Deep Processing – Conveying Structure with Lectures

I was happy to discover that “Four things lecture is good for” by Robert Talbert comes to the defense of lectures. I’ve observed in the past that traditional lectures are very often dogged on, almost to the point of being unfair. Perhaps I’ve just wanted to play Devil’s advocate, but maybe the traditional lecturing style was the best we could do with what we knew in the past. Many learning theories are relatively young disciplines, with learning sciences and engineering education being younger still. Further, lecturing had to have some capabilities or it wouldn’t have been practiced. In fact, there might be certain fields or topics for which it is very useful.

As Talbert points out, there are some purposes for which lectures are useful. Of the four purposes listed as being “well-suited” to lectures, the sharing of “cognitive structures” stuck out to me. The Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research provides a set of principles for three learning theories, or what it calls “conceptual frameworks” of learning and knowing. In the cognitivist framework, one of the principles in designing instruction is to aim for “deep processing” of information:

The general idea of deep processing is that learners should understand the structure of information to be learned, such as the main ideas and how they relate to one another and to sub-ideas that might derive from them…

The more organized information is, the easier it is to remember and understand. In “Successful Lecturing: Presenting Information in Ways That Engage Effective Processing”, it is also presented that the provision of structure in lectures results in better learning. Providing students with outlines or knowledge maps (concept maps) of the lecture material results in better notes, better testing results, and better memorization (sidenote: if you’re interested in knowledge maps, you should check out The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge). Even as sparse as a title can be beneficial. At the other end of the spectrum, if outlines become too full and veer towards content, their benefits become negated:

Outlines containing only headings and subheadings are maximally effective in that they encourage note taking, whereas outlines that provide too much detail inhibit note taking

Assessment as a Single Tool Among a Mixed Toolbox

I recall back to the TED talk from Ken Robinson (“How to Escape Education’s Death Valley“), how we do need some agreed upon notions of what is generally good or bad (cholesterol was the given example). This isn’t meant to exclude the need for individualization, but it does indicate the use for standardization at some level. Further, though a number for cholesterol may not be an accurate reflection of one’s overall health, we need to be able to represent and communicate status efficiently. Having a single number, letter, or symbol allows for broad but quick insights and high level comparisons. Having a cholesterol level also doesn’t exclude the ability for other tests or information to be considered.

My point with this is that assessment can have a scope of application, but it should be limited and taken into account with a myriad of other factors. It is simply one tool among a whole toolbox. It might be thought of as a hammer – useful with nails, but it plays a role aside saws, wood glue, levels, etc. If the focus of a worker is to always use a hammer, they’ll smash beams rather than saw them, nail rather than adhere, and further. Alfie Kohn in “The Case Against Grades” echoes the pitfalls of focusing on a single tool in terms of grading:

  • Students force grades rather than understanding out of learning
    • They become less interested in what the tools are actually making and instead center on just using the tools
  • Students do enough to get a grade rather than enough to learn
    • They finish the exterior of a house to make it appear done but leave the interior unfinished
  • Students don’t concentrate on or care what they’re meant to be learning
    • They forget the overall goal of what they’re meant to building

Assessment shouldn’t be thought of as the end goal. It isn’t the house being built, it is just one of the tools. Tests of various forms can be used to try to gauge a student, but it shouldn’t be considered a perfect representation of them. The results are a part of the holistic student, used with other facets to try to individualize education to best suit that student.

I’m reminded of how there are numerous learning theories, each which looks at the learner and their environment from a different perspective. Each one tries to capture and study a subset of all that a learner is or affects the learner. A behaviorist approach treats learners as black boxes with inputs and outputs. Social learning considers the societal and cultural contexts that gives meaning to what one does or come to understand. Different perspectives each have their use, and some can help explain situations that others cannot. Some or all of them can be used to help build a better and more complete learning experience.



What is Connected Learning? Why is it useful?

My two major thoughts after our first class were:

1) What is connected learning? Why is technology such a large part of it? Why is connected learning needed or important for the future?

I still did not have a concrete definition of connected learning. I was unclear what traits a course would have to feature for it to fall into this model. Are connections being made to people, to ideas, etc? My initial impressions was that connected learning was ambiguous, more of an abstract philosophy than a specific, concrete model. So I did some light research to try to get a clearer vision of connected learning. At first I found this difficult as descriptions seemed vague. Phrases such as “seeks to”, “it asks”, and “it seeks to” seemed to stress ‘what’ connected learning wanted to achieve rather than ‘how’. After continuing to go through the course materials, websites, articles, and reports, I found myself getting more settled. I was able to synthesize common principles and see how they would aid learning.

My current short-definition of connected learning is: sharing knowledge, interpretations, and ideas with others, to the benefit of both the individual and the community. Technology is a prominent feature due to its ability to connect people across huge spectrums of age, gender, wealth, ethnicity, location, education, etc. While allowing for a broader range of individuals to connect, technology also allows for focus and specialization by connecting people with particular interests. Technology is “enabler and facilitator of human capability”.

The course material of Seth Godin speaking on YouTube in a way related to this definition of connected learning in the context of blogging. By forcing yourself to express your thoughts in words, even in rough or undeveloped fashion, it helps you to consider and articulate your ideas. This is beneficial to yourself. You’re also forced to think and to verbalize your thoughts, which adds your insight into the community of ideas, benefiting others.

2) Does connected learning work? What evidence is there that demonstrates it is beneficial?

On the Connected Learning Alliance, it lists one of the six principles of connecting learning to be “interest-powered”. It states: “research has repeatedly shown that when the topic is personally interesting and relevant, learners achieve much higher-order learning outcomes”. Reading this really helped to make things click for me. I was already curious about the relationship between interest and learning from my previous experiences as a GTA. I noticed some students would perform well and express enjoyment doing their work, while others moaned, complained, and struggled. I wondered how people are driven by different motivations such as interest, money, careers, fame, peers, parents, etc. Believing that interest could be a powerful driving force, the claim that connected learning is beneficial because it allows people to learn what they’re interested in seemed to make sense to me. With this said, I would still like to delve deeper into the data and research.