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R3 1.8 April 27, 2023 Advice on Applying the Science of Learning from Leaders in the Field
Summary and review of a new book, In Their Own Words: What Scholars and Teachers Want You to Know About Why and How to Apply the Science of Learning In Your Academic Setting
This issue of R3 focuses on another new book, this time, on learning sciences. In other news, I’d encourage you to check out the latest issue of a newly-renamed liberal arts journal, Zeal, on the theme of ungrading. This continues to be a hot topic in teaching and learning circles, and the articles (one of them my own) bring a variety of new and needed perspectives to the question of how we ought to handle grades in higher education.
In Their Own Words: What Scholars and Teachers Want You to Know About Why and How to Apply the Science of Learning In Your Academic Setting
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Overson, C. E., Hakala, C. M., Kordonowy, L. L., & Benassi, V. A. (Eds.). (2023). In their own words: What scholars and teachers want you to know about why and how to apply the science of learning in your academic setting. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.
Online at: https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/itow
Paywall or Open:
Free e-book. I converted it to Kindle format for easy reading on my phone.
Summary and review:
This volume contains reviews and essays on topics relating to learning science, primarily from the perspective of psychological sciences and cognitive psychology. The 45 chapters are broken down into 5 broad topic areas: Part 1: Past, Present and Future of Applying the Science of Learning in Education; Part 2: Science of Learning – Principles and Approaches, and Part 3: Preparing Faculty, Educational Developers, Student Success Professionals, and Others to Apply the Science of Learning; Part 4: Preparing Students to Apply the Science of Learning, and Part 5: Putting the Science of Learning Into Practice.
“There is a growing number of books addressing science of learning and education (learning sciences) that were written with nonexperts in mind (e.g., Ambrose et al., 2010; Fiorella & Mayer, 2015; Lang, 2021; Mayer, 2011; McGuire, 2015; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018; Rhodes et al., 2019; Schwartz et al., 2016). Our book complements these and other similar resources by including many of the same topics from the perspective of the scholars who have done basic and applied research on the topics.”
Catherine Overson, Christopher Hakala, Lauren Kordowny, & Victor Benassi, Introduction: In Their Own Words…
The “in their own words” frame encapsulates what sets this book apart: strong, evidence-based perspectives from leaders in virtually every facet of the research in this area. When I think of the most important findings, lines of inquiry, or application methods that I’ve written about or used in the last several years – all of these are represented here, frequently by the scholars who discovered them in the first place.
For anyone interested in any form or application of learning science, this collection would be a perfect summer reading project. I do mean project, given its length. It’s not a slog by any means; the writing style is polished and lively enough to carry the reader along (no small feat in a multi-author collection like this one), and even though there are quite a few tables, lists, and so on, the book doesn’t come across as a textbook.
Still, it is a lot, which brings me to the caveats and limitations. Much like the previous book I reviewed, it might not be the ideal first stop for someone who’s relatively new to the field. It is more of a comprehensive primer for someone who wants to gain a considerable depth of understanding and is willing to invest significant time into doing so. It’s also ideal for people who are already fairly well-versed in the field, and want to get up to speed in all the sub-areas of learning sciences and hear what the leading researchers have to say. In this sense, I’m a target reader, and from that vantage point, the book impressed and engaged me.
There is another limitation that struck me, one that links back to the “experts speaking in their own voices” frame. As I mentioned above, this perspective lends the work one of its core strengths, its focus on conveying the perspectives of highly established experts, with the purpose of assembling the canonical research findings and evidence-based principles from cognitively-based learning science. These expert voices rightly carry a great deal of weight in the field. However, these are largely voices and perspectives that are already quite prominent, especially with respect to messages that have been making it out to wider audiences in the last decade or so.
Many of the directly applicable pieces of teaching advice offered are going to replicate what you will read in other books pitched to teachers (such as mine on teaching with technology, this one on “small teaching,” and this one on learning principles). There are definitely some unexpected perspectives to be found, but the focus here isn’t on the brand-new or anything well outside of the mainstream. To be clear: This is not a reason to skip reading the book. Rather, it’s another factor that may make it land differently depending on your familiarity with and positioning within the field of learning sciences.
Full disclosure, I have not finished reading the book in its entirety, yet! Given that the chapters are fairly freestanding within the different sections, I do feel I have a good sense of the book despite not having made it through all of them. Here’s a more in-depth look at several of the chapters that particularly stood out to me.
1. Stephen L. Chew: The Culture of Teaching We Have Versus the Culture of Teaching We Need
By a conservative estimate, Stephen Chew has reached hundreds of thousands of students and faculty through his wildly popular “How to Get the Most Out Of Studying” online video series. It therefore makes you sit up and take notice when Chew characterizes college teaching today as “mired in a state of fad-driven mediocrity despite there being well-established cognitive principles that can improve student learning.” In other words, the abundant research on how people learn is failing to coherently translate into classroom practice, due to a combination of lack of institutional incentives for teaching innovations and a profession-wide penchant for hopping from one buzzword to another. This chapter digs into the reasons why learning science and SoTL often don’t deliver on the grand promise of evidence-based teaching, calling for a “cultural shift” in response.
