Author Archives: robertmulcahy

About robertmulcahy

I am the director of learning for the assurance practice at RSM US, LLP. I have a doctorate from the University of Minnesota in Curriculum and Instruction (Learning Technologies).

The Righteous Mind

I’m reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I loved, loved, loved his earlier book The Happiness Hypothesis, so I’m going to go off topic on this web journal for a while and instead use it as a place to think about Haidt’s ideas.

Haidt’s default political perspective, and he’s up front about this, is liberal atheist. One of the things I enjoy about him as an author is that he’s interested in the research base even when it doesn’t support his intuitions. He seeks disconfirming evidence!

It was interesting to read in his introduction that the word liberal has a different meaning here in the states than it does in Europe, where the meaning is closer to libertarian. Liberal here maps more cleanly to progressive in Europe.


Elevator Button Design

Elevator buttons are near the elevator doors. Everyone knows that.

Not at the Hyatt O’Hare! At least, not all of the buttons:

Some of the rooms at the Hyatt are tucked away so you have to walk down a couple of hallways and then take an elevator up. The elevators are down one of the hallways. Halfway down the hall is an elevator call button, perfectly calibrated, it seems, to give you just enough time to get down the hallway and walk into an elevator without breaking stride.


I’m sure it doesn’t always work perfectly, but when I was there, it seemed to work whether there was already an idle elevator already on that floor (where you’d walk into the elevator just before the doors closed) or whether one had to be summoned from another floor (where the doors would open just as you got there). Elegant design.

It Won’t Be Easy

Former Minnesota Teacher of the Year released a book last year called It Won’t Be Easy. It’s a wonderful read; funny and thought provoking. I’ve captured some of my favorite quotes as I read:

“Answers don’t make great teachers, questions do.” p. 9

“Teaching is hard, and one of the hardest things about it is that it never gets easy.” p. 9

“There is no right way to be a teacher except authentic…. There’s no way for you to do it right except the way you do it.”

“Your students will know fewer things because you taught them so many.” p. 59

“Teaching is like putting together a puzzle without all the pieces on a table that is too small. Also, the puzzle is on fire.” p. 87

“When students come to me complaining about the things in school that drive them nuts, the garbage that stands between them and the school they deserve, I do my best to give them the tools to change what they can without telling them why or what they should change. Basically, and radically, I talk to them like they are real people actual people who can make decisions and stuff. Also, I have a lot of faith in young people right now, and they have a lot of work to do to make things better in the world they’re building for themselves, and school is a great place to practice.” p. 133

“I think my system [no due dates] works for kids. I grade them on what they’re able to do so their grade reflects their skill in my class, not their ability to organize themselves or follow due dates.” p. 152

Teaching Professionals to Be Learners

Make It Stick has given me a lot to write about; I don’t love everything about it, but it has given me some ideas for how I can work with my team to infuse principles into our curriculum that can help professionals, particularly professionals early in their career, be more effective learners. In no particular order, here are some worth thinking about:

  • Be mindful while reading (p. 213). Stop frequently and quiz yourself on what you just read. Make reading an active search for answers, not passive information absorption. It takes longer, but is more effective. Audit and accounting standards can be dry, as can contracts, leases, and other documents, so this is a nice fit for CPAs, who have to extract information from documents like these.
  • Adopt learning goals instead of performance goals (p. 180). Based on the ideas of Carol Dweck, a learning goal is when you focus on acquiring new skills and knowledge. A performance goal is focused on “validating your ability.” Getting an A is a performance goal; learning the material in a way that you can apply it to a real world problem is a learning goal.
  • “Be the one in charge” (p. 159). “Mastery, especially of complex ideas, skills, and processes, is a quest. It is not a grade on a test, something bestowed by a coach, or a quality that simply seeps into your being…”
  • “Describe what you want to do, know, or accomplish. Then list the competencies required, what you need to learn, and where you can find the knowledge or skill. The go get it. Consider your expertise to be in a state of continuing development, practice dynamic testing as a learning strategy to discover your weaknesses, and focus on improving yourself in those areas.” (p. 159)
  • “Don’t rely on what feels best” (p. 159). Learning should feel effortful. If it feels easy, you probably aren’t learning as well as you think you are.


A/B Testing in Education

I just finished Everybody Lies, which was a great read. The book is about big data and what we can and can’t learn from it. Fascinating stuff.

One study the book mentioned briefly was some A/B testing done by a company called EduStar, described here.

They tested a dry fractions lesson against a videogame designed to teach the same concepts. Students spent more time in the fractions game, but learned more in the drier tutorial.

Without more information about the study, it is hard to generalize (was the videogame any good? How many students in the study? Were results consistent across subpopulations? Do different games do better against tutorials, and if so what are the common factors of successful games? Etc.), So I’m not ready to conclude that learning games are always inferior to tutorials. But what I love about this is the approach of pitting two pieces of instruction designed to achieve the same goals against each other using randomized assignment. So much potential, so underutilized.

Cell Phone Lure

Our smartphones distract us, even if they are not turned on, which decreases our ability to concentrate.

This is certainly something that instructors in both school and professional training classrooms have to deal with. The mere presence of your cell phone makes you stupider by distracting you with the lure of potential social connection.

It’s tough because you can’t, at least in many professional settings, tell participants they can’t bring their phones with them. It would be better anyway, perhaps, to help people understand the effect and develop metacognitive strategies to focus. But how?


At least in a professional setting, my default position on assessment is that lower-stakes assessment should be the first option (where “low stakes” means there are no consequences for getting questions wrong, like polling). Professionals should not need external incentives to take assessments seriously, and high stakes assessment carry a lot of overhead costs. The point of assessment should be to let participants and instructors understand their own level of understanding, and that can usually be done with low stakes assessments. (High stakes testing is still useful or necessary sometimes, but just shouldn’t be the default.)

In Make It Stick, this gave me pause:

Make quizzing and practice exercises count toward the course grade, even if for very low stakes. Students in classes where practice exercises carry consequences for the course grade learn better than those in classes where the exercises are the same but carry no consequences. (p. 227)

Courses in professional environments don’t necessarily have grades, but that still raises the question of whether attaching some kind of consequence to practice questions in professional training would increase learning, as the authors assert.

To the extent that professionals who are participating in training should understand the direct relationship between what they are learning and their ability to grow in their careers, I’d imagine that external incentives or accountability shouldn’t be necessary unless those professionals are only in the training because they have been required to, or to pick up credits for their licensure, in which case external incentives might make sense, but also in which case there are bigger issues to solve.