The New Science of Learning is a slim but instructive volume designed to guide college students to better attune their learning efforts with how their brains function. Authors Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek apply the findings of neuroscience to the daily learning that takes place in higher education. Though the book is written for students, it’s a valuable quick-read for everyone involved in blended and online teaching and student success efforts.
As you look ahead to spring term, let’s consider two ways you can employ Doyle and Zakrajsek’s advice in online and hybrid teaching environments:
Tip 1 – Learning is significantly strengthened by encountering the content in multiple formats or modalities.
- Problem: Much of the information we encounter online is still largely presented in the form of text. This is unfortunately true even in some poorly designed lecture videos, which are principally a narration of wordy PowerPoint slides, bullet point by boring bullet point.
- Online teaching strategy: Quality online learning has moved well beyond “text under glass.” Your students will benefit when they are guided beyond text to view visually rich videos, listen to podcasts and other audio, to talk, write, think, reflect, respond and explore content in tactile or kinesthetic ways. Learning is enhanced in a multimodal environment that helps students build connections by experiencing subject matter in diverse forms. The learner may not initially comprehend a difficult concept from reading it in a text, but may “get it” by interacting with peers in an online discussion or by watching an instructor-created video. Engage your students in online interaction–with the content, with each other and with you–to ensure that they are not merely passive consumers of course materials.
Tip 2 – The distributed practice effect (or “spacing effect”) refers to learning through study of content multiple times, with time gaps between these learning episodes. Extended periods of time with repeated exposure to the content helps form stronger memories. What duration of distributed practice is optimal? See the research on Optimizing Distributed Practice.
- Problem: In a traditional college course, a student sometimes encounters a particular piece of content only once or twice, say in a lecture and then perhaps a brief mention in a textbook. There can be a tendency for both instructors and students to move through topics rapidly and superficially to get everything on the syllabus covered before the term ends. And, worse yet, study may be compressed into harried late-night sessions before a big exam. Cramming is not a pathway to true learning that endures over time.
- Online teaching strategy: Facilitate distributed practice by designing assignments and pacing learning activities that encourage repeated engagement with course material over a period of many weeks. By skillfully staging assignments, for example, a term-long group project to develop a collaborative presentation, you guide students to interact with the content many times over a substantial time period. Interim deliverables, such as an annotated bibliography or lit review, an outline or storyboard, and a rough draft, will foster distributed practice. Clear rubrics and ample timely feedback on these various stages increases the probability of more students achieving the course learning outcomes.
Do you use these or similar techniques in your hybrid or fully online teaching? How does the science of learning inform your teaching strategies?
Cepeda, N. J., Coburn, N., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., Mozer, M. C., & Pashler, H. (2009). Optimizing distributed practice: Theoretical analysis and practical implications. Experimental Psychology, 56(4), 236.
Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Eberly Center – Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). What are best practices for designing group projects? Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/design.html.