How to Make Learning Matter to Online Students


“Classic Learning” by Alan Levine on Flickr

One of the core premises of “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” is to make learning matter to students (Brown, Rodediger & McDaniel, 2014). The authors emphasize that learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal. Intuitively it’s a logical premise; of course we want learning to matter to students, where learning is relevant and applicable to their contexts. Yet how do we know if students perceive course concepts as relevant and meaningful? And even if they don’t, does this matter? The consensus is that it does. Evidence indicates that when learning is relevant, students are motivated and engaged→ learning is more effective and outcomes are more likely achieved. This phenomenon is described in “Make it Stick”  and in recent research (Bernard, 2010). In practice, I’ve seen how students are more likely to engage and participate in online courses when assignments encourage them to apply course concepts and ideas by building on their existing knowledge and experience.

Framework for Relevant Learning – Andragogy
The concept of making learning relevant to students is not new. Malcolm Knowles, creator of andragogy the theory of adult learning, outlines a set of assumptions of how adults learn; relevance is a core element (1984). Andragogy suggests adults learn differently than children, and learning programs tailored to characteristics of adult students, such as work experience, existing knowledge and life situations, are more likely to motivate and engage students in the learning process. Below are core assumptions of andragogy that serve as guidelines for making learning matter to students:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something
2. Adults need to learn ‘experientially’
3. Adults approach learning as problem-solving
4. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

Online Student_ThinkingStrategies for Making Learning Matter
I’ve found that by applying adult learning principles to the design of online courses, assignments and learning activities for instance, payoffs are significant in terms of student participation. I’ve seen this time and again. Online students are sensitive to busy work—activities or assignments that don’t appear to have a purpose, don’t require critical analysis, don’t appear to align with course learning objectives, or have real world application. Granted, these are students’ perceptions, yet it is beneficial to explain the purpose of an assignment, to describe how it will further learning and be of value, or be applicable later in the course. Following are practical strategies that I’ve applied when designing courses in an effort to make learning matter. Comments highlighting my experiences are in blue.

  • Describe an assignment in three parts; 1) outline the purpose of an assignment: how it fits in with objectives, what students will gain from the assignment, why they are doing the assignment, 2) describe assignment details and logistics: provide a description of assignment, format, resources, due dates, rubrics, and 3) describe technical logistics and details, e.g. any platforms or software needed for the assignment, collaboration tools for group assignments, where and how to submit the assignment e.g. within the LMS, or Turn-it-In, etc.  Frequently I’ve seen assignments that lack detail in at least one of the three mentioned here. This creates confusion for students, potential for lower-quality assignments, need for frequent reminders/clarifications, more student questions, and it delays students getting on the path to learning.
  • Provide opportunity for students to apply and share their experience and knowledge of subject matter: encourage students to draw upon work experience or existing knowledge. For example in a discussion question activity, include opportunity for students to share their experiences as applicable to the topic. Doing so can be as simple as adding another component to a discussion question where students incorporate examples from their personal or work experience.
  • Create opportunities where students research and/or share how (select) course concepts apply to real world scenarios or situations. This can be done within a discussion forum activity, a blog post assignment, written reflection activity or other type of written assignment. Alternatively, assignments can be based upon a real world challenge or problem the student is facing within their work, community or personal situation. As discussed earlier, the key is to highlight to for students why they are doing the activity—even though it may seem obvious. An example of how a question might be framed—here’s how a question from an undergraduate course in nursing might read “…to demonstrate how (concepts) apply to current situation in clinical setting, describe how this would be integrated…”.

Closing Thoughts
Making learning matter to learners does matter; where learning is relevant and applicable, especially for adult students. Considering adult learner characteristics is good practice that can lead to motivated and engaged students. Yet online learning does require a different approach than used for face-to-face settings—one that considers characteristics not only of the students, but the medium. The strategies outlined here are a starting point.


Need-to-Know-News: Video Lectures Go Hollywood, Failed Ed-Tech Program Highlights Teachers Educate Students not Technology & Ed-Tech Event in LA

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.


SCREEN TIME: The HBX Live experience—shown here in early testing—can include as many as 60 participants at a time (Photo by Webb Chappell)

1. Virtual Lectures go Hollywood Style
Video lectures in real-time where students connect to a virtual classroom is not new; live video conferencing for seminar discussions and lectures in higher education has been around for several years, though is becoming more mainstream with the expansion of online courses and lowered cost barriers to the technology. Yet a project at Harvard University—HBX Live, takes the idea of video lectures to a new level. Harvard created a television-style production studio (at an undisclosed cost) as a virtual classroom with carefully designed plans to create “the intimacy and synchronous interaction of Harvard Business School’s famed case study method in a digital environment” (HBX Live). The tag line on the article, ‘The Digital Deck’ on Harvard Business School’s site describing the studio labeled it as “a new approach to online learning” (Hanna).

