Category Archives: Active learning

Reflection Is a Form of Practice

The authors of Make it Stick highlight the principle that reflection is itself a form of practice, that thinking about a problem is a form of useful rehearsal.

The recently revised standards for learning for CPAs put out by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) stipulate for the first time that classroom learning must be active. For now, the rules for minimum interactivity are, indeed, minimal. To give formal credit, classes have to have one interaction per hour, of which that interaction can be nearly anything, including asking participants to reflect silently for a few seconds on a given question.

Lecturing for 45 minutes and then asking participants to reflect silently on a question asked by the lecturer is not necessarily effective design. But I applaud NASBA both for requiring interactivity and for keeping the requirement open. The more prescriptive the targets, the more proforma the execution. Keeping it open will result in many developers trying to do the minimum, for sure, but it may also help developers take ownership of active learning and try to understand NASBA’s intent.


Quiz Before Teaching

One of the core principles in Make it Stick is “trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” (p. 4)

I get it; finding out you don’t know something as well as you thought can make for a powerful learning moment.

On the other hand, I’ve tended to advise course developers to avoid asking learners right/wrong multiple choice questions before actually teaching the content, arguing that they are unfairly setting learners up for failure. (Intentional and actionable diagnostic pre-testing is an exception.) Philosophically and temperamentally, I much prefer trying to set learners up for as much success as possible. But I do understand that there are proponents of failure-based learning and am open to the possibility that there could be elements here that I should add to my playbook.

Learning Is Effortful

I just finished Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. It’s interesting how much my frame has shifted over the years as I get farther from college and graduate school and deeper into helping professionals learn and develop. Make It Stick, while not specifically about academic settings, is clearly geared toward academic learning, which inevitably raises questions when thinking about how everything applies in professional settings.

For instance, the very first principle in the book is that deep learning takes effort. If it feels easy, then it probably won’t stick.

I’m sure that’s generally true, but does a rich schema have a mitigating effect? Does a rich schema make learning easy (in the narrow area of expertise, anyway)?

Wellness: Return on Investment

I was challenged recently about whether the food and breaks at our internal learning conferences are conducive to learning from an energy management standpoint.

That challenge seems reasonable. No matter whether a course is well- or poorly-designed, the physical state and alertness of learners should impact learning. So, I’m reading about it.

One incidental thing that was interesting to read: apparently wellness programs at work return on average $5.50 on every dollar. That’s impressive, and appears to be from a pretty good meta-analysis*. The building my firm is in just installed a free gym downstairs, and I get a lot of use out of it; I hope I earn my firm back that kind of return for whatever they are paying.

*Frustratingly, the meta-analysis is behind a huge paywall. I could only find a brief, so it is hard to know what all the assumptions and limitations are.

The Role of Technology in Improving K-12 Education

Like most people, I live in a school district that features an administration and staff that really care about students and about building their own skills as educators. They care about the community and about engaging with parents.

One initiative in the works in our district is an investment in technology to encourage educators to better use active problem-solving-based instruction.

At least, that’s what the initiative sounds like. In reality, I think it’s much better than that. I believe the effort is focused on supporting educators’ use of active problem-solving-based instruction and providing the education and tools, including technology tools, that can help.

The last two paragraphs sounds like they describe the same thing–more technology and more problem-solving-based instruction, but one leads with technology, the other with pedagogy. The distinction is critical because leading with technology makes adoption of technology the end goal.

Technology is not a goal in and of itself; it is an enabler for higher level goals. The higher level goals are the ones that need to be embraced. If they can be achieved without an investment in technology, great. If an investment in technology will advance the goal meaningfully, let’s do it. The critical piece is to stay focused on the end goals and not let achievement of the enabling goals alone be the criteria for success.

Compression: Live Training, Elearning, and Time on Task

I learned a term recently for something I’ve thought about in the past but didn’t know was a thing: compression. Compression means it will take learners longer to complete a live class than an equivalent elearning. In other words, if a four hour class is offered in both a live classroom version and a self-paced elearning version, participants will complete the self-paced version quicker with the same level of achievement.

Apparently–and I didn’t know this either–the rule of thumb for compression is 50%. A four hour live class can reasonably be turned into a two hour self-study. The persuasive utility of this, of course, is huge. What leader wouldn’t want their people in training only half as much time?

There are some enormous caveats. One is that time spent practicing cannot be compressed, so the more focused the training is on practicing skills, the less compression is possible. It also appears that the elearning has to be text-based in order to allow significant compression. People read faster than they talk. The elearning we produce at my firm are audio-based, so one wouldn’t expect very much compression.

That brings up the question, should our elearning be audio-based? We use audio for a number of reasons. The most important is that from a cognition perspective, using the audio channel for narration and the visual channel for complementary information (charts, organizational bullet points, tables, etc.) leads to better learning.

The question then morphs to: Is the increase in the quality of the learning worth the investment? Experienced professionals can take in new information very efficiently. If training is focused on them, it’s possible that the increase in learning may be immaterial compared to a time savings of 50%.

It would be interesting to offer the same elearning two ways (audio or text), randomize which one people get, and measure time on task, satisfaction, and exam performance across the two conditions.

Deliberate Practice

I’ve already noted that I think Peak is an important book. I like the distinction that Anders Ericsson makes between practice and deliberate practice.

Practice is what I do when I go running. I’m mostly interested in burning calories quickly, so if I’m a sweaty winded mess when I get home, that’s success.

Turning that into deliberate practice would require me to add measurable goals. I’d have to start timing myself and try to get faster. Eventually I’d plateau, so I’d need someone who knows more than me to give me feedback and advice. I’d need to target specific skills and isolate those elements in practice.

I’d have to stop listening to There’s No Such Thing as a Fish and other podcasts while I run and instead focus on my movement. Is every step as efficient as possible? How is my form? What happens if I try this instead?

Deliberate practice is more difficult to design for ill-defined problem solving skills like managing a team, but still should be the inspiration for how we improve.