This shift would ideally refocus discussions of teaching onto several major themes, including: contexts for teaching and individual differences in what works; instructors’ understanding of how learning works and how that affects pedagogy; refinements in and perhaps an expanded definition of what constitutes successful learning, as well as successful teaching. Chew also offers an in-depth discussion of the “cognitive challenges” framework for teaching, developed by him and William Cerbin. This framework lists nine hurdles that have to be overcome by instructors, ranging from strictly cognitive factors such as a lack of accurate prior knowledge and selection of ineffective study strategies, to more social-emotional ones such as mistrust or fear of the instructor and fixed mindset.
2. Regan A.R. Gurung: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Scaling New Heights, but It May Not Mean What You Think It Means.
Opening with a nod to The Princess Bride (and how could you not?), this chapter traces the roots of SoTL and how the term has evolved over time, and what future directions the author would like to see for SoTL. Gurung describes the present state of SoTL as a “third wave,” having started first in 1990 with Boyer’s groundbreaking work Scholarship Revisited: Priorities of the Professorate. Much of the power of this early work was in putting teaching more on an equal footing with other highly-valued scholarly activities in the academy. Other scholars built on this foundation, developing means of evaluating this kind of work and other important refinements. The second wave continued through the aughts with a greater emphasis on scholarly disciplines and the unique challenges for teaching specific subjects. The third wave, starting around 2011, emphasizes better methodology and making sense of the multitude of findings and approaches touched off by the previous waves.
An important outgrowth of SoTL itself is also the ways in which views of teaching-oriented research have changed over time. Perceptions of the work within the academy are important, given that it determines faculty support for it, particularly through the mechanisms associated with retention, tenure, and promotion. Gurung has led a major effort to assess how SoTL is conducted and regarded within institutions of higher education, work which is reviewed in depth here. Over time, SoTL has become more recognized overall, but there continues to be a disciplinary disparity such that it is most valued within departments of psychology.
Future directions include continuing to refine distinctions between true SoTL and other kinds of efforts to document and assess the effectiveness of particular pedagogical approaches. Methodological rigor continues to be an area for development, for example, in encouraging more longitudinal work that can make a stronger case for the lasting impacts of different interventions, and incorporating more direct measures of learning (as opposed to, say, over-relying on student perceptions or evaluation scores). Individual differences – e.g., personality characteristics or cognitive strengths – are also an area for researchers to focus on, especially with regard to how these factors interact with one another to produce different outcomes in learning. Lastly, the ManyClasses project is an exciting initiative that anyone looking to publish or benefit from SoTL should be aware of.
3. Sean H.K. Kang: Interleaved Training and Category Learning
Kang’s work on interleaving in study has powerfully demonstrated the influence of structuring study sessions on how people learn to categorize. This is actually a critical aspect of learning, as Kang eloquently explains:
“In many real-world situations, and especially in education, it is more useful to identify patterns and principles from past experiences and be able to apply this learning to new circumstances than to be able to remember specific past examples, simply because it is less likely that one would face the exact same example again in the future. Inductive learning of relevant previous encounters allows the formation of mental categories, and this category learning then equips the learner to go beyond the prior cases and categorize novel examples as being a member of the category (or not). In other words, the learning of categories is an important way by which learners become able to generalize or transfer their learning to new instances.”
Much of Kang’s body of work on the subject involves the often-misunderstood principle of interleaving. As I frequently explain when working with faculty myself, interleaving does not mean just mixing up topics, taking breaks, or introducing variety into study sessions. Rather, it has to do with how examples of different categories are grouped, and especially, whether the sequence of examples of different categories is predictable or unpredictable. Interleaved sequences are those where it’s unpredictable; unfortunately though, students tend to default to the opposite structure, blocked study (a topic I also touched on in this Substack issue). As Kang points out, teachers too can present categories in blocked ways or intermingle them. But if they do the latter, they may be judged by students as less effective.
This chapter reviews these basic principles (i.e., that interleaved study is better but students tend not to do it). But, it also goes well beyond the basics, discussing the various disciplines and types of content across which interleaving has turned out to be beneficial. These include intriguing studies on learning healthcare-related skills, such as x-ray interpretation and auscultation, as well as emerging work on grammatical category learning in second language acquisition.
Kang also discusses the finer points of when interleaving is more or less impactful, especially with respect to category structure, meaning, how similar members are within categories and how much contrast there is between different categories. The chapter wraps up with a clear, thoughtfully presented set of practical recommendations and answers to frequently asked questions (what kind of content should be interleaved, how to create an interleaved study schedule) and a discussion of interleaving’s relationship to metacognition.
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