When scanning the photos of HBX’s studio I was reminded of TED Talk productions with the jumbo screens and sophisticated recording technology that churns out high-quality, polished videos. Yet the difference between TED Talks and HBX Live is the purpose, which for HBX is not to record the lectures for later viewing, but to engage students in a live event.


HBX Live Infographic, HBX Blog

Participants from around the globe can log in concurrently and join real-time, case-based sessions with HBS faculty who teach from the HBX Live studio, located in the Boston-based facility of public broadcaster WGBH. In the custom-designed studio, a high-resolution video wall mimics the amphitheater-style seating of an HBS classroom, where up to 60 participants are displayed on individual screens simultaneously. In addition, others can audit sessions via an observer model. Sessions are expertly produced using still and roaming cameras—creating the perspective for participants of being in a real classroom, seeing both the faculty member and other students (

Insight: On the one hand it’s exciting that an Ivy League school is embracing online learning and experimenting with new ways to overcome barriers of time and place, yet on the other, it’s concerning that a school such as Harvard, considered a leader in higher education, might be setting an expectation for other higher ed institutions that in order to engage students and achieve quality learning in online settings—a high-tech, ultra-expensive studio is the only way to go. Not to mention its premise embraces a traditional method of instruction—the lecture.

2. A Lesson in Technology Integration: Teachers Educate Students—Not Tech
There’s no better example than the disaster with L.A. Unified School District’s (LASUD) iPad program to illustrate all that can go wrong with a poorly thought out technology integration plan. Here’s an example of a school district spending $1.3 billion to put an iPad in the hands of every child in the district, yet with no short or long-term strategy to support teachers (or students) with a plan for integrating the devices into the curriculum or within the traditional methods of learning. There was an inherent expectation of LASUD leadership that by giving an iPad loaded with educational software (provided by Pearson) to students, along with a handful of professional development sessions for teachers, students would be immediately engaged in learning, and learning gains would be significant. Not surprisingly the initiative was a failure. The district (painfully) discovered that it’s good teachers that make learning happen, not technology; and if you have a poor teacher, technology doesn’t make bad teaching better.

What’s disappointing is that a recently published report by American Research Institute  summarizing the initiative, missed the point completely (Margolin et al.). Of its 18 pages, teacher involvement and impact was buried on page seven with two (weak) recommendations: 1) “We recommend that the district consider offering training webinars to enable teachers to participate during contractual time at their school” and, 2) “We recommend that the district seek ways to provide access to high-quality digital resources, aligned to standards and curricula.”

Insight: Until education institutions realize that it’s instructors and teachers that support effective learning and successful technology use, little progress will be made integrating ed-tech tools to achieve successful outcomes. This holds true for face-to-face and blended education environments of K-12 and higher education. It also applies to online courses; though a well-designed online course can guide and support learning of a motivated, self-directed student, it’s teacher guidance and involvement that pushes students to think critically and engage with course concepts.

simplified_logo3. One-Day Ed-Tech Conference—SimplifiED Summit 2015
On October 6th in Los Angeles California, a group of edtech leaders that include Richard Calcutta and Dr. Michelle Weise, are featured at this day-long conference that focuses on educational technology. This summit brings together ed-tech innovators and decision makers in higher education and K-12. The focus is on technological transformation and its opportunity and impact within education. The registration site is at SimplifiED Summit 2015. Use code KVT30 for a discount on the registration fee.

The four key topics:
1. The evolving mobile campus
2. The movement to mass personalization for every student
3. The rise of digital learning resources
4. Integration strategies to implement change effectively


Four-Step Strategy to Create Active Learning in any Learning Space—Online, F2F or Blended

In a recent article The 3 Instructional Shifts That Will Redefine the College Professor, the ‘dynamic classroom’ was listed as number one. The dynamic classroom is where faculty “do practically anything other than lecture” (Craig, 2015).  A meager definition but the idea is right on—active learning, where students apply concepts through discussion, debate, writing, hands-on experiments, etc. produces better learning results. Numerous studies back up the claim; a recent paper shows student performance increased by just under half a standard deviation with active learning compared with lecturing (Freeman et al., 2014). In this post I share a four-step strategy that instructors can use to make learning active for online, blended or face-to-face learning spaces. Readers will find instructive examples and resources on active learning in the photo gallery (below) as well as in the list of resources at the end of this post.

Active learning is not a theory but a teaching method that supports learning. The method uses techniques such as writing reflections, discussion, problem solving—activities that promote analysis, synthesis and evaluation that guide students towards achieving learning objectives. Typically tools are used to support the activity, for example handouts, whiteboard, chalkboard, smart phone apps, platforms such as Google Drive or Twitter. The choice of activity and tool are (or should be) determined by the learning goal, as well as other factors that include, time available, location (in-class or online), class size and others that are specific to the students, such as their skill level and access to tools.

