Thursday, November 25, 2021

How we learn...

I'm working on my next blog post on "Why Campus." This next entry is on enhanced courses. I thought I would do a preliminary post here to get my juices flowing.

1. What are the weak spots of the typical college course? We have long heard that the lecture is the least effective way to learn. I did some quick research. This piece suggests that while students sometimes think lectures are the best, the introduction of interactive components can improve learning significantly. 

When I think back on my own thirty years of teaching, in the early decades I could tell when students were glazing over. I would insert a break or group activity when I saw this happening. However, my activities were not well designed. They were more release valves than truly helpful. I was somewhat entertaining, but it only helped with some students. 

When I started teaching Greek in the early 90s, I was the more entertaining of the two of us. However, I'm not sure that the students learned more from me than they learned from the other professor. They may have enjoyed the experience more, but it didn't necessarily produce greater learning. This may have been the case throughout my career--they enjoyed me more but did they learn more than they learned with the professor who was more regimented?

2. When wireless came into the picture, the scores on my tests went down. I used to be very clear about what would be on the test, but the attention to what I was saying went down. Now it didn't matter as much whether I was entertaining or not because they were entertaining themselves on the web during class. There were of course the curmudgeon professors who forbade laptops in class. I always looked down on them. Did they really think they could win that cultural competition?

No, we had to find ways to collaborate with the technology. In 2009 when I switched to primarily being administration, I was poised to used clickers to have in class quiz questions. I planned to ask questions throughout the class time that required you to snap out of whatever distraction you might be engaged in to answer questions. By golly you would learn in my class!

I have known for my whole career about different learning styles and I have felt the short attention span. I know because I have one. I always felt that my own inability to sit through sermons and lectures has made me a more interesting teacher because I can feel myself getting bored at myself. The idea that the average attention span is less than 10 minutes now is generally agreed, although this piece pushes back. My sense is that the piece mistakes being able to make a counterargument is the same as making a counterargument. This is one of the problems with much thinking today. It thinks that if you can show a contrary position is possible that it disproves the alternative or proves the minority position.

3. Zoom has been interesting. I continue to slip in group breakouts. But because I don't structure them, I'm not sure anything happens. I have found the students at Houghton College to pay better attention (I think) than the students I used to have at IWU. I don't know if this is a cultural shift, an indication of the typical Houghton student, or a misperception. 

At the same time, I have experience more silence and lack of conversation than my early years of teaching. It is always nice when there is at least one student that interacts. A few years ago I began to notice the "spectator student" dynamic. It seemed to correlate to what I saw in much Christian worship too. We watch the worship team but don't necessarily sing ourselves.

4. So what of the evolution of the online learning environment?

When we started Wesley Seminary, there was some defense made of online teaching. Those days are so long ago that I almost consider irrelevant any people who might still argue against its potential effectiveness. The twentieth century is calling you. Studies have shown that online teaching is at least as effective on average as face-to-face in terms of learning. You can also do spiritual formation virtually. 

In the end, it doesn't matter whether we like it or not. It doesn't matter whether we prefer it or not. It's here. It will always be here. You can grumble, but your grumbling is irrelevant. It is a train that will run over your grumblings and not even realize it has run over you. That's the situation whether we like it or not. Some purely face-to-face colleges may survive, but they will be few and likely very small. 

The early online course was convenient because it was completely asynchronous. Do it whenever you best can. It thus became out of sight, out of mind for many--sometimes even for the professor. You wrote a book--type, type, type, type, type, type, type. Those perceived to be the best professors were not the most entertaining but the best administrators. I often thought of the peppered moth phenomenon during the Industrial Revolution in England. They stood out and were eaten first before soot. Then they thrived after soot.

So the entertaining professor thrived before asynchronous online. The disciplined administrator thrived thereafter.

The pandemic has changed things. Mind you, I did a hybrid class in 2009. I was doing an online class with live Zoom sessions the very semester that the pandemic broke out. I blamed lack of bandwidth early on for the "type type type" phenomenon of online. I sense that we are now culturally used to Zoom. It's a clear shift, even though we are sick of it. We know it. It is not strange. 

5. I have speculated for several years now that the online class of the future will be more like video gaming. I know more than one (especially male) college student who has struggled in college because of gaming. They stay up late. They miss class. They don't get their work done.

There have always been students (mostly boys) who don't connect with the typical academic system. I call them the "lost boys." They are some of the brightest young people. They have a lot to offer. They often went on to pastor the largest churches and have some of the most "successful" ministries from one perspective. They failed their ministry classes.

I have worked with people who are extremely talented, extremely innovative, extremely successful, but they didn't do very well in the academic setting. I blame us in the academy rather than them. They found us irrelevant and uninteresting. We probably were not as irrelevant as they thought we were, but we were utter failures at our teaching method, I believe, at least for this set of students.

It seems to me that cultural shifts have turned us into extreme failures at teaching. We have not figured out how to teach this generation. Frankly, I don't think we knew how to teach the earlier generations either. They just sat and took it from us. When I look at the widespread cultural ignorance--no less present in the church than at large... when you consider that most of the culture went to college... I have to consider one of the primary tasks of the academy to have been quite a failure. "General education" hasn't seemed to do what it's supposed to do.

