Thursday, July 12, 2012

Course redesign: rethinking how students spend their time in and out of class

In the traditionally designed course, plenty of time is devoted in class to exposing students to new content, students are expected to do something with that content outside of class time, and feedback tends to be infrequent and lagging in time. 

Through advances in brain imaging and medical technology, we know considerably more about how learning happens--the actual neurobiology of the learning process--than we did just ten or twenty years ago. One conclusion from this research is clear: traditional course design is misaligned with how students learn. We know, for example, that:
  • Learning is a biological effect of doing something. If there is no biological change to the brain, no learning has taken place. The one who does the work is the one who builds and strengthens neural connections and is thus the one doing the learning. This single finding--that the one who does the work does the learning--bears repeating over and over both to ourselves and to our students.
  • Neural networks are strengthened--in other words deep(er) learning takes place--each time information is retrieved from long-term memory and “placed” in working memory in order to do something like write, reflect, explain, speak, etc.
  • Comprehension is far more likely an outcome when the learner is able to discern patterns of meaning in new information.
  • Without connecting new information to existing patterns of understanding, students aren’t making sense and aren’t, thus, truly learning.
For these reasons, the following activities and attributes of a course’s design are most likely to lead to deep learning: frequent quizzing, cumulative exams, small- and large-group discussion, outlining, constructing concept maps, creating timelines, identifying similarities and differences, recoding (or retelling in one’s own words), and discerning main ideas and supporting details. These are all activities that fall under the instructional mode of “active learning,” and they are all best practiced during class time when students can benefit from timely feedback both from the instructor and from their peers. 

Peer instruction--when peers get a chance to learn from one another--is particularly well suited to the neurobiology of the brain. We know that learning is a social and affective process as well as a cognitive one. Working with peers to learn can enhance the affective (emotional) connections that strengthen recall abilities. Also, peers are more likely to share similar patterns of understanding that can aid with comprehension. 

I myself have taught for years as the one doing the work--the one retrieving content from long-term memory to repackage and use; the one identifying patterns to enhance comprehension; the one drawing similarities and differences; the one discerning main points and supporting examples; the one with the affective connection to the subject matter; the one doing most of the talking during class time. I was doing a great job as a learner, while most of my students sat and listened, perhaps with interest, but likely only achieving surface learning. Surely we can do better by designing courses so that students do more of the right kind of work the right kind of way.