Simulations, Case Studies and Games – Strictly Take 2

Last month’s blog looked at the difficult balancing act that has to be struck between knowledge and skills. It concluded that skills learned in one domain are not always transferable to another, making it important to have as realistic an environment in which to learn as possible.

The UK government believe, as set out in their skills for jobs white paper that by giving employers a central role in the design of technical courses it will ensure the education and training is directly linked to the skills needed in the world of work. Although this should result in a curriculum valued by employers, these skills won’t be learned unless they can be applied in a real-world environment. This is the reason the government promote apprenticeships and have built work experience into the new T levels.

But perhaps there is more that could be done, what if the transition between what is learned in the “classroom” and the real world was somehow smoother, almost as if it was the obvious next step.

Simulations, a type of rehearsal
One answer might be to use a simulation, an instructional scenario where the learner is placed in a world similar in some aspects to the real one. It is a representation of reality within which the student has to engage and interact. It’s controlled by the teacher who uses it to achieve a desired learning outcome.

Simulations are most effective when there is a need to explore relatively complex topics with many dimensions and factors. And because the student is placed in a situation of uncertainty, they are forced to navigate confusion, consider different possibilities, problem solve, think critically and in so doing develop those all-important higher-level skills so valued in the workplace. Despite there being good evidence, (Bogo et al, 2014, Cooper et al, 2012) as to the efficacy of simulations, in practice PowerPoints and chalk and talk are still all too common.

In terms of timing, simulations work best at the later stages of learning, after students have been taught theoretical concepts and the fundamental underpinning knowledge, effectively prior knowledge matters. The reason for this is our old friend “cognitive load” and the need not to overwhelm learners with too much information at any one time. (Kirschner et al., 2006).

Technology of course has a role to play, in particular Virtual Reality (VR) which although expensive has much to offer in areas where mistakes can be costly. This is perhaps most evident in the medical profession where VR can place students in realistic life and death situations but in an environment that is safe, controlled and allows for mistakes.

Case studies and games
Both case studies and games provide opportunities for a similar learning experience to simulations.

Case studies – are effectively real-world stories in which the student applies what they have been taught with the objective of solving a problem or offering alternative solutions. In the business world these are not new, for example Harvard Business School are celebrating their 100 years of teaching using the case study method this year.

Although it’s possible to study on your own using case studies, because of the absence of a single right answer it is beneficial to engage with other students, exchanging ideas, discussing different theoretical topics and listening to alternative answers.  After which if you require a group consensus there is a need to prioritise and persuade others within the group, all of which are valuable skills.

Games – Wikipedia defines a game as a structured form of play, usually undertaken for entertainment or fun, and sometimes used as an educational tool. Most games have the same components, rules, an objective, challenge and competition. As with case studies if used for teaching they can allow the student to explore and test themselves with different problems, many of which have alternative courses of action. Having a competitor adds another dimension, perhaps sometime they are rational which might make them predictable but on other occasions they are irrational and illogical.

“We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”

Benjamin Franklin

Just to give some idea as to the scale of gaming and its popularity, in 2020 the video gaming Industry was estimated to be worth $160 Billion and by 2025 this figure is set to increase to $270 Billion. Now of course these aren’t educational games but it does show how valuable they could become if educators could somehow tap into their magic. And if you’re not familiar with how these games might be used, take a look at this short video that showcases the new and upcoming management games of 2021.

Realistic environments are not enough
Simulations, case studies and games all provide the opportunity to place the learner in a realistic environment to help them develop valuable work-based skills, but there is a caveat. Research has shown that simply putting the learner into a realistic environment is not enough (Clark, 2019), unless the very same evidence-based learning theories that are used in the classroom are also applied, that is deliberate practice, spaced practice, interleaving etc.

Like any form of teaching, these training environments need to be carefully constructed with the desired learning outcomes clearly identified and placed up front when designing the simulation or game. Yes, they can be fun, yes, they can be engaging but they won’t help you develop the required skills unless the evidence-based practices are used.

Strictly take 2 – How are contestants on strictly prepared for their real-world task, they have a rehearsal (simulation) on the Friday and two dress rehearsals (simulations) on the Saturday morning just before the show goes out live on the evening.

A few skills you can learn from a simulation

The knowledge verses skills debate – Strictly speaking

The skills gap
Although it is estimated that by 2030 there will be more people than jobs for those with lower skills, research conducted by the Learning and Work Institute estimated that England faces a deficit in higher level skills of around 2.5 million people, this is why we have a skills gap.

It’s not that we don’t have enough people it’s that we don’t have enough people with the right skills. It’s an education problem not a resource one…..

The solution is of course easy, train more people, but its skills we need not knowledge, right?

What are skills
A skill is the knowledge and ability that enables us to do something well. There are many definitions of skills but I like this one because it highlights the importance knowledge plays. But although knowledge is valuable, on its own it has limitations. For example, knowing the steps to the Argentinian Tango doesn’t mean you will be able to dance it. Knowledge is theoretical, whereas skills are practical. There is arguably no better place to see how skills are learned than Strictly, the BBC’s hugely successful dance show. Celebrities with differing abilities are given a dance that they need to perform each week, the process they go through is however always the same, and involves practice, practice and more practice.