Another way to define active learning is to consider the opposite—passive learning where students are recipients of knowledge, are expected to record and absorb knowledge  delivered by an expert—a faculty member or textbook (McManus, 2001). Passive learning aligns with behaviorist theories where the student is viewed as an empty vessel waiting to be filled. In contrast active learning aligns with the constructivist perspective of learning. The constructivist view embraces the idea that knowledge is actively constructed by the learner and integrated with his or her existing knowledge and experience.

Active Learning Photo and Resource Gallery
Click on an image below to open up the photo gallery. Each image is captioned with a link to further information about the method featured.

Four-Step Strategy for Making Learning Active
Below is a four-step framework for re-designing a lesson or unit to make learning active. Integrating active learning requires a skill set that goes beyond skills required for facilitating the traditional lecture format; numerous institutions provide professional development for faculty and instructors looking to incorporate active methods given the time and skills required. This framework below is a starting point; it features the bare bones principles of making learning active. An important note, the lecture method still has a role; lectures are an effective method to deliver information, yet it’s using lectures (and active learning) strategically as a method along with others that creates a comprehensive instructional strategy (“150 Teaching Methods”).

To illustrate the framework an active learning scenario featuring a group of nursing students in a face-to-face (F2F) course is used and described in the ‘application’ section of each step.

1. Identify learning objectives for the lesson/unit. Considering the learning objective or goal ensures the activity aligns with the course objectives and the lesson itself. If the unit/lesson doesn’t have a specific goal, but the course has overall learning outcomes, create one by considering the question—what should students be able to do or know after the lesson that will support them reaching a (given) course objective? A useful tool for identifying and writing learning objectives is a Bloom’s Taxonomy resource from UNCC ‘Writing Objectives Using Bloom’s Taxonomy’.

Application: Using the nursing students scenario the two goals for the learning unit on eating disorders are: 1) identify symptoms associated with disordered eating, and 2) determine a patient’s symptoms on the eating disorder continuum. These goals support one of the course objectives  • Analyze patient behaviors to determine presence of disordered eating on the eating disorder continuum, and helps students gain the knowledge and skills needed to meet this learning outcome.

2. Identify core concepts students need to learn. List key concepts— frameworks, formulas, theoretical principles etc. students need to learn. Determine the breadth and depth of knowledge required—the level at which students need to know the concepts, e.g. familiarity or mastery. Consider students’ current level of knowledge on the topic; this  helps determine how concepts will need to be presented to students before they engage in the activity.

Application: In the scenario nursing students need to recognize symptoms of disordered eating and determine which patient behaviors are normal and ones associated with eating disorders. Students need to know characteristics of eating disorders and be familiar with the ‘eating disorder continuum’.  Faculty determined that knowledge of the students is varied, thus assigned a textbook reading prior to class and selected a short video to show prior to the activity that illustrated key concepts.

3. Consider options—select activity and tools. This step has two phases. First determine types of activities that could work for the concepts given the learning context—class size, learning space, time constraints, etc. The activity might be a debate, mind map, or small discussion. Next identify the tools needed to support the activity, while also considering factors such as students skill level and access (to the tool). If skill level could be an issue, consider providing instructions, tutorials for students to learn the tool and build learning time in accordingly. If the learning curve is deemed too high given the time allocated, consider an alternative tool.

Active nursing class

Nursing students work on concept boards in small groups in School of Nursing class at University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014). Picture by Jeff Miller.

In the nursing face-to-face class of 150 students a concept board activity was chosen. Students worked in small groups after watching video about a woman struggling with binge eating. The activity was introduced by professor with questions to guide the discussion. The groups collaborated using a white board to create their concept board.

This activity can be applied to online setting—student groups can create a concept board using Google Draw program on Google Drive. Students can work on the concept map asynchronously or synchronously.

4. Articulate activity instructions in detail. Instructions that highlight the goal of the activity and its purpose frame the activity and prepare students for learning. Instructions for F2F and online environments need to be specific, clear and detailed and should include three components, 1) goals of activity, its purpose and expected outcomes, 2) details of the assignment: requirements, due dates, concepts to incorporate, format for product, etc. and 3) execution details: group or individual assignment, how groups will work together, e.g. group etiquette, collaboration strategies,  tools and platforms to use (more so for online classes).

Closing Thoughts
Active learning is a proven method that supports learning. Yet it’s one of several that supports knowledge building and creation that engages and motivates students. Below is a list of resources for educators looking to incorporate active learning strategies into online, blended or F2F course.



