGerman” ideas. Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: ” The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.” “It is to this end that we want to educate you.”

This was not only symbolic but practical. Without these books or to be precise only having the ones that remained, it might just be possible to create a nation of people who all think the same? Who all share the same ideals and live life by the same values. And yet of course this is not how you create an educated society, a society able to think for itself, the result will be compliance and idealism. Which was more likely what Goebbels had in mind.

Goodwill Hunting

When I got home one of my favourite movies had already started. Good Will Hunting tells the story of a maths genius, Will Hunting who struggles to come to terms with his past and as a result is unable to make a commitment for fear of being let down. But for me the best scene is where Will confronts a first year grad student who has been belittling his friend Chuckie.

Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Vickers. “Work in Essex County,” Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us, you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own, your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?

Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.

Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip. Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal.

This of course challenges the idea that knowledge is the same as thinking. Knowing something is not the same as having manipulated the information in your head, questioned and explored the arguments from many angles, the result should be an opinion, not someone else’s but your own.

Wellington college

And finally to bring my trilogy up to date. Only this week Wellington College who boast George Orwell and Sebastian Faulks as past students announced that have introduced a six-hour interview process to help teachers see beyond children’s over tutoring. They encourage families to spend more quality time instead of having their children tutored, Julian Thomas, Wellington’s head master, said: “When parents ask how should they prepare their children for our selection process, we tell them ‘have supper together and talk as a family; go to plays and good films and discuss them. Help them to think critically about the world around them; enjoy interesting conversations go out for walks and see the world”.

What Wellington are trying to do is encourage behaviours that will help children become thinking adults.

In conclusion

Knowledge like information is becoming increasingly accessible, unlike Germany in 1933 we have no restrictions, the internet has given us that power. But learning is more than knowledge you have to take the facts and make them your own, stitching them together carefully and thoughtfully, and that takes time and a considerable amount of effort. On the whole absorbing information will probably not come as easy to you as it did to Will Hunting, yet even with his genius he only knew what he had read. His learning had in fact only just begun as he went looking for the real life experiences that would test if he really understood anything at all.

Examinations are moving more towards tests that require you to think, asking that you provide an opinion or make recommendations given a set of circumstances, case studies are a good example. Of course you need knowledge as a foundation but the ability to sift quickly through the vast amount of information available may in time become more important than knowledge itself .

Ps apples is taken from Good Will Hunting – “How ya like those apples”

 

 

Why cramming works and making stuff up is okay

Will making stuff up

Will making stuff up

To a certain extent I have spent much of my career making things up. When I was a student that was not the case, I listened and learned and so when I spoke, I spoke with confidence that what I was saying was correct, because someone had just told me it was. Yet knowing is only the start, and in some ways a poor relative of the “figuring it out for yourself” technique.  I am reminded of quote from the film Good Will Hunting, which along with Dead Poets capture some really magical moments in learning.

Will Hunting – “See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doing some thinkin on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life.” “One, don’t do that.” “And Two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f***in education you coulda got for a dollah fifty in late charges at the public library.”

 Question practice – the secret to exam success

Having had no real formal educational training I have been exploring ideas as to why some techniques work and others don’t, why it is that student A passes yet student B who did exactly the same, failed. One clear observation from over twenty years in the high stakes exam world is that the most important activity that a student can engage in is, question practice. As a lecturer I would make statements, explain them using real world examples, get students to laugh, and maybe even enjoy the subject. But, the very best learning seemed to happen when the student was required to do a question. So it was with great interest that I read of some research that came out of the US in 2011, it’s called Retrieval Practice.

 Retrieval practice – the power of cramming

Retrieval practice is simply the process of retrieving something from memory.  So for example if I asked you, who was the Prime Minister that took us into the European Economic Community in 1973, you might say, on reflection Edward Heath. You already knew the answer but were forced to recall it. If however you were not sure who it was and were subsequently told (given feedback) it was Edward Heath and that Harold Wilson in 1975 held the first referendum, you are likely to remember both. But the most interesting and perhaps surprising aspect of this research is that not only can you recall the facts, it also leads to a deeper learning in so much that you can answer questions on related information. This in some ways gives credence to the idea that cramming information, maybe not at the last minute could be beneficial, not simply because you will remember it for a few hours’ but that it will lead to deeper learning.