What is knowledge
Most people will assume that knowledge relates to something written in a text book, be it words, facts, dates, numbers etc, and they would be right. To be precise this type of knowledge is called explicit or declarative knowledge. In addition, you will be aware that you “know it”, which on the face of it might sound strange but some types of knowledge (implicit and tacit) are unconscious, that is you have the knowledge but don’t know that you do, for example, “I can hit a golf ball straight down the fairway without thinking, but don’t ask me to explain how I do it because I have no idea, I guess I’m just naturally talented”. One final point, for knowledge to be understood it should be applied in a specific context or illustrated by way of example, which lifts the words from the page, often putting the learner in a more practical environment where they can “see” what they need to learn.

The Knowledge V Skills debate
Often knowledge and skills are put into conflict, with some promoting knowledge as being the more important. The current national curriculum in England as set out by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove requires that pupils should be taught a robust “core knowledge” of facts and information.

“Our new curriculum affirms – at every point – the critical importance of knowledge acquisition”.
Michael Gove

Whilst others promote the value of skills over knowledge, suggesting that technology provides knowledge for free.

“The world no longer rewards us just for what we know – Google knows everything – but for what we can do with what we know.”
Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy at the OECD

But like so many things this type of dichotomy is not helpful, with evidence on both sides attesting to the importance of each. The truth is you need both, you can’t learn skills without knowledge and although knowing something has value, it’s what you can do that is most highly prized.

How do you learn skills?
To learn a skill, you first need knowledge, for example here is some of the knowledge required to help dance the Argentinian Tango.

Every dance has its own unique music, and you can’t master it without developing a feel for the music. Tango is a walking dance, meaning that all the steps are based on walking. When you start learning, you must first master some basic movements. Beginners usually start with 8-Count Basic or simply Tango Basic. The rhythm is slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.

We can then follow what is called the four-step approach to learning skills:
One – Demonstrate the skill with little or no explanation (demonstration)
Two – Repeat with an explanation whilst encouraging questions (deconstruction)
Three – Repeat again with the learner explaining what is happening and being challenged (formulation)
Four – Learner has a go themselves with support and coaching (performance)

Skills are developed through continual practice and repetition, learning by trial and error, asking questions whilst receiving advice to improve performance. An analogy or metaphor can sometime help e.g. Finding your balance is about feeling stable like a ship with an anchor.

Transferable skills are not that transferable
The ultimate goal of those that promote skills development is that once learned they can be taken with you from job to job, they are in effect transferable. However, research suggests that this is not the case. In July 2016 the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK released the results of a two-year study involving almost 100 schools. The experiment looked at the benefits of teaching chess as a means of developing generic skills, in this instance mathematical ability. It concluded, that there were no significant differences in mathematical achievement between those who had the regular chess class and the control group. Playing chess, does not make you better at maths, on the whole it only improves your ability to play better chess.
This supports the argument that skills are domain specific and that critical thinking learned whilst studying medicine does not necessarily help you become a better critical thinker in other areas. One reason for this may be that to become a good critical thinker you need large amounts of knowledge on which to practice. Which brings us full circle, skills need knowledge and knowledge becomes more valuable when applied in the form of a skill.

Strictly foot note – there is an argument that the celebrities on Strictly are only skilled in one dance at a time, and what is learned from one dance does not transfer easily to another.

 

Inquiry based learning is harmful – ouch!

Can I ask you a question, would you prefer to discover something for yourself or be told what you should know?

Choices as to how you want to learn are to a certain extent personal, perhaps even a learning style, but shouldn’t we be asking which is the most effective, and when it comes to that, we have evidence.

The problem is you might not like the results, I’m not sure I do.

The headline for this month’s blog is not mine but an edited one from John Sweller, of cognitive load fame, in a paper published this August by the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia. Although I have written about some aspects of Inquiry based learning before (IBL), it’s worth taking a closer look, especially given the impact Sweller believes IBL type methods have had in Australia. He suggests that the countries rankings on international tests such as PISA have reduced because of a greater emphasis on IBL in classrooms across the country.

But first…..

What is inquiry-based learning?
Inquiry based learning can be traced back to Constructivism and the work of Piaget, Dewey, Vygotsky et al. Constructivism is an approach to learning that suggests people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing it and reflecting on those experiences. This sits alongside Behaviourism (see last month’s blog) and Cognitivism to form three important theories of learning.

As a process IBL often starts with a question to encourage students to share their thoughts, these are then carefully challenged in order to test conviction and depth of understanding. The result, a more refined and robust appreciation of what was being discussed, learning has taken place. It is an approach in which the teacher and student share responsibility for learning. There are some slight variations to IBL that include Problem-based learning (PBL), and Project-based learning (PjBL), in these rather than a question being the catalyst, it’s a problem.

This method is intuitively attractive and promoted widely in schools and higher education institutions around the world. Which is what makes Swellers argument so challenging, how can someone “learn better” when they are being told as opposed to discovering the answer for themselves?

What’s wrong with it?
To answer this question, I will quote both Sweller and Richard E Clark who challenged enquiry-based learning fifteen years ago in a paper called, Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work.

Unguided and minimally guided methods… ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.

The cognitive architecture they are refereeing to is the limitation of working memory and the need to keep cognitive load to a minimum e.g. 7+-2. In the more recent paper Sweller goes onto explain how the “worked example effect” demonstrates the problems of IBL and the benefits of a more direct instructional approach. If one group of students were presented with a series of problems to solve and another group given the same problems but with detailed solutions, those that had the worked example perform better on future common problem-solving tests.

“Obtaining information from others is vastly more efficient than obtaining it during problem solving“. John Sweller

In simple terms if a student (novice) has to formulate the problem, position it in a way that they can think about it, bring to bear their existing knowledge, challenge that knowledge, the cognitive load becomes far too high resulting in at best weak learning, and at worst confusion.

