SXSWedu Blog: The Science of Learning

Note: I’m currently attending SXSWEdu in Austin, Texas.  Legal education (and education in general) needs turn to others to find out the best way we can create successful learners.  This conference is bringing together educators from all walks of life and encouraging trading and sharing of ideas and methods.  I thought a good way for me to digest and synthesize everything would be to write little blog posts about the sessions I sit on this week. These aren’t going to read super polished, but they’re meant to simulate thought and ideas – before I forget about it!  Enjoy.

The Science of Learning is as old as Descartes.  However, studying learning psychologically is, well, sort of new.  Darwin blew it open with Origin of Species and psychology, and in turn, how people learn, has been rolling forward ever since.

Scaling Educational Opportunities

Nowadays, we’re looking at all sorts of learning situations.  Online, hybrid, hands-on, exploratory, skill-based are all very much connected, however they’re all different, asking learners to engage with knowledge (and each other) in different ways.  One of the things that can really influence the levels of learning is the situation in which the learning takes place.  Psychology and learning science can help guide us into using those situations effectively and RIGHT.  We’re not talking about a one-size-fits-all approach any more.  What’s more, the individual learners bring their own little box to the game.

Before, we would turn to apprenticeships. I’ve studied it in the sense that one-on-one tutoring was shown to be THE way to get the best learning outcomes.  But, what’s the problem with that?  It’s not scalable.  Apprenticeships might work for a handful of students, but as was mentioned in the discussion – try doing that with 300.  It’s just not possible.  What we need to do is examine what makes something like apprenticeships effective and then in turn how can we leverage those pieces that make it work so well.  This is where technology comes into play. Technology, when done right, can help us take the good pieces of every strategy and then put it into play – affecting the greatest number of people.  Things like MOOCs are awesome for this.  We can take a professor and learning environment that does it right and then make that available to the widest audience.  We can implement strategies like multimedia learning and dual-coding theories which have been shown to work for the right types of learning.  If we find a way that technology can encourage a deeper/better learning out come, technology can help us scale that solution. BUT!  We need to always keep in mind, what are our objectives?  What environment are we trying to replicate?  Is this the best one for the job?  What theories can I leverage? Always ask those questions.

Technological Barriers

Be wary of shiny object syndrome.  Sometimes, technology is so cool that we lose sight of our objectives and in turn put a little too much focus on the technology.  A story was told about the use of clickers in class.  At the time (1990s), they were very new and very novel.  What happened?  Students were wowed by the technology and it resulted in virtually no added benefit to the students.  Sometimes there are promises made about technologies, but remember, the technology and the environment (and the professor) need to all converge.  If the technology is great, but the professor and environment can support it… then we need to look elsewhere.  The technology implemented in a classroom is only as good as the person and strategy that it’s a part of. It’s not magic.

Also be just a little bit aware of Big Data.  It’s a word that a lot of people are using these days as a panacea for education (and a bunch of other stuff.)  Just remember. Having data is one thing, but being able to ask questions… and even knowing what’s behind the data is important in making inferences and decisions from that.  What the true intentions of your learners is tough to discern from behavior.  Just ask BF Skinner.  Data is dumb and is only as smart as the person asking questions of it.

(Co)Construction of knowledge

It takes a village was said.  This is so true.  No one should have to go into teaching and learning alone. I think legal education is a little guilty of this.  We should lean on others to improve.  If we’re trying to improve legal education, why can’t we invite other domains?  I spoke at the University of Denver last week and their law school is partnering in some initiatives with the education school and the office of teaching and learning.

This is the right way to do it.

What we know about how people learn in online and in-person environments is growing.  For example, a great paper by Micki Chi of Arizona State University talks in depth about how activity can influence depth of comprehension.  When we’re trying to make an engaging classroom, turning to such research can really let us know how to do it.  And, professors (who have huge research and teaching loads as it is) shouldn’t be left alone to read this and brainstorm ways to apply it to class. No. That’s what we’re here for.  So, go for it.  Call up your friendly instructional designer and start planning!

Assessments can dictate learning

The last point that I think stuck with me was the level that assessments can dictate learning.  A story was told about how a professor leveraged multimedia theory and in some cases found a huge improvement in scores. However when it was implemented, the anticipated improvement wasn’t seen.  What gives?

We need to make sure our goals and grading styles can encourage and facilitate growth. There’s a place for setting expectations in the class, learning, and grading through learning objectives and rubrics.  If we’re using these correctly – it might be a way to really let our learners know what they should be learning and what they should be doing.

But we need to know that our students are keenly aware of the feedback, grades, and everything else that we’re giving them as a part of the teaching and learning process.  If they find out the minimum they need to do, then they’ll sort of stick with it. I think that by properly setting criteria, we might be able to scoot past some of that and keep learners engaged and …. learning.