Need-to-Know News: Universities On Board with Micro Credentials, MOOC Report Highlights Pressing Issues & App Rewards Tech Non-Use

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

job-education1) Group of Seven Universities Collaborating on ‘Alternative Credentialing’
“The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees” — David Schejbal, Dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and e-Learning at Wisconsin Extension.

A group of seven universities are in early stages of collaboration on a joint platform that will offer skills assessments, services including tutoring and advising to students online—though the platform’s primary purpose will be to provide ‘alternative credentialing options’. This is significant. It’s the first time a group of brand-name universities (that include Northwestern and Georgia Tech) have formed their own consortium in the micro credentialing market at this scale. Up until now it’s for-profit platforms such as Udacity with their Nano Degrees partnering with corporations such as AT&T, Coursera with their Specializations offered as a ‘pathway to expertise’, and edX (non-profit) with their xSeries programs.

These programs are vocational in nature, with a focused sequence of courses that provide students with a set of skills in a specialty area. This type of credentialing differs significantly from undergraduate education—the undergraduate degree focusing on breadth rather than depth, emphasizing critical thinking with applicability to a range of career pathways. Yet recently there’s been discussion in far-reaching media outlets including the New York Times, that micro credentials are a viable alternative to traditional higher education—“it [nano degree] may finally offer a reasonable shot at harnessing the web to provide effective schooling to the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream”.  Even Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity was quoted as saying, “It [nano degree] is like a university…built by industry” (2014).

Insight: The fact that micro credentials are viewed as an alternative to or even replacement for an undergraduate or an associate’s degree is concerning. Even more so now with universities coming on board and (potentially) promoting this option as ‘shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees’. Micro credentialing serves a different purpose than undergraduate education, targets a different and expanding student population—working adults looking for professional development and a route to enhance job-related skills. Though there is need for higher education institutions to transform and adapt to the complex challenges the higher education sector is facing, offering a ‘mini-degree’ as a replacement to the rich and diverse education that an undergraduate degree can provide is misguided and deeply troubling.  Alternative learning pathways such as micro-credentials is a positive outcome of digital innovations, yet using it as an alternative to ‘fix’ undergraduate education is not reasonable or responsible.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 12.40.46 PM2)  New MOOC Report Highlights Current Issues
This week UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for higher education released a concise, informative report “MOOCs and Quality: A Review of the Recent Literature” that highlights topical issues with useful, current references.  It’s instructive, informative and provides a summary of key areas of concern specific to MOOCs that are also applicable to higher education including non-completion rates, quality, instructional design, and data use for analysis of student engagement. What’s most instructive are the issues highlighted—it draws out for the reader the most pressing issues worthy of consideration going forward.

As with each new learning innovation, MOOCs present the possibility of new approaches to education, but the promises now need to be evaluated to see what can be delivered in the longer term, on a sustainable basis and with what implications for HEIs and for the assurance of quality  (Creelman et al, 2014).

Insight: Discussions should be moving from MOOCs as disruptors to deeper issues such as how can MOOCs help us improve teaching and learning, reach more students with quality education, and support change within the higher education sector. This report can be a catalyst for such discussions, providing a starting point with its reference list of recent research that provide a foundation for informed discussion.

3) New App Gives Points to Students for Not Using Personal Tech Device
A mobile app targeted to high school and college students called ‘Pocket Points’ gives students rewards for not using their phones during class. Students gain points by opening up the application and locking their phone. It works when the school signs on with Pocket Points and sets up the software and the rewards program.  Students can use points to get discounts at local and online businesses—primarily for food. Currently Chico State and Penn State University use the program.

Insight: A unique idea, though I see more potential for this application with younger children, for parents to use with their children ages 9 through 13—helping kids learn how to manage their screen time.

Need-to-Know-News: Blackboard’s ‘Delightful’ New Learning Experience, e-Textbook Trends & A Nifty, New Digital Bulletin Board

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

MP900405500Blackboard Launches ‘The New Learning Experience’

The vision will be brought to life through technology and services that are focused on the wants and needs of the learner; tightly integrated into connected and sensible workflows; packaged in a totally new, intuitive and delightful user experience; accessible, mobile and always-on; and layered with data and analytics capabilities. — Blackboard Press Release via PR NewsWire, July 21, 2015

‘Delightful’, ‘intuitive’ and ‘sensible’ are hardly words educators (or students) would associate with a learning management platform, yet according to Blackboard Inc. ‘The New Learning Experience’ of which the LMS Blackboard Learn platform is part, will be just that.  Announced last week at the BbWorld 2015 event, the New Learning experience includes the re-designed Blackboard Learn platform, the new and improved Blackboard Collaborate, web conferencing platform and a new Bb Student App. Blackboard’s CEO, Jay Bhatt, in a keynote presentation, described the new learning experience as ‘student-focused’, ‘connected’  and outlined how it will ‘follow the student on their learning journey’ through K-12, Higher Ed and beyond.  And, since Blackboard is the dominant platform in the U.S. LMS market, it’s likely that ‘the new learning experience’ may be coming to a campus near you.