“As far as can be seen, inquiry learning neither teaches us how to inquire nor helps us acquire other knowledge deemed important in the curriculum.” John Sweller

What’s better – Direct instruction?
Sweller is not simply arguing against IBL, he is comparing it and promoting the use of direct instruction. This method you might remember requires the teacher to presents information in a prescriptive, structured and sequenced manner. Direct Instruction keeps cognitive load to a minimum and as a result makes it easier to transfer information from working to long term memory.

Best of both worlds
It may be that so far this blog has been a bit academic and does little more than promote direct instruction over IBL, my apologies. The intention was to showcase IBL, clarify what it is and point out some of the limitations. In addition to highlight how easy it is to believe that something must be good because it feels intuitively right. And in that IBL is compelling, we are human and learn from asking questions and solving problems, it’s what we have been doing for thousands of years. But that alone does not make it the best way to learn.

The good news is these methods are not mutually exclusive, and for me John Hattie, coincidentally another Australian has the answer. He says that although IBL may engage students, which can give an illusion of learning, if you are new to a subject (a novice) and have to learn content as opposed to the slightly deeper relationship between content, then IBL doesn’t work. Also, if you don’t teach the content, you have nothing to reason about.

But, there is a place for IBL…..its after the student has acquired sufficient knowledge that they can begin to explore by experimenting with their own thoughts. The more difficult question is, when do you should do this, and that is likely to be different for everyone.

One for another day perhaps.

Motivation by Reward and Consequence – Behaviourism

Motivation is one of the most important aspects of learning and as a result has featured in many previous blogs. In its simplest form motivation can be defined as something that you want; you want to get fit or you want to pass the exam, and as a result that want directs your behaviour. For example, if I want to pass the exam, a good behaviour would be to attempt 5 more questions.

But do we ever really know what is motivating someone? We could ask Tom Dean, the gold medal winner in the 200-meter freestyle at this year’s Tokyo Olympics. What motivated him to train even harder after he contracted Covid for a second time? I’m sure he would give us an answer, the problem is it could well be something he has constructed to explain it to himself rather than the real reason.

Maybe we should think less of the cognitive reasoning behind motivation and consider only the actions of a motivated person? It’s likely Tom had a few early mornings and went through some pretty painful training sessions in order to get fit for the games, but it could be that his ability to do this is more a consequence of conditioning rather than his desire for a gold medal. There is also the question as to why a gold medal is motivational, after all its not even gold, they are 92.5% silver. Interestingly the Tokyo medals include recycled metal from electrical devises. Maybe its because he associates it with success and or pride, something that he has been conditioned to over many years.

Behaviourism
Behaviourism, is a theory of learning which states that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment by a process called conditioning. The implication is that your behaviour is simply the response to a stimulus, a cause and effect.

The environment shapes people’s actions. B.F. Skinner

Its highly likely you will have experienced and even been involved in motivating someone in this way. For example, were you ever put on the naughty step as a child or told your dog to sit and when he does, reward him? These are examples of how changing the environment results in a different behaviour. The dog is motivated to sit not because it’s a lifelong ambition but because he wants the reward. Tom Dean may well have got up early to go training but that might have more to do with the conditioning resulting from his alarm going off, than a burning desire to get out of bed.

It is effectively motivation as a result of reward and consequence, if you do something you get something.

Classical conditioning – association
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, discovered that dogs could “learn” to salivate at the sound of a bell that rang before they were fed. He called this classical conditioning, the dog associating the bell with food. These types of associations can be the reason people are afraid of spiders or chewing gum, yes, it’s real, Oprah Winfrey is a sufferer. It also explains why having a designated study area can help you feel more like studying, you associate it with getting work done. Here are a few more examples, your smart phone bleeps and you pick it up, celebrities are used to associate a product with glamour, Christmas music makes you feel Christmassy and an exam hall brings on exam anxiety.

Operant conditioning – reinforcement
In contrast to classical conditioning, operant conditioning encourages or discourages a specific behaviour using reinforcement. The argument being that a good behaviour should be reinforced by a repeated reward or a bad behaviour stopped by a repeated punishment. The person who developed this type of conditioning is B.F. Skinner, who famously used pigeons in what became known as “Skinner boxes”.

There are four types of reinforcement

  • Positive reinforcement – The behaviour is strengthened by adding something, a reward (praise/treats/prizes) which leads to repetition of the desired behaviour e.g. “Well done, Beth, that was a great question”. Here praise is added to encourage students to ask questions.
  • Negative reinforcement – The removal of something to increase the response e.g. “I can’t study because, everyone is shouting”. The shouting stops which encourages the behaviour of studying.
  • Punishment – The opposite of reinforcement, it adds something that will reduce or eliminate the response. e.g. “that’s probably the worse answer I have ever heard Beth, were you listening at all”. Here humiliation is added that will reduce the likelihood of students asking questions.
  • Negative punishment (Extinction) – This involves removing or taking something away e.g. “You can have your mobile phone back when you have done your homework”. In this situation removing access to the mobile phone results in the homework being completed.

A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment. B.F. Skinner

Limitations
Skinner remained convinced anything could be taught with operant conditioning and went on to invent a teaching machine using the principles of reinforcement. It required students to fill in the blank, if the answer was correct, they were rewarded if incorrect they had to study the correct answer again to learn why they were wrong.

Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything. B.F. Skinner

However, there are many limitations, the motivation is not always permanent, it’s too basic to teach complex concepts, punishment can lead to a reinforcement of the undesirable behaviour and its possible the person is just pretending.