6. I've been doing "opposition research" for the better part of this year. I was at a pivot in my life and I thought I would go back to school part-time. I've taken online courses with Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State, two of the so-called leaders in the field. I've taken programming and graphic design courses with the one and a STEM class with the other. Meanwhile, I had been designing various online courses with Houghton College--webinars and software courses. I may take an Outlier course and maybe an Android course. What's going well? What isn't? 

Of course I'm working for Campus Edu, so I'm working with a bunch of brilliant people at this sort of thing. 

6. This blog post might begin here. What are we going to do about it? I come back to learning styles. In seminary, I learned about the Kolb experiential learning cycle. Concrete experience leads to observation. I reflect and then make some abstract conceptualizations. Then I experiment and the cycle continues. I'll confess this model doesn't connect with my personal learning styles so I have only taken away from it over the years that some people learn best in this way.

My son is one of them. He learns best by hands-on application and problem-solving. He is about to graduate from Purdue, which for all I can see has mostly failed to meet him at his learning style. 

Neil Fleming's VARK model (1987) seems to balance out Kolb a little. He had four learning styles: visual learners, auditory learners, physical learners, and social learners. My son, I suspect, would be more of a physical learner. The traditional academy may utterly fail this group. Some people need to see it. Some people need to talk it. 

I have worked a few times with "external processors." They have to talk it out to figure it out. You might guess that I learn best by writing and teaching. The process of presenting information or an issue helps me process it.

The model I like the most is the 7 learning styles approach, which I take to come from Howard Gardner (1991). I took this diagram from Educlouds. Google also has a helpful diagram here.

I think I can correlate some of this diagram with the Myers-Briggs personality types. On the introvert-extrovert spectrum, some learn best alone. Some learn best in a social context. That is, some people are internal processors and some people are external processors. 

Some people learn best by external/hands-on application and concrete problem-solving. Other people are most comfortable in reflection and abstraction. These differences seem to relate somewhat to the S versus N scale in Myers-Briggs, the concrete versus the intuitive.

The NTJ personality may learn best by the logical, sequential approach. Give me the subject matter in order, starting with the fundamental building blocks and building the structure up from there. This scheme may not account for the "P" learner as well, however. This is the person who learns best by getting right into it, using inductive learning. 

The "verbal" is sometimes broken out into writing/speaking. The very fact that I am blogging suggests I heavily function in this category. We should also not pigeon-hole a person into just one learning style. Most of us probably would learn best with some combination of these approaches.

This website, by the way, has 12 learning styles: 1) visual, 2) auditory, 3) tactile (touching), 4) kinesthetic (she breaks out physical into these two), 5) sequential (combined above into the logical), 6) "simultaneous" (this is the need to see the big picture first--I resonate with this one), 7) reflective (brainstorming, more inductive), 8) verbal, 9) interactive (social), 10) direct experience, 11) indirect experience (learning from experiences of others, and 12) musical or rhythmic.

7. Now for the synthesis. What is my own list, putting all the material above together?

  • It seems to me that there are few purely "auditory" learners. Yet this is the basket of the traditional academy. The least effective, it would seem.
  • I know there are visual learners. My daughter (and I) will not likely remember if we only hear something. We need to see it written down.
  • I know that there are "hands-on" learners (kinesthetic, physical). There's a proverb falsely attributed to Confucius: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." Well, for some. This connects to experiential learners. "We learn by doing" (John Dewey).
  • I know that there are internal and external processors. There are clearly reflective and social learners.
  • There are clearly verbal processors. Teaching is another example of this. I learned biblical Greek best by teaching it. I have learned a great deal about physics and math by creating YouTube videos. A variation on this style is the person who synthesizes material best by writing, as also applies to myself. 
  • There are deductive and inductive learners. The former learn best in sequence. The latter are best thrown into the thick of it. This last approach I find better holds attention. 
  • There are big picture and details people. The former need to see where you're going before starting the journey. The latter can follow the thread of detail into the subject.
  • Somewhere in here should go problem-based learning. This approach learns best by trying to solve puzzles or problems. I suppose this connects to Kolb's reflection phase.
  • Storied learning seems important. It relates to direct and indirect experience above. It is certainly one of the strongest human defaults, and this is something that should be kept in mind.
  • Somewhere in here we also need to mention the ever-declining attention span. It is a parameter I believe for teaching.
  • Where does the gaming mentality go? It is a kind of interactive learning that incorporates short attention spans. It is inductive. It is problem-solving. It is a kind of virtual hands-on. It is visual and auditory. It is interestingly very social these days. There isn't much abstraction or reflection involved, perhaps revealing a major weak spot in the current mental muscles of young men.
I'll stop there. I am writing a piece for the Campus Edu blog on how Campus Learn courses enhance learning. It definitely is more visual. It has more of a live component for better social. We'll see what my "learn by writing/teaching" style synthesizes further by Monday. 

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