LMS Data – Spring 2015 Updates []

Insight:  Blackboard’s ‘new learning experience’ sounds pretty great—an integrated learning experience for students, delightful, user-friendly—a learner’s utopia! But can a LMS platform really deliver such an experience? More importantly do we really want to have one company managing all the functions and components of the learning experience?  I’m not a LMS expert, but after reading articles from those that are, over at e-Literate blog for instance, I’m not sure that Blackboard will even be able to deliver such a product. Furthermore after reading the disclaimer at the beginning of a Keynote of the CEO’s New Learning Initiative on YouTube, I don’t think Blackboard is either.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 10.44.38 AM

Blackboard CEO Jay Bhatt at #BbTLC15 presenting the ‘New Learning Experience’. Keynote extract – May 2015 [YouTube:]

E-text books in Higher Ed — Low Adoption Rates Explained
Textbooks in most higher education courses are a key source of content for students. Yet the adoption rate of e-textbooks among students is low; on the surface puzzling given the high rates of device ownership among college students. EDUCAUSE published a paper earlier this month that explored e-textbook use in higher education, specifically student usage patterns, adoption rate, and the role of the instructor in e-textbook use. The report is helpful; the study used benchmark data gathered via an online survey in 2012 with undergraduate (n=809) and graduate (n=133) students and compared it to data gathered in 2014 using the same (and some additional) questions.

Surprising is the little difference between results from 2012 to 2014. The one significant difference is the awareness of e-textbook availability which went from 30% in 2012, unaware of e-textbook as an option, to 10% in 2014. Overall the findings suggest that lower cost is the driving factor for students’ decision to buy textbooks with convenience ranking second.


Figure 2: Factors influencing e-textbook adoption, 2012 – 2014 (deNoyelles, Raible, & Seilhamer, 2015)

Instructor use of the e-textbook is also factor in student use, third ranked behind cost and convenience. The study indicated that instructor annotations and embedding questions in the e-book (feature available within  e-textbooks platforms) was a driver of student purchases of the e-text over print. Yet the overall the rate of instructors using e-textbooks was low in 2012, and lower still in 2014:

In 2012, 75 percent of participants claimed that instructors seldom or never used the features within the particular e-textbook. This rate remained low two years later, with 77 percent of participants reporting that their instructors seldom or never used the features of an e-textbook… Only around one-third of instructors acknowledged the e-textbook option in their syllabus … less than 30 percent of instructors actually modeled the use of the e-textbook. — Exploring Students’ E-Textbook Practices in Higher Education, July 6, 2015, EDUCAUSE

Insight: There are several barriers to e-textbook adoption and though EDUCAUSE’s paper suggests that instructor adoption is a significant factor, there are others—one not mentioned is the fact that college students as a demographic group don’t like to pay top dollar for digital content—they are used to getting content for free or for a minimal cost with monthly fee-based platforms such as Netflix for movies ($7.99/month) and Spotify for music ($4.99/month for students). This phenomenon makes the idea of investing a significant sum in an e-textbook inconsistent with this groups’ view of digital content; a physical textbook might be viewed more worthy of the significant investment. Secondly, what is mentioned in the paper is that most student-respondents didn’t use the interactive elements of the e-textbook, only 28%. The interactive elements are one of the primary benefits of the digital format—interactive features can provide additional and/or enhanced learning. The fact that students aren’t using these elements, whether due to availability, awareness or platform limitations, is significant barrier that once overcome will greatly improve adoption rates.

There are new developments in e-textbook platforms, one highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education (listed below).

Nifty, New Ed-Tech Platform  – Realtime Board
I’m a big fan of the digital white board platform, Padlet, which is an excellent tool for virtual team brainstorming sessions, back channel discussions during virtual meetings, or for team communication. Though it can be buggy especially when there are multiple users, which is why this new platform Realtime Board looks promising. It appears to be able to scale up to multiple users, can handle a variety of file formats, has an attractive interface, and is supported by multiple device platforms. The downside is that there is a fee for users, however there is a free licensing option for educators, click here for more details.

Below is an example of Realtime Board used for a Mind Map assignment.


Example of a Mind map using Realtime Board, []

Make Teaching ‘Stick’ with Ideas from “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”

make it stick book cover

make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, & Mark A. McDaniel

In this post I review key takeaways from the book “make it stick” and delve into its practical applications for educators—how instructors who teach face-to-face or online can help their students learn better, and for course and curriculum designers—how they can support learning through unique course design strategies.