Operant conditioning is still a hugely influential in the modern world, for example have you ever watched someone play a fruit machine, the required behaviour rewarded to extract more money. What about online gaming where points and leader boards provide rewards in terms of status and prizes.
Then then there are the ideas surrounding behavioural economics popularised by Nudge theory which suggest that you can influence the likelihood that one option is chosen over another by changing the environment.

And finally, have ever seen how the military train, check out this video.

So next time you think you are making a decision of your own free will, maybe you’re just responding to an external stimulus!

Becoming a better thinker – Edward de Bono learning leader

There are a number of people who have changed the way I think but no more than Edward de Bono who died this month aged 88, a great example of a learning leader.

Born in 1933, he graduated as a doctor from the University of Malta before studying physiology and psychology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He represented Oxford in polo, set two canoeing records and later gained a PhD in medicine from Trinity College, Cambridge.

But he is probably best known for two things, firstly as the creator of the term lateral thinking and secondly for his six thinking hats strategy that went on to influence business leaders around the world.

Lateral thinking

To understand lateral thinking, we first need to figure out what thinking is. There are many definitions but my own take is that it’s a reflective process involving the manipulation of knowledge, feelings and experiences as we seek to connect what we know with new information, normally focused on a problem.

There are two or maybe three modes of thinking!

1. Convergent – focuses on coming up with a single, “correct” answer to a question or problem. Examples of convergent thinking would include critical thinking, a logical process that involves challenging underpinning assumptions, questioning accuracy, motivation and purpose in order to make sense of a situation or solve a problem. Its origins can be traced back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, or as De Bono disparagingly referred to them, the gang of three.  Also, analytical thinking, where you break down complex information into its component parts, this can and is often used in conjunction with critical thinking. Convergent thinking is logical thinking, meaning its rule based, systematic and linear. If for example we concluded that 2 + 2 = 4 and we decided to add another 2, logically the answer would be 6. 

But logic can still be challenging, there is a logical answer to this question yet 80% of people get it wrong.

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
A: Yes
B: No
C: Cannot be determined

The correct answer is A. (click here for the explanation)

The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas.

2. Divergent – is the opposite of convergent and involves coming up with many possible solutions, acknowledging that there may be no single correct answer. This type of thinking is often emergent, free flowing, illogical and requires creativity. Convergent and divergent thinking can be used together, divergent to generate ideas and convergent to make sense of those ideas and find a practical application. Click here for a video that explains how these two types of thinking work together.

3. Lateral thinking – is a way of solving problems by taking an indirect and creative approach by looking at the problem from different perspectives. Although there are similarities with divergent thinking it is not the same. Divergent thinking starts with a problem at the centre and random ideas are generated branching outwards in all directions, lateral thinking requires the individual to come up with a solution by generating different ideas that result from changing perspective. De Bono writes that lateral thinking forces the brain to break set patterns, it’s a pattern switching technique.

Let’s consider one of his examples, Granny is sitting knitting and three-year-old Susan is upsetting Granny by playing with the wool. One parent suggests putting Susan into the playpen, a relatively creative (divergent) solution. A logical (convergent) answer might be to tell Susan not to do it, but anyone with a three-year-old will know how effective this will be, but that won’t stop them trying!

The other parent suggests it might be a better idea to put Granny in the playpen to protect her from Susan, this is lateral thinking, looking at the problem from a different perspective. Its illogical because granny is bigger and surely you don’t need to protect granny from a three-year-old, but it is still a solution and would work.

I am reminded of a question I was once asked whilst visiting Berlin. “Why did the East Germans build the Berlin wall?” ………“To keep people in of course”, it was a prison not a defence. It’s all about perspective.

Lateral thinking is not a substitute for logical thinking and can be used as a way of generating new divergent solutions, they complement each other and are interchangeable. Lateral thinking is generative, logical thinking selective.

In summary lateral thinking is about changing perspective……

Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.

My own personal favourite perspective story

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Lateral thinking for learning

But what has this got to do with learning? Well learning is not just about facts and knowing stuff, the reason we go to school is to gain an understanding of a wide range of issues, concepts and ideas that when faced with a problem we can manipulate and cross check in order to form opinion and come up with a solution. Learning is a consequence of thinking.

Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.
Confucius

De Bono believed that thinking was a skill that could be learned and because lateral thinking helps people develop creative ideas, creativity could also be learned. It is not an innate trait, a type of intelligence that you are borne with, it’s something we all possess, we just need the techniques to do it. He did however distinguish between artistic creativity and idea creativity, Michael Angelo and Shakespeare are artistically creative, lateral thinking will only ever make you idea creative.

As to the techniques, maybe they will feature in another blog but if you can’t wait, here is a short video, but beware De Bono was the master of acronym.

We tend to take thinking for granted, believing we are good at it or maybe never even questioning our ability. But what De Bono made popular was the idea that it was a skill and that we can improve. We live in a time when information is more accessible and freely available than ever, so the real value has to be in what we do with it.

Thank you, Edward De Bono 1933 – 2021.

And lastly….the blog would not be complete without one of De Bono’s lateral thinking puzzles.

A man lives on the tenth floor of a building. Every day he takes the elevator to go down to the ground floor to go to work or to go shopping. When he returns, he takes the elevator to the seventh floor and walks up the stairs to reach his apartment on the tenth floor. He hates walking so why does he do it?

The man is a dwarf and cant reach the higher buttons.

Note making, not note taking – it’s about effort

I have always been a believer in the idea that much of what you need to know is accessible, the answer is staring you in the face and yet you can’t always see it. Maybe because you’re not asking the right question or looking at it from the wrong perspective.

