How I Think Learning Works
I work now as an instructional designer, but my academic training is in formal linguistics, so this has definitely affected how I view learning.
My Basic Beliefs
- Learning occurs when some internal change occurs in the neural network of an individual (this is not well defined as of yet). As instructors we can only observe this indirectly via overt communication and performance assessments.
- Human brains come "prepackaged" with some utilities to aid learning and perception, and they may vary from person to person.
- Instructors/Content authors have a role in organizing material to facilitate the learning process for learners. The more we understand this, the more instruction may improve.
- Different mechanisms aid learning including social interaction, discussion/verbalization, personal experimentation, memorization, intake of well-organized content, reading/listening and others.
- There is an awful lot we need to learn about learning. Scholars argue about how we see colors, so it is not surprising that understanding the cognitive basis of learning will take some time.
My Working Principles
Start with "Authentic" Performance Objectives
For me, the keystone to good instruction is understanding how your course content relates to what students need in real-world scenarios. The next step is to develop performance objectives which then drive your assignments and content. Ideally, some assignments should model real-world applications as much as possible.
Match Course Structure with Content
As for method, I believe all methods from lecture to collaborative learning can work depending on the objectives and content of the course. Depending on the content, a well-presented lecture can be more effective than a poorly designed collaborative learning environment (just as a well-designed interactive activity is more effective than a dull lecture).
Break Up the Lecture/Content
No one can sit through 50 minutes of a dry lecture, so it has to be chunked into smaller units so the content can be absorbed. Instructional designers thus encourage instructors to:
- Include short exercises (5-minute essays, polls, quick review questions, provocative questions)
- Online courses can include quick self-check review quizzes, external links and other online materials.
- Include pair learning or short group exercises so students can interact with each other and practice the content
- Multimedia - but don't just rely on Powerpoint
- Amusing anecdotes or examples
- Show enthusiasm - if you do not appear to be interested in the content, then students will not become interested either.
There are actually lots of ways to do this depending on your preferred teaching style, but you should do SOMETHING interesting.
Scaffold from the Very Bottom Up
I also believe that mastering low-level knowledge is critical before students can jump to higher order analysis, meaning students may have to do a certain amount of close reading, drill work and memorization in the beginning of their studies before moving to higher levels of analysis. Students who miss memorization often have difficulties with analytical work (from anecdotal observation).
Provide Structure and Feedback
No matter what your pedagogy is though, I do feel it is important to provide clear structured material to your students from your syllabus to your grading scale. Even if you want students to experiment in an unstructured environments, providing frequent, clear positive reinforcement can help students excel. Frequent feedback is also important so students can know if they are "on track" or not. Waiting several weeks can be too late; fortunately course management systems like ANGEL provide options for expediting feedback.
Note: I don't think all students need structure, but many do. I let the "independent" students do their own thing (within reason), but this lets the structured students study effectively as well.
Remember Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation
Finally, if you want students to do something, you usually have to make to make it count towards the grade. It would be nice if the majority of students were intrinsically motivated enough to learn without a grade, but the reality is most students are working for a grade and hoping to also learn something useful on the side.
Note: Adult learners tend to be more intrinsically motivated.