The book begins “…people generally go about learning in the wrong ways…” and authors describe how the methods we typically use to learn—reviewing material again and again to get that ‘A’ for instance, or practicing the same skill for hours on end until mastery, are essentially ineffective (pg. xi). They don’t work, and ‘make it stick’ explains why. Despite the title, “… Science of Successful Learning”, the book is more about the practical than the science though the authors do a fine job of referencing research to support their claims. For these and other reasons, the book is enlightening—refreshingly so. I approached the book with few expectations; with the numerous titles out there on learning—How we Learn, The Science Behind Learning, Accelerated Learning, etc., I’m a bit skeptical. Though most concepts presented in the book aren’t new, like the debunking of learning styles*, the methods described on how we learn provide a new perspective on teaching and developing coursework. For instance forgetting is good; good when we space out learning then forget enough that we have to retrieve it later and relearn it. Another, changing up topics frequently is also effective—just when we think we are beginning to ‘get it’, it’s a good time to move on to another topic.

Make it Stick Applied to Teaching  & Course Design
“Make it stick” is a how-to book geared to students and life-long learners that describes how to not just remember, but how to apply, analyze, and synthesize concepts.  This post presents a different perspective, how the principles in “make it stick” can be applied to teaching and to the development of curriculum and courses—online and face-to-face. We could just as easily substitute ‘teaching’ for ‘learning’ in the opening quote, ‘people generally go about teaching in the wrong ways’.  In this context ‘people’ refers to teachers, professors, trainers, tutors, coaches and parents, as well as curriculum and instructional designers. I’m in the latter category and used principles from the book when developing  an online, four-unit professional development course for faculty.

The book is a fairly easy read with enough challenge and complexity to make it a page-turner.  It’s also cleverly written; authors embed some of the learning methods described in the book in the writing. For example they use ‘interleaving—which is a method of introducing a new idea or concept, then layering in an additional concept (or concepts)—for instance concept ‘a’ is introduced in a chapter, and just when you start grasping it, authors switch to concept ‘b’, then come back to concept ‘a’ in the next chapter, while introducing concept ‘c’.  Concept a, b and c (and d, e and f) are interleaved throughout the book in this way, turning up in subsequent chapters with different examples to illustrate each. Just when you might have forgotten concept ‘a’, it appears again, along with yet another topic. This technique, switching topics frequently and interleaving, represent two methods authors described in the book, one is to mix it up (vary) and space-out, content frequently, before you’ve mastered the material (pg. 46 – 49). Then review the material later, retrieve concepts when you’re on the brink of forgetting them altogether. Apparently this repeated retrieval, going back to concepts again and again, embeds the knowledge and skills (pg. 29), and is far more effective than concentrated study sessions of re-reading, reviewing and highlighting text passages. The second concept interleaving, which is the idea that learning two or more subjects, or practicing two or more skills, is a more potent that massed practice focused on one topic.

Book Highlights

  • Learning is deeper and more durable when it requires effort. This idea explained in chapter four, ‘embrace difficulties’ which authors describe difficult learning as desirable due to the idea that the brain encodes and consolidates learning when learning it’s ‘effortful’; is strengthened through mental representations associated with retrieval and making connections (pg. 73).
  • * Learning styles debunked; there is no empirical research that supports the idea that learning is more effective when instruction caters to the learners preferred style of learning, e.g. auditory, visual, etc.
  • Learners are susceptible to the ‘illusion of knowing’.  It’s not uncommon for learners to ‘not know what they don’t know’.  Being aware of what one still needs to learn, or what skill needs developing is known as metacognition, and it’s part of overcoming the illusion of knowing. Chapter five lists tools learners can use to gain a sense of knowing.  Educators play a critical role in helping students overcome the illusion of knowing by providing constructive feedback (pg. 126).
  • Learning requires a foundation of knowledge, which supports the idea that we do need to learn foundational concepts even in a world where we can “Google it’.  It seems that when knowledge is deeply entrenched in long-term memory it supports the learner’s ability to make connections with other knowledge held in one’s memory (pg. 76).  ‘Googling’ a fact or concept will likely be stored in the learner’s short-term memory, and while useful in certain contexts, it does not replace a learner having a knowledge base to call upon when working on complex projects or initiatives.

1197947341_89d0ff8676Tips for Instructors/Faculty/Teachers to Help Learning ‘Stick’
The following tips section is a summary of concepts presented in the book. The final chapter of the book, Make it Stick, also outlines some general tips for teachers, though authors caution that teachers must find what’s right for his or her classroom (pg. 225). Agreed. But still the tips are worthy of careful consideration.