Figuring out how learning works and the best way to study can seem complicated and yet if you watch what people do when they are trying to learn and ask the right questions there is much to see.

For example, watch a group of students in class or a lecture, (remember that pre-Covid) what do they do? Where are they looking, what are they concentrating on and most importantly what activity are they engaged in? The answer to this last question is easy, they will all be making notes. Going forward these notes will become the single most important learning resource the student has.

Why is note making important
There are two basic reasons why you make notes, firstly it improves concentration and cognition, making notes gives you something to do that requires attention, you become more focussed. Secondly you will have created a permanent record of what was said to review later. Interestingly if you asked students, they probably think capturing the information is the sole reason for notes, when in reality it’s the effort involved in making them that mattes in terms of learning.

Its worth adding that making notes works just as well from a book as it does a lecture.

How to make notes?

Blank paper notes – The simplest form of note making is to start with a blank piece of paper. Unfortunately, research tells us that most students notes are incomplete, on average they only capture one third of what was deemed to be important. In addition, they are often inaccurate, in one study, Crawford (1925) found that only 53% of noted information was fully correct, 45% was vague, and 2% inaccurate.

Conclusion – making notes in class is a good idea but if you use those same notes afterwards, not only will you be missing some important information but some of what is there may well be wrong.

Full notes – An alternative to a blank piece of paper is to give students a full set of notes. In 1987 a study by Kiewra and Benton showed that students who reviewed full notes achieved 17% higher scores than students who reviewed their own. This of course may not be surprising given the lack of information captured by students in the first place. Interestingly there is even some evidence to show that reviewing a full set of notes is better than attending the lecture!

Just to be clear, the best way of learning is to attend the lecture, make notes but then review a full set of notes not your own. Unless of course there is another way….

Partial, Scaffolded, Skeletal and Gapped notes
Partial notes may offer the best solution, helping keep the student engaged when in class but providing them with a sufficiently complete set of notes from which to study later. Partial notes contain the main ideas but leave blank spaces for students to complete, for example producing or labelling a diagram, adding in key definitions, working calculations etc. More research in 1995 from Kiewra and Benton but this time in collaboration with Kim, Risch, and Christensen showed a marked increase in completeness from 38% for those who used a blank piece of paper to 56% for those that were given partial notes. What we don’t know from this research is the level of detail that was missing, but it proves the point.

Note taking cues – One tip for teachers, the more cuing or signposting that is deployed the better. This might involve pausing and telling students they must pay attention to a particular point or simply writing out a key phrase or definition on the whiteboard. In one study, students recorded 86% of the information written on a blackboard (Locke, 1977).

Handwritten or typed?
This is a difficult one to answer, with some research to support both forms. We know that most students can type more quickly than they can write and as a result they should have more comprehensive notes to study from. But in 2014 Mueller & Oppenheimer cast doubts on the viability of laptop note taking. They concluded that “whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning”. In addition, laptop users did not capture diagrams that well, this was thought to be the result of the difficulty of doing this digitally. Copying and pasting certainly captures information but is a relatively mindless activity and leads to a certain amount of unnecessary information being recorded which is off little value.

Conclusion
It would be wrong to conclude that making notes on a computer is worse than writing them out by hand. Its more that a computer makes it easier for students to disengage or become distracted, and if that happens, the learning is less effective. To a certain extent learning has to be difficult, it’s all about the effort, the more you try the more you learn.

We can however say that partial notes are a very good compromise, offering the best of both worlds, helping students capture sufficient information to review later but requiring them to concentrate whilst sitting in class.

I’m now off to — in the —— and have a cold —-

For more links to the research, here is an excellent summary, Note-taking: A Research Roundup by Jennifer Gonzalez – The cult of Pedagogy

Who are you when learning? – Personality

Being a very agreeable kind of a person, I was encouraged to find a piece of research that appears to be unanimously supported in terms of evidence as to its validity, it’s called the Five Factor Model or the Big Five model of personality. Developed by McCrae and Costa in 1987 it simplifies personality, suggesting that we are all biologically predisposed towards the following five traits, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, easily remembered by the acronym OCEAN.

For those who are curious and would like to learn more about themselves there is a test at the end of the blog to help you identify your preferences. But some may have little interest in finding out how well they perform, the reason for these two different attitudes could well be personality. What should however be of interest to everyone, partly because you are reading this blog is to find out what personality has to do with learning.

What is personality?
The term Personality is derived from the Latin word ‘persona’ meaning mask or character. An actor might for example wear a mask (persona) to promote a particular quality in a character as part of a performance or simply use it so as not to reveal too much of themselves.

The term is now more commonly used to describe an individual’s characteristics, patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In other words, your personality is what makes you, you!

Although intelligence is one of the strongest predictors of student success, there is evidence to show that personality is also responsible for individual differences in how well people learn.

“intellectual ability refers to what a person can do, whereas personality traits may provide information on what a person will do”.
O’Connor & Paunonen, 2007 and Furnham and Chamorro-Premuzic 2004

The Five Factor model
Many people will have heard of the Myers Brig’s Type Indicator, MBTI for short, it’s one of the most well-known profiling techniques. In fact, you may well have been asked to take an MBTI test at some point in your career, although strictly it’s not a test as there is no right or wrong answer. It requires the completion of a self-regulated questionnaire in an attempt to capture how people perceive the world, gather information and make decisions. It’s based on Jung’s theory of psychological types. The main problem with MBTI is that its binary by design, meaning that a person is either an introvert or extrovert which on one level is helpful because it gives you an answer but even Jung admitted that “there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert.”

