Category Archives: Metacognition

Learning Athlete, Part 1: Breaks

We put together some internal working teams at my firm to address some learning-related questions that are sometimes posed to us. One of the teams is focused on energy management. Intuitively, what we eat and drink and how we sleep and feel affects our ability to learn, but framing this in terms of “energy management” was new to me–an interesting frame*.

We are looking at several energy management topics. One of them is breaks. Are more shorter breaks better than fewer longer ones?

The individual assigned to this question came back unable to find empirical guidance. It doesn’t seem there is a definitive answer (though my intuition says more, shorter breaks is better for learning, though if asked I suspect more learners would choose fewer longer breaks [or fewer shorter breaks to end the class earlier] so they can use the time more effectively to check in with clients or respond to emails).

To her credit, she quickly focused on what can be done from an instructional design perspective to get participants to move around and/or mentally shift gears, which should offer a mental refocus, not unlike a break. Makes sense to me.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t guidance or inspiration we can take from best practices around breaks as it relates to workplace productivity.

*I recognize that the practical impact of energy management is probably swamped by quality of the instructors, relevance of the instruction, instructional design, etc. This is strictly all-else-being-equal territory.


In recent years, grit has been upheld as the key factor in educational success.

I found this recent David Brooks commentary interesting and insightful.

Grit has been upheld as the most important attribute for success in our educational system. Grit is what helps you endure when you lack passion for a task. The fact that grit is so important to academic success, then, says a lot about our ability, or lack of ability, to spark passion and curiosity in schools the way we currently design them.

Distracted Learning Index

For fun at one of our internal conferences last week I started measuring how many learners in the course were visibly displaying non-course information on a device–in other words, how many participants were multitasking. I initially called this measure the partial-tasking index, but it seems silly to invent another word for multitasking, even if that word is misleading because it implies success doing more than one thing at a time, which is very difficult to do unless the multitasker has achieved automaticity in one of the tasks. One of my colleagues pointed out a parallel to distracted driving, suggesting there should be a distracted learning index.

I took two readings per class of the percentage of multitaskers, then average the two scores. The best multitasking about I saw for a class was 3%. The worst score was 29%.

I should acknowledge here that the correlation between learning and a good distracted learning index score is probably pretty low. Just because learners are not interacting with a device doesn’t mean they are learning. On the other hand, a poor index score probably is indicative of a problem, particularly if the score gets worse during the class. It’s just a data point, an easy one to gather that is interesting to compare against other courses.

One of my fears of taking this measurement at all is that it could be misinterpreted as a call to eliminate connected technology in the classroom (if there are no distractions, learners will be forced to pay attention). It is true that courses at this conference that had electronic participant materials had, on average, more multitasking. However, some courses with electronic materials scored well on the index, so a lack of laptops doesn’t guarantee engagement, particularly since everyone at the conference has a little computer in their pockets that they can pull out whenever they are bored. Besides, technology-enhanced materials have too much upside for me to advocate a return to paper. Also, it wasn’t a fair comparison because the courses with no electronic participant guides were more often the ones with professional keynote-level speakers.

Another interesting point in the data is that large courses (>100 participants) had similar scores on average as small courses (around 30 participants). This is counterintuitive as I’d expect the larger classes to offer a kind anonymity that mighty encourage multitasking. Again, though, this might be an apples-to-oranges comparison as the larger classes tended to feature professional speakers.

Taking Notes on Paper, part 2

Last week I wrote about recent research suggesting that taking notes on paper is superior to taking them on a laptop. I mentioned that it would be interesting if the researchers had compared both conditions to either a “no note taking” or “taking notes after the class” condition, but didn’t provide any sources in support of this.

Here is a nice summary of the research on this point.

Taking Notes on Paper

This article is interesting. It suggests that taking notes by hand increases retention because you have to reorganize the information as you go, unlike with typing, where many people are fair enough typists to get down information verbatim or close to it.

The theory makes sense to me. Summarizing is a form of creative destruction and reconstruction, which I would expect to deepen retention, particularly when it involves creating charts or diagrams or tables, which are particularly hard to create in real time electronically.

That said, there is a lot of work to be done before I would advocate for returning to paper after years of distributing participant guides in electronic format at our live classes and conferences. Even if paper-based note taking does increase retention, electronic note taking increases searchability later (particularly given the number of binders that got thrown away in the old days rather than being lugged home on the plane).

Further, it’s not clear without more work that the research applies to relative subject matter experts, who have a rich schema already when they enter the classroom, and who therefore might not benefit as much or at all from the re-encoding involved in taking notes on paper.

It would also be interesting to compare the results to taking no notes at all. We design our participant materials with lots of background information built in, minimizing the need to take notes, as there is evidence that note taking during a class decreases learning because one can’t write asked listen at the same time. My understanding is that the best note taking is that which happens immediately after the class. That style of note taking should be the best of all world since it would prevent verbatim recording and would also prevent note taking from interfering with listening. Still, how many learners take the time to do this is another question.

Of course, the article that I’m basing that last paragraph on eludes me at the moment. I’ll dig around some more and post a reference…