Mark McDaniel is a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis

“We think of tests as a kind of dipstick that we insert into a student’s head, an indicator that tells us how high the level of knowledge has risen in there when in fact, every time a student calls up knowledge from memory, that memory changes.” “Its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable and more accessible.”

Jeffrey Karpicke, a professor of cognitive psychology at Purdue University

“Retrieving is the principal way learning happens.” “Recalling information we’ve already stored in memory is a more powerful learning event than storing that information in the first place,” he says. “Retrieval is ultimately the process that makes new memories stick.” “Not only does retrieval practice help students remember the specific information they retrieved, it also improves retention for related information that was not directly tested.”

Final thoughts

And so I am pleased to say that what I have observed in the classroom, that question practice improves exam results might be a little simplistic and that not only does it help students pass exams they might actually have been learning something at the same time 🙂

If you want to read more follow these links

To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test (New York Times)

Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning (Scientific American)

And the cow said – MOOOOCS

MOOOOCIn October I decided I would find out first hand exactly what it was like to study online so I joined a MOOC. For those that don’t know what these are, a Massive Open Online Course is a free or at least normally free online course that has the capacity to have thousands of students in the same virtual classroom.

In fact only last month the British Council launched its first MOOC on English language attracting over 100,000 students. In essence a MOOC provides “education” at scale, accessible globally for free, and what could be wrong with that? Well in essence nothing, having a well educated society not only helps with social mobility but as has been well documented adds significant economic value.

Problems with MOOCS

But as you can imagine not everyone is happy, most of the concerns centre around quality.

If MOOCS are so good why is it that despite the large numbers of students enrolling there are very few, around 8% who actually complete the course.

Is this the result of poor instructional design, the fact that some MOOCS have very little student/ teacher engagement and are simply a series of videos linked together with reference to materials available elsewhere on the web. Is it because no one person is accountable for the students, there is no “teacher” to motivate the student if they fall behind. And due to the scale, feedback has to be automated or assessed by peers who are clearly not experts.

Well it might be all of the above and the course completion rate is clearly of concern yet some would argue that having a less teacher centric course is exactly what you need for students to develop a much deeper understanding. This is something *George Siemem’s argues.

Making sense of the chaos is what learning is all about, if teachers plot the route it reduces the value of what is being or could be learned.”

 “The great thing about MOOCS is that the learning does not end when the course ends, because the students have built their own communities, the learning becomes life long.”

M+O+O+C+S

People talk about MOOCs in so many different ways, in fact the name itself can be confusing when trying to understand exactly what a MOOC is.

  • Massive – A MOOC works on a platform that enables thousands of students to see and hear the same thing at the same time. The technology behind this is impressive and using one tutor to deliver the course enables the most to be made of the expertise.
  • Open – its open to anyone, there are no prior learning requirements. It is also open in the context of being free, and the learning not being restricted to the views of one person, the community are also teachers.
  • Online – it is online but is not what some would class as an online course. An online course unlike a MOOC would be instructionally designed to ensure the learning is consistent with the learning outcomes and incorporates the latest developments from the field of learning science.
  • Course – It has a cohort, a subject matter and a beginning, middle and end. But as outlined above, at its simplest it could be little more than linked video with no overall instruction and some would argue this is not a course.

A MOOC on one level is the next generation text book

Listen to Anant Agarwas on TED 

Providers

It is important to say that as MOOCs are so new, the first ones established around 2011, it is hard to pin them down as they are constantly changing. But if you are interested here is a note of the key providers.

  • Future Learn – owned by Britain’s Open University Offers MOOCs from many UK Universities. The newest of the MOOCs with approximately 750,000 plus users.
  • Coursera has around 10 million users and is by far the biggest, a for-profit founded by two Stanford University Professors.
  • edX  have around 3 million users, a not for profit MOOC founded by MIT and Harvard University.
  • Udacity have around 1.6 million users.  A for -profit backed by Sebastian Thun (co founder) and two Venture capitalist. It is currently repositioning its offering to be more vocational, targeted at professionals. Listen to Peter Norvig early observations in 2012 on TED. Peter taught one of the first classes with Sebastian Thun on artificial intelligence with over 100,000 online.