In contrast the Five Factor Model provides its results in the form of a measure as to how much of the trait you possess, it’s a personality trait rather than a type. But although this is more accurate it’s difficult to interpret, for example you may be 55% agreeable, but what conclusions can you draw from that?

However, many academics and practitioners consider the five-factor model superior partly because there is a lack of evidence to support the MBTI and the results can be unreliable. If you retake the test after 5 weeks, there is a 50% chance you will fall into a different type.

OCEAN

Openness to experiences – this personality trait denotes how receptive you might be to new ideas and new experiences, a willingness to try out the unknown. People who have low levels are generally sceptical about the unknown and happy with the status quo. It might be worth adding that there is no opposite to being open, you are not for example a closed person, just less open.

Conscientiousness – Individuals who are conscientious are able to control their impulses. They are more likely to be successful both in the classroom and in their careers, largely because they are organised, hardworking and determined in the pursuit of their goals.  People with low conscientiousness have a tendency to procrastinate and deviate from their objectives. They can also be impetuous and impulsive. As with openness there is no opposite, you are just less conscientious.

Extraversion – Unlike the above you can be introverted. However, the term introvert refers to where you get your energy from and has nothing to do with being shy. Extroverts gain their energy from activities and other people whereas Introverts prefer the world of ideas and internal thoughts.

Agreeableness – if you are agreeable, you are more likely to get along with others and be cooperative. People on the low end of agreeableness can at times be blunt and sometimes even rude, although they will probably view themselves as being honest and not afraid to call “a spade a spade”.

Neuroticism – this refers to how emotionally stability you are as a person. It often manifests itself in being confident and comfortable in your own skin as opposed to suffering from anxiety, worry, and low self-esteem. Instinctively it feels as if this is the worst trait to be strong in, and you would be right. But we all have some aspects of neuroticism and higher levels are often associated with people who are very creative.

Personality and the connection with learning
It may come as no surprise that the research identifies two personality traits as being the most important from a learning perspective, conscientiousness as a positive and neuroticism as a negative. Students who are conscientious perform well academically whilst those that display higher levels of neuroticism can sometimes struggle, for example they are more likely to suffer from test anxiety and self-doubt. This particular aspect of personality might go some way to explaining why “clever” students don’t do so well.

Conscientious learners are more likely to engage in and succeed at learning.

Students with higher levels of Anxiety (a quality of Neuroticism) will face greater learning challenges than less Anxious students.

It was also found that agreeableness and openness helped students academically suggesting that in addition to being conscientious, cooperation and inquisitiveness was also of value.

Interestingly some research has even shown that personality accounts for a greater part of the variance in academic achievement over and above intelligence,and that personality may be better at predicting academic success at the post-secondary levels of education 2.

However, the more important message is that few of us sit at the extreme of any of these personality traits and as individuals have elements of them all. And by recognising that we have a weakness in one and a strength in another can adapt, whilst at the same time acknowledging that these traits are important because they are what makes us who we are.

Take the test – if you are open and conscientiousness you may want to find out more about your personality.

And here is a fun quiz (Buzz quiz) based on MBTI popularised by long term career advisor David Hodgson. Rather than a 4 letter code David’s idea is to presents the results in the form of an animal.

1 (Bratko et al. 2006; Gilles and Bailleux 2001; Noftle and Robins 2007; Poropat 2009)
2 (Conard 2006; Di Fabio and Busoni 2007; Furnham and Chamorro-Premuzic 2004; Furnham et al. 2003; Petrides et al. 2005).

Feedback – The breakfast of champions

There was an interesting piece of research that came out recently, it referred to something called “Temporary mark withholding”. This as the name might suggest is providing students with written feedback but without marks. On the face of it this might seem odd and frankly unhelpful, how can you judge your performance if you don’t know how you compare against what is expected?

To answer that question, you need to ask a far more fundamental one, what’s the purpose of giving feedback in the first place?

Feedback – task or ego
We need to separate feedback from criticism which often implies that the person giving it is trying “to find fault”, although it’s possible to make it sound a little more positive by calling it constructive criticism. In simple terms criticism is more about what was wrong in the past whilst feedback directs you towards what you should do to improve in the future. But when we are thinking in terms of learning it gets a little more complicated, Dylan William talks about whether its ego involving or task involving feedback. The first of these would include offering praise such as “well done you have produced an excellent answer” but he states this is rarely effective and can actually lower achievement. However when the feedback focuses on what the student needs to do to improve, and explains how they can do it, then you get a significant impact on student achievement.

He goes on to say that “good feedback causes thinking, the first thing a student needs to do when they receive feedback is not to react emotionally, not disengage – but think”. It might be worth adding that Dylan William is talking about the impact of feedback on student learning not on how the student might feel in terms of motivation, self-confidence etc. There is clearly a place for ego type feedback it’s just not that effective when sat alongside a direct instruction because the emotional response often blocks or detracts what needs to be understood for the student to improve.

Formative and Summative assessment
There is one last piece of information that will help us make sense of the reasons why temporary mark withholding might work, the difference between formative and summative assessment.

Summative – The purpose of summative assessment is to “sum up” student learning at the end of a chunk of learning or completion of a course and compare it against a standard, normally a pass rate. This is why exams are often criticised, it’s not that testing is bad, it’s how the results are used, often polarising and narrowing opinion as to an individual’s performance, pass and you’re a hero, fail and you’re a villain. It gets worse when you then put those results into a league table and publish them, with the winners at the top and losers at the bottom for all to see and draw often incorrect conclusions.