  • Focus on active learning methods—retrieval, elaboration, reflection, generative learning. This idea of active learning is not new, but the book provides excellent suggestions for active learning that can be applied to the classroom and online. One example I particularly like is the use of ‘summary sheets’, where students are required to submit a single sheet at the end of a week that illustrates the prior week’s material with drawings annotated with key ideas, arrows and graphs (pg. 231). This could be done in an online course where learners share their summary diagrams with each other via a forum, or group’s are assigned to create a collective summary diagram for a given week and post it for sharing.
  • Create ‘desirable difficulties’ where learners struggle with material, make mistakes and even fail, yet do ultimately receive corrective and constructive feedback from the instructor.
  • Provide constructive feedback — once learners have wrestled with the concepts and material (as above). This method not only strengthens learning but creates an open and challenging learning climate
  • Incorporate frequent, low stakes testing.
  • Provide opportunities for elaboration, reflection.
  • Explain to students how learning works—sharing with students what empirical studies have revealed on how people learn will help students manage their own education. The other benefit—teaching becomes transparent; students see the purpose behind the methods, e.g. reflection exercises, frequent quizzes, etc. Students may also see that learning is supposed to be challenging and difficult and that making mistakes and not always succeeding is part of the learning process. The book does a good job outlining how to explain learning to students (pg 225 – 230).

Practical Applications for Course/Curriculum Designers

  • Create frequent and varied active learning exercises — focus less on content that students consume through reading and watching, and more on doing.  Active learning in online courses, though more challenging to create, supports effective and dynamic learning experiences (Austin & Mescia, n.d.).
  • Use quizzes as exploratory, reflective learning exercises with the primary purpose to help students learn. This means creating quizzes that provide immediate feedback, even during the quiz, where students can check their answers. In order for this to be effective the feedback needs to be specific, describing why an answer is correct or incorrect. The feedback is an opportunity to reinforce concepts and can prompt students to dig deeper into a subject area. If using the quiz feature in a LMS, it’s possible to provide customized feedback, even include Web links to further resources.
  • Incorporate concepts frequently throughout the course in a variety of contexts by creating learning exercises and assignments that require students to draw upon concepts from previous modules/units of learning.  Do not approach learning modules or units as independent ‘chunks’ of learning, but fluid and porous ‘blocks’ that draw upon previous concepts that interlock and build a structure. It’s a common term in online course development to ‘chunk’ learning into segments, yet it’s critical to thread concepts consistently throughout the modules/units.
  • Don’t make it too easy — make students work at learning, e.g. by posing more questions and opportunities for discovery through discussion and interaction with other students. Though structure and outline of purpose for activities is the framework, students need to find solutions and solve problems wrestling with concepts and ideas. This last component is perhaps the most challenging to structure within an online course.

Examples of Methods Applied from ‘make it stick’

1) Interleaving in an online course: As mentioned earlier in the post, I applied the idea of interleaving in an online course I recently created. Rather than topics introduced as separate units of instruction within independent modules, I threaded concepts from previous modules into the new ones. Concepts from prior modules were referenced frequently in different contexts, and in the learning activities participants are required to incorporate concepts from previous units along with newly introduced concepts, as well as to draw upon their knowledge and experience.  I also incorporated frequent, cumulative quizzes for review in each module that covered concepts from all modules. Quiz settings were adjusted so that learners can check their responses before moving on to the next question and the feedback provides a review of the concept.

2) Generative learning is a method discussed in the book. It’s a process where students are given a problem to solve before being taught the concepts or method. The idea is that learning is stronger when students invest more energy and effort looking for a solution. Critics of this teaching method say it’s more time-consuming and not as effective as direct instruction. In Ontario, Canada this method of generative learning is introduced in select public schools to teach Mathematics.

“He (the math teacher) presents a problem at the start of class, and lets the students try to figure it out. Hopefully, he says, the students will struggle. “That initial moment of struggle prepares them for what they’ll learn later,”  — Old School or new? Math teachers debate best method as Canadian scores fall, Liam Casey

I give ‘make it stick’ five-stars, not only for the concise, crisp writing but the thought-provoking and actionable content. Teachers, instructors and course designers will no doubt find the book useful, at the very least it will provide a refreshing take on learning. The book’s website, provides a good overview of the content by chapter.

Are you Ready to Teach Online? Readiness Surveys Aim to Help Faculty Prepare

“…the following questions will help you determine what you need to do to succeed at online learning. Post-survey feedback will also provide you with information on what you can expect from an online course”  — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Online Learning Readiness Questionnaire for Students

Teaching Readiness ChecklistThere are several excellent self-scoring assessments on the Web for students to assess their readiness for online learning as the one mentioned in the opening, yet few for instructors and faculty planning to teach online. The purpose of such questionnaires is to help students identify what skills they’ll need to be successful; technical and ‘soft skills’ such as self-direction, time management, etc. This post aims to help instructors prepare for teaching online by reviewing readiness tools and questionnaires that help to assess and determine what skills they will need to make the transition from teaching face-to-face to an online learning environment.