My MOOC – conclusions

edX

My edX course with MIT

The course I chose was with one of the leading provider’s edX and is called Design and Development of Educational Technology. Okay not for everyone but so far I have found it very impressive.

The course was delivered over 6 weeks. It consisted of video lectures with a designated tutor Professor Eric Kloper introducing many of them himself.

There were links to further reading and sessions requiring a hands on approach, in some instances “playing” with software to find out how it works. In addition there were tasks and projects to complete, all recognised by the awarding of a certificate at the end. And yes it was free. Like my students however I have already fallen behind, but I do plan to complete the programme as so far I have found it both engaging and rewarding.

But what of the future – What we can say is that some MOOCS have responded to the criticisms and are now delivering first class courses to thousands of students, online and for free. But MOOCS are still evolving; blending MOOCs with traditional face to face courses is gaining in popularity for example.

There is however still the big question as to how they are funded, and for me this is about quality. Anyone can put information that is already freely available online in a thoughtless way and leave it for the students to curate. But a well thought through MOOC takes considerable time and skill to design and deliver. This is of course no different to an online or classroom course. A good course needs good people and they cost money. But I see no reason why MOOCs can’t charge, I would gladly have paid for mine. The cost would be low given the volumes, say £1 – £500 but the reach would still be global. And the monies would enable the providers to continually invest in order to deliver the best courses possible.

Bill Gates talks about MOOCS well worth watching, its only 4 minutes “the information has been in the textbook for hundreds of years….online does not enhance knowledge…” 

Ps I promise no more animal pictures next month.

*Author of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

 

Are exams fit for purpose (part two) – what are the alternatives?

You dont fatten pigs 2

Last month’s blog came to the conclusion that examinations* are fit for purpose or at least “a purpose.”

They provide the student with a clear objective to which they can direct their efforts and focus attention and are a transferable measure of competency that can be assessed at scale. The “at scale” point is important as there are many ways of assessing competence but few that can cope with the need to test thousands of students all at the same time.

The main problem with examinations is that they don’t always examine what is most valued; the method of assessment often has significant limitations as to what it actually tests and the results are presented in league tables that give a far too simplistic view of success.

I am not sure we can resolve all of these but it might be worth exploring other options, specifically alternative methods of assessment. For example If you change the method of assessment from a formal, often timed written exam to say a portfolio of work, not only do you change the method of assessment but you will change what is being examined, two birds with one stone perhaps.

Different methods of assessing competence

Open book exams

Open book assessment offers a way of testing application rather than memory. Students have access to a text book that contains information relevant to what they are being asked. It’s the use of knowledge that is important, not the knowledge itself. The idea of open book could easily be adapted, why not allow students access to the internet during the exam, they could look up anything they wanted. Is this not more representative of what happens in the real world?

Take out exams

Similar to the above the so called “take out exam” allows the student to take the exam away to work on at home using whatever resources they prefer, books, internet etc. They return the next day with a completed answer. This can work better than you might at first think so long as you have a robust mechanism to detect plagiarism. There are several very good software packages that can spot the most sophisticated types of copying.

Case studies/simulations

A case study provides an environment for the student to demonstrate they can use their knowledge to solve problems and or offer advice in a virtual world. Most case studies tend to be written but this is one area that we could see some clever and affordable use of technology to better simulate the real world.

Performance tests

In a performance test students are required to demonstrate a skill/process, create a product etc while being observed by the assessor who will evaluate the performance. A great example of testing ability to apply knowledge but suffers from the subjectivity of the assessor and has limited application at scale.

Portfolios

Portfolios are most often collections of the student’s work that demonstrate their ability to perform a specific task. These can be simulations of the real world or portfolios of work actually undertaken on the job. A portfolio can include written documents, emails, audio or video recordings, in fact anything that provides evidence as required by the assessor.   Portfolios are perfect for assessing application but the process of assessment is expensive and not without bias.