Summative assessment is however valuable, if you score below the target, it tells you that more effort or work is needed, also that you are not performing well on a particular topic, but it provides no guidance as to what you need to do to improve.

Formative – The purpose of formative assessment is to monitor progress on an ongoing basis in order to help the teacher identify the “gap” between what the student knows and needs to know. This is where the magic happens, firstly in finding out where the gap is e.g. Where is the student currently compared to where they need to be, then figuring out the best way of getting them to that higher standard e.g. what do they need to do to improve. Formative assessment can be a test, a quiz or simply observation.

Lessons for students
And this is why holding back the marks works, what the piece of research (et al) highlighted, is that when students get their marks, they effectively prioritise the grades over the written comments. The good students ignore the comments because they don’t think they have anything to learn, and the weaker students are demotivated so also ignore them.

The key point for students is this, by all means look at the mark but resist that emotional (ego) reaction to pat yourself on the back or beat yourself up. Read all the comments with an open mind, asking two simple questions, can I see that there is a gap between my answer and the model answer and secondly do I know exactly what to do next to close it? The feedback, if it is good of course should make this as easy a process as possible.

The fact that your script might only say “see model answer” or have a cross with the correct number written next to it, is more an example of poor marking with little or no feedback. Perhaps you should return your script providing the marker/teacher with some feedback highlighting the gap between good marking and bad marking but most importantly what they should do to improve…..

And if your interested, here is the link to Dylan William explaining the importance of formative assessment.

Reference – Kuepper-Tetzel & Gardner – Jackson & Marks, 2016 – Taras, 2001, Winstone et al., 2017 – Ramaprasad, 1983

The single most important thing for students to know – Cognitive load

Back in 2017 Dylan Williams, Professor of Educational Assessment at UCL described cognitive load theory (CLT) as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’. His reasoning was simple, if learning is an alteration in long term memory (OFSTED’s definition) then it is essential for teachers to know the best ways of helping students achieve this. At this stage you might find it helpful to revisit my previous blog, Never forget, improving memory, which explains more about the relationship between long and short-term memory but to help reduce your cognitive load…. I have provided a short summary below.

But here is the point, if CLT is so important for teachers it must also be of benefit to students.

Cognitive load theory
The term cognitive load was coined by John Sweller in a paper published in the journal of Cognitive Science in 1988. Cognitive load is the amount of information that working/short term memory can process at any one time, and that when the load becomes too great, processing information slows down and so does learning. The implication is that because we can’t do anything about the short-term nature of short-term memory, we can only retain 4 + or – 2 chunks of information before it’s lost, learning should be designed or studying methods changed accordingly. The purpose of which is to reduce the ‘load’ so that it can more easily pass into long term memory where the storage capacity is infinite.

CLT can be broken down into three categories:

Intrinsic cognitive load – this relates to the inherent difficulty of the material or complexity of the task. Some content will always have a high level of difficulty, for example, solving a complex equation is more difficult than adding two numbers together. However, the cognitive load arising from a complex task can be reduced by breaking it down into smaller and simpler steps. There is also evidence to show that prior knowledge makes the processing of complex tasks easier. In fact, it is one of the main differences between an expert and a novice, the expert requires less short-term memory capacity because they already have knowledge stored in long term memory that they can draw upon. The new knowledge is simply adding to what they already know. Bottom line – some stuff is just harder.

Extraneous cognitive load – this is the unnecessary mental effort required to process information for the task in hand, in effect the learning has been made overly difficult or confusing. For example, if you needed to learn about a square, it would be far easier to draw a picture and point to it, than use words to describe it. A more common example of extraneous load is when a presenter puts too much information on a PowerPoint slide, most of which adds little to what needs to be learned. Bottom line – don’t make learning harder by including unimportant stuff.

Germane cognitive load – increasing the load is not always bad, for example if you ask someone to think of a house, that will increase the load but when they have created that ‘schema’ or plan in their mind adding new information becomes easier. Following on with the house example, if you have a picture of a house in your mind, asking questions about what you might find in the kitchen is relatively simple. The argument is that learning can be enhanced when content is arranged or presented in a way that helps the learner construct new knowledge. Bottom line – increasing germane load is good because it makes learning new stuff easier.

In summary, both student and teacher should reduce intrinsic and extraneous load but increase germane.

Implications for learning
The three categories of cognitive load shown above provide some insight as to what you should and shouldn’t do if you want to learn more effectively. For example, break complex tasks down into simpler ones, focus on what’s important and avoid unnecessary information and use schemas (models) where possible to help deal with complexity. There are however a few specifics that relate to the categories worthy of mention.

The worked example effect – If you are trying to understand something and continual reading of the text is having little impact, it’s possible your short-term memory has reached capacity. Finding an example of what you need to understand will help free up some of that memory. For example…….…if I wanted to explain that short term memory is limited I might ask you to memorise these 12 letters, SHNCCMTAVYID. But because this will exceed the 4+ or – 2 rule it will be difficult and hopefully as a result prove the point. In this situation the example is a far more effective way of transferring knowledge than pages of text.

The redundancy effect – This is most commonly found where there is simply too much unnecessary or redundant information. It might be irrelevant or not essential to what you’re trying to learn. In addition, it could be the same information but presented in multiple forms, for example an explanation and diagram on the same page. The secret here is to be relatively ruthless in pursuing what you want to know, look for the answer to your question rather than getting distracted by adjacent information. You may also come across this online where a PowerPoint presentation has far too much content and the presenter simply reads out loud what’s on the slides. In these circumstances, it’s a good idea to turn down the sound and simply read the slides for yourself. People can’t focus when they hear and see the same verbal message during a presentation (Hoffman, 2006).

