What Can We do Differently? Learning Theory and Today’s Classroom

Math equations written on a green chalkboard with a finger pointing

I’ve been reading some old favorites in learning theory and instructional design…and some new finds, too. Check out Cammy Bean’s The Accidental Instructional Designer or Julie Dirksen’s  Design for How people Learn. If you haven’t yet read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, you definitely need to pick that up, too. A longer read, The Organized Mind, is worth the time.  And while you are at the bookstore or browsing online, add Thinking Fast and Slow by D. Kahneman. You may have read the posts on this site about Grit, but you might want to re-read them as well. (Can you tell yet that I am a bookworm? I love a good bookstore or an information-rich website. Check out the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education or CIRCLE website.)

Where does this all lead? I wanted to forge a path through the jungle of information overload to find new resources and ideas for my own students and teaching/learning/course design. Some things I’ve been doing, some I want to try, others I want to change. By no means is any philosophy-no matter how well grounded-going to be the panacea for all the problems in higher ed. I can’t make the student want to learn, nor can I address all their needs. We are familiar enough with research to know that Maslow’s hierarchy does play a role in success of a student. We can think about many different aspects of the learning environment that affect student performance.

But what can we do? Let’s take a look at what learning theorists are telling us

  • Did you know the adult brain likes 3-5 bits of new info and learns best within less than 10 minute chunks? How can we “break it up” in a classroom? Let’s think about using tools like Learning Catalytics to build in review/practice/reflection/collaboration throughout class.
  • In short, students want to know “What’s in it for me?” or WIIFM. ARCS is a nice mnemonic for us to think about; it reminds us about the components of learning: attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction as we work with the learners.
  • Think of marketing your learning. How will you get students’ attention? interest? motivate them to act? Use tech tools and resources like guided notebooks to engage students and support them in developing good study skills.
  • Make quizzing part of your classroom culture; use low-stakes quizzes to help students reduce the forgetting and improve their retrieval of key material. Make them cumulative as time passes.
  • Use interleaving, or intersperse more rigorous questions with easier ones. Using distractors and more difficult problems takes more time but in the long run improves learning.
  • Embrace the difficulties, or engage in “productive struggle.” Unskilled students are often unaware of what they don’t know, and they don’t want to have to work at it. You’ll have to market the importance of this idea!
  • Encourage students to use tools like flash cards and writing or “elaboration” of concepts to self-check.
  • Talk to students about GRIT and persistence (and read the great article already on the Higher Ed blog about it, if you haven’t done so yet).
  • Many of us have read about “flipping the classroom” and struggle to get students engaged in this process. Research does show that solving problems and working through new ideas before  you go to class results in greater learning.
  • Share with students what a ‘good student’ looks like. This will resonate if you are sharing the words from other students. Try posting this as a discussion post in your course.

And just what do Legos have to do with all this? Well, some of us like to “dive right in” and have a clearly defined path to develop our project in our minds. Others prefer to have the step-by-step manual. If we’re more experienced, we’re able to discern which Legos in the mix will work for our project, and which won’t. Some of us really love the challenge of “making it work out.” Others would rather we didn’t have to do it. But we can all exercise persistence and achieve success even if it takes us a little longer to build our project.

Our students  need us to help them do just that–find the tools they need for their project : learning.


About the Author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister has been teaching college courses since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned from her full-time position at Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pennsylvania, where all the math courses have undergone some level of redesign. She still teaches online there and now is part of Pearson’s Efficacy team, helping instructors to implement programs and strategies that bolster student success.

She is intrigued by neurobiological research and learning theory, and she was quick to adopt adaptive learning as a new tool in her courses. Not only does she strive to help her students succeed, but Diane enjoys the collaboration with her peers. She has taught a variety of courses and loves learning how new technology and resources can help students be more successful.

Read more of her articles about math, ICTCM, and quantitative reasoning.