Viva Vocal – (living voice) Oral exam

Often used to test PhD students, an oral exam gives the assessor chance to question the student. This is a very effective method where you are looking for higher level skill and depth of understanding. As identified last month it’s probably one of the oldest forms of assessment.

Digital badges – capturing the learning path

Being awarded a badge as recognition of achievement is something many will be familiar with especially if you were a boy scout or girl guide. But digital badging is new and becoming increasingly popular because of the internet. A good example would be linkedin and the badges awarded to you by others as recognition of certain skills.  Many of the assessment methods above provide a first past the post type of assessment, you pass and that’s it. Digital badging on the other hand is a form of lifelong assessment that evolves along with your career.

Digital badging for me is one of the most exiting forms of assessment and I am not alone Nasa have been using digital badging since 2011. Read more about digital badging.

Assessment in the future

Scanning for competenceThe list above is far from comprehensive and many other equally valid types of assessment exist e.g.  Role plays, Slide presentations, Assignments etc but what might assessment look like 15 years from now. Well how about using MRI scans to identify which parts of the brain are being used?  Not sure it will catch on but it would provide some interesting evidence as to how the student is getting to the answer, simple memory or a genuine and deep understanding .

*Examinations defined as a written test administered to assess someone’s level of understanding, knowledge or skills

Eureka – I Understand Understanding!

I Understand!If you understand the subject you are studying your chances of passing the exam must be good.

A simple and perhaps obvious statement but what does understand mean and what do you have to do to truly understand something? Of course understanding is a key part of passing but it is not enough on its own, you can understand something yet fail because you run out of time, misinterpret the question, thought you understood but didn’t! etc.

To understand

The dictionary defines to understand as, to know what someone or something means, to grasp the meaning, to be familiar with, make sense of etc. Understanding is clearly different to knowing, for example, you may know that gravity is a force that pulls objects to earth but that does not mean you understand what gravity is or how it works. Of course you need both knowledge and understanding, the one is no good without the other. Examiners try to test for understanding by asking questions that require you to compare, contrast, explain, interpret etc.

Understanding is not a Eureka moment, it has different levels. It might seem that there is a point where you didn’t understand and then suddenly you did, a Eureka moment. In reality what you have done is move closer to gaining a better and fuller understanding. Ask any lecturer or teacher, often they will tell you they never fully understood something until they had to teach it, they just thought they did.

Proving you understand – The 6 facets of understanding

Understanding by design, Wiggins and McTighe (1998) is one part of an instructional design process that provides a very helpful framework we can use to explore the depth of understanding and perhaps more importantly what you can do to develop a deeper understanding. Think of it as a hierarchy with the easiest one first, the greater you’re understanding the higher the number.

1. Explain, the classic exam question – Explain to someone what the concept/idea means and say why. Explaining out loud to yourself or making a recording can be just as effective.

2. Interpretation – Relate the concept/idea to your own experiences, tell a meaningful story. Try to add something personal into your explanation. To do this you will need to reflect on past events, whilst attempting to find parallels with the concept/idea.

3. Application – Use the concept/idea in a different context. The ability to apply knowledge in different contexts (transfer) is a key milestone in learning as well as understanding. It should result in you never being caught out by a difficult exam question. Understand to this level and it doesn’t matter what the examiner asks.

4. Perspective – Read around the concept/idea, get other people’s views, and see the big picture. If your struggling with understanding, read another text book or my favourite is to go onto you tube and watch a video. The internet is great for discovering alternative views.

5. Empathy – Try to get inside another person’s feelings about the concept/idea. This is difficult as it requires you to put aside your feelings about the concept/idea and accept that it is not the only way of thinking about it.

6. Self Knowledge – Ask questions about your understanding, ask what are the limits of your understanding, what are your prejudices, become aware of what you don’t understand. Often called metacognition, the ability to think about thinking.

The Eureka moment

Understanding, like Eureka moments are not of course the result of sitting in a bath and suddenly finding you understand something you had previously found confusing. It is the gift of hard work and long hours of study, hopefully by trying some of the techniques above your depth of understanding will only improve.

Ps apparently the jeweller was trying to cheat the king….

Understanding by Design

Want to know more about understanding by design, watch this.