The split attention effect – This occurs when you have to refer to two different sources of information simultaneously when learning. Often in written texts and blogs as I have done in this one, you will find a reference to something further to read or listen to, ignore it and stick to the task in hand, grasp the principle and only afterwards follow up on the link. Another way of reducing the impact of split attention is to produce notes that reduce the conflict that arises when trying to listen to the teacher and make notes at the same time. You might want to use the Cornel note taking method, click here to find out more.

But is it the single most important thing a student should know?
Well maybe, maybe not but its certainly in the top three. The theory on its own will not make you a better learner but it goes a long way in explaining why you can’t understand something despite spending hours studying, it provides guidance as to what you can do to make learning more effective but most importantly it can change your mindset from – “I’m not clever enough” to, “I just need to reduce the amount of information, and then I’ll get it”.

And believing that is priceless, not only for studying towards your next exam but in helping with all your learning in the years to come.

Motivated ignorance – is ignorance better than knowing?

If it’s true that the cat wasn’t killed by curiosity and that ignorance was to blame (see last month’s blog) then it follows that we should better educate the cat if it is to avoid an untimely death. But what if the cat chooses to remain ignorant?

Ignorant – lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated.

In a paper published last February, Daniel Williams puts forward a very challenging and slightly worrying proposition, that when the costs of acquiring knowledge outweigh the benefits of possessing it, ignorance is rational. In simple terms this suggests that people are not “stupid”, or ignorant, when they are unaware of something, they are in fact being logical and rational, effectively choosing not to learn.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley

Beware the man of a single book St. Thomas Aquinas
In terms of education this is clearly very important, but it has far wider implications for some of the challenges we are facing in society today. There is an increasing divergence in opinion across the world with people holding diametrically opposite views, both believing the other is wrong. We can probably attach personas to these groups, on the one side there are the knowledgeable and well educated, on the other those who may not be in possession of all the facts but trust their emotions and believe in community and identity. The two groups are clear to see, those that believe in climate change and those that don’t, Trump supporters and anyone but Trump supporters, take the vaccine or anti-vaccine.

The stakes could not be higher.

“Ignorance is a lot like alcohol. The more you have of it, the less you are able to see its effect on you.” – Jay Bylsma

Motivated ignorance
The idea that choosing to be ignorant could be both logical and rational is not new. In his book An Economic Theory of Democracy first published in 1957 Anthony Downs used the term “rational ignorance” for the first time to explain why voters chose to remain ignorant about the facts because their vote wouldn’t count under the current political system. The logic being that it was rational to remain ignorant if the costs of becoming informed, in this case the effort to read and listen to all the political debate outweigh the benefits, of which the voters saw none.

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” – Robert Orben

Daniel Williams is making a slightly different point; he argues that motivated ignorance is a form of information avoidance. The individual is not remaining ignorant because the costs of obtaining the information are too high, they are actively avoiding knowledge for other reasons. He also goes on to say that if you are avoiding something it follows that you were aware of its existence in the first place, what the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so eloquently referred to as a known unknown.

We need one final piece of the jigsaw before we can better understand motivated ignorance, and that is motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoners reach pre-determined conclusions regardless of the evidence available to them. This is subtly different to confirmation bias, which is the tendency to only notice information that coincides with pre-existing beliefs and ignores information that doesn’t.

If motivated reasoning is the desire to seek out knowledge to support the conclusions you want, motivated ignorance is the opposite, it is the desire to avoid knowledge in case it gives you the “wrong” answer. For example, although you might feel ill, you avoid going to the doctors to find out what’s wrong because you don’t want to know what the doctor might say.

The question that we should ask is, why don’t you want to know the answer? The implication here is that something is stopping you, in this instance perhaps the emotional cost of the doctor’s prognosis is greater than the gain. Similar examples can be found in other domains, the husband who doesn’t ask as to his wife’s whereabouts because he is afraid, she is having an affair, and doesn’t want it confirmed, although in reality she might have just been late night shopping!

“If ignorance is bliss, there should be more happy people.” – Victor Cousin

The idea that we should always seek out knowledge to be better informed clearly has its limitations and that far from being illogical motivated ignorance has some degree of rationality.

What have we learned?
Human beings do not strive to answer every question nor have within their grasp all the knowledge that exists. We are selective based on how much time we have available, how we might like to feel and, in some instances, the social groups we would like to belong. There is always a sacrifice or trade-off for knowledge and sometimes the price might be considered too high.

The answer to ignorance is not to throw more information at the problem in an attempt to make the ignorant more enlightened. If you don’t believe in climate change, not even a well-crafted documentary by David Attenborough is likely to help If the motivation for choosing ignorance is not addressed. This over supply of information was evident in the Brexit debate here in the UK. For those who had “made up their mind”, providing very powerful arguments by equally powerful captains of industry as to why leaving Europe was a bad idea failed to educate because most chose not to listen.

The role of education and learning has to be inspiration and curiosity, we need to get closer to those underlying motivational barriers and break them down. We have to help people appreciate the feeling you get as a result of challenging your views and coming out the other side with a better and possibly different answer. There is a need to move away from the competitive nature of right and wrong and the idea that changing your mind is a sign of weakness.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”- attributed to J Maynard Keynes

And maybe we have to accept that although there is a price to pay whatever it is, it will be worth it.

“no people can be both ignorant and free.” – Thomas Jefferson