Shared below are two surveys and key findings from two papers on ‘readiness’ for online learning and teaching; both are examined briefly. One paper discusses student, instructor and institution readiness and argues that a successful online learning program must include a systematic process of planning, designing and creating environments where learning is actively fostered and supported (Mercado, 2008, pg. 18.2). In the same paper, Mercado stresses that teachers must also “possess personal attributes to perform online teaching and administration of the online environment successfully“. And most instructive are the tables within the paper with questions that focus on attitudes that aim to assess instructors’ perceptions towards online teaching (screen shot below). It’s the attitudes that are most important given that a student-centric mindset is required for successful online instructors, one that differs significantly from traditional, face-to-face instruction.

“Teaching in an online course involves more than replicating classroom strategies in a different form. It “requires a different approach—one that focuses less on the amount of time students spend together in a particular place, and more on facilitating a distance community and on activities designed for students working individually” (University of Washington, 2004).”

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 3.27.14 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-21 at 3.27.28 PMScreenshot above: Excerpt from survey that assesses teachers attitude towards online teaching as part of readiness. Designed to encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching style and strategies, circumstances, abilities, motivation and time management. (Mercado, 2008, pg.18.6)

Though there is little research that supports the thesis that readiness questionnaires lead to better learning outcomes for students, there is consensus that readiness assessments at the very least emphasize for students and instructors the expectations and demands of learning and teaching in an online space, encouraging the assessment-taker to take the necessary steps and actions to prepare in an effort to reduce the learning curves associated with technology and teaching approaches (Gascoigne & Parnell, 2014).

Categories and Barriers to Readiness
The assessments available on the web specific to instructor-readiness are few—two are listed below. Both categorize the required skills into three areas; 1) technology, 2) pedagogy and 3) administrative skills. Though as already mentioned, the paper by Mercado includes attitudes and perceptions of online learning as one component of a readiness which highlights the different mindset required for teaching online. It’s the mindset of a traditional education model that puts up the biggest barriers to instructors transitioning to teaching online. An extreme example of an instructor unable to adapt to a student-focused approach is from a MOOC on the Coursera platform where a faculty member quit midway through “because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it” (Kolowich, 2013).

I suggest that the required skills fall into three categories. Though the two surveys included below are good, they do not encompass all of the skills I suggest are required. In lieu of a survey that includes all three areas, I recommend consulting the “Teacher Attitudes” survey questions in Mercado’s paper in conjunction with one of the surveys below pages (18.5 to 18.7).

1.  Technology and Social Media Skills: Technology skills are fundamental, and though social media skills not an essential, they enhance the instructor’s ability to connect with students. Skills include: ♦ basic computer skills ♦  proficiency with software applications ♦ installing/updating software and plug-ins ♦ internet search literacy ♦ proficiency with features and functions within the LMS including uploading files, grading tools and grade book ♦ LMS tools for asynchronous/synchronous communication ♦ familiarity with platforms for communication/engagement outside of LMS, e.g. Pinterest, Twitter, Google+

2.  Administrative and Organization Skills: Includes skills such as time management e.g. ability and willingness to respond to student questions with immediacy e.g. within  24 hours ♦ provide constructive feedback on student assignments in timely manner ♦ proficiency with grade book and ability to submit grades by required ♦ monitor/follow-up with academic integrity issues

3. Pedagogical Skills and Teaching Approach: ♦ student focused learning model ♦ instructor focus on supporting and guiding learning not delivering content and instruction ♦ providing constructive feedback ♦ establishing and sustaining online presence

‘Readiness for Teaching Online’ Surveys

1. Faculty Self Assessment: Preparing for Online Teaching from Penn State University is free to use under the Creative Commons license. It’s excellent. One is required to input a name and email address to access the survey, though apparently it is not stored on the school’s server, and you to get a very detailed, comprehensive report emailed upon completion based upon your responses (check your spam folder; email is from PSU Online). CUNY published on its faculty website an example of a feedback report of the Penn State Self-Assessment—you can see the example by clicking here.

There are thirty questions ranked within three categories: technical, administrative and pedagogical competencies. The survey assumes the instructor has teaching experience—it includes questions about familiarity with LMS features and teaching online for instance, but it does highlight for instructors new to online teaching, the skills and expectations required.

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 4.10.08 PM

Screenshot of Penn State’s Faculty Teaching Readiness Questionnaire

2. Faculty Online Teaching Readiness Survey from the University of Toledo, twenty-question self-scoring survey. This survey is not nearly as comprehensive as Penn State’s, but it does provide a snapshot of skills required and provides in the feedback for each response, a detailed description of the skill with links to resources for further learning and/or information. Note, the selection buttons are misleading on this quiz, when completing it select the radio button that is above the answer you want.