Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

For teaching and learning, what feels best may actually be worst.

Everyday experience makes it obvious: experts should explain something clearly so that students can understand the point effortlessly.  For students, reviewing their notes and materials, or practicing bits of knowledge or skill until they feel locked in - that's the most efficient, successful way to study.

However, research summarized in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) demonstrates that these obvious facts about learning are destructively misleading. (Some other good volumes summarize overlapping bodies of research and make similar points.)

I cringed as I read, remembering how counter-productive my own approach to college work had been:
  • When I could follow a lecture, point by point, I assumed that my preparation was adequate and that I'd learned what I needed .  (Taking a quiz even a day later would have shown me and the instructor that I really hadn't learned anything lasting.)
  • Drilling on a certain type of problem and getting it right each time once again misled me into thinking I had learned something that would last.  My delusion was reinforced by quizzes that typically covered only recent material; in that context, cramming seemed efficient.  
  • Partly as a result, I got average grades in my MIT engineering courses yet my bachelor's didn't prepare me to actually be an engineer. And by the end of my first year of doctoral work in management at MIT, I had again gotten B's and A's in six courses in economics (undergraduate and graduate) yet could recall almost none of it.
Research suggests that my faculty should have taught me differently, and I should have studied differently. For example:
  • When students have to work to recall something (e.g., on a quiz) they are much more likely to remember it than if they spend the same amount of time reviewing that material. (see p. 34 for some relevant research on this point) Working to answer the test questions helps students learn.
  • A variety of practice is important.  College baseball players who were thrown a mix of fast balls, curve balls and sliders didn't feel like their hitting was progressing. In contrast, another set of players was "studying hitting" by being thrown fast balls until they could hit them, then curve balls, then sliders; they could see their progress quite vividly. Yet, in game situations, those frustrated players who had practiced hitting a random mix of pitches had better batting averages. (pp. 79-82 in Making It Stick)
  • When students have to make predictions and then test them, the learning is more likely to last. For a vivid example of the failure of a hands-on lab that didn't take the time for students to learn through  predict-try-observe-repeat, watch the video, "Can We Believe Our Eyes?" It is part 1 of the series, Minds of Our Own. The videos are an excellent illustration of ineffective and effective approaches to teaching.  And each sequence begins with interviews with graduating MIT and Harvard seniors who still misunderstand ideas that they were supposed taught, often more than once, in middle school and onward.
  1. The kinds of teaching and study that intuitively feel most efficient and effective can easily result in an illusion of learning.
  2. The kinds of teaching and study that are best at producing lasting, usable learning may feel to the student, in the moment, to be difficult, time-consuming, and non-productive. Complaints may ensue.  (Make It Stick and several other equally good volumes are packed with examples of "desirable difficult" ways of teaching and studying, and the research that has demonstrated their effectiveness.
  3. Therefore, one important preparation for both faculty and students is to help them anticipate these difficulties and, where possible, to see early signs that really usable, lasting learning is beginning to develop. 
I'll be writing a second post on this material soon.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Confusors - Derailing Discussions about Teaching, Technology, and Reform

I've written a couple times in this blog about confusors, but my 2009 essay on the topic was on a web site that has now disappeared. I've resurrected it here and updated it.

We can't improve teaching, our uses of technology and the ways we organize academic work unless we can talk about it.  But such conversations often become more like bull-rings when participants don't notice they're using a common word or phrase to mean different things.

"Teaching," "learning," "assessment," "campus," "liberal education," "general education," "learning goals," "cost-savings," "MOOC," "course redesign," "competence-based education," "online learning," "flipped classes," and "adaptive learning" are just a few examples of the linguistic traps, that I've termed confusors      
For example, two people might get into a bitter argument about regional accreditation of institutions. But the argument turns out to be a waste of energy because they don't actually disagree about anything substantive; they've each been unwittingly using a different definition for "assessment."
I’ve been in a couple pointless arguments about lectures and active learning. One discussion turned out to be a waste of time because, while we actually agreed, we hadn’t noticed our conflicting definition of "lecture." The other wasted quite a few minutes of our lives because we hadn’t noticed our clashing definitions of “active learning.”  
Click here to see a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education charting multiple definitions of some widely used ed-tech terms.  
Any confusor has two defining characteristics:
  1. A term has more than one widely used definition (e.g., "teaching" can mean that an expert is explaining something, or it can refer more broadly to any action of an expert that is designed to help someone else learn). During the moments when a professor is silently watching students discuss an issue, is the professor teaching? The first definition says 'no,' while the second says, 'yes.'
  2. When people fail to notice that they are each using different definitions for the same term, unnecessary arguments or confusion can easily result.  Perhaps just as dangerous in the long term is when participants are lulled into thinking they agree on a point on which they actually clash.  Many people might agree that continual improvement of teaching is important, but when a faculty development program is at issue, they might realize for the first time how dangerously they differed on what "continual improvement of teaching" means.

Click here to see a list of confusors with their conflicting definitions.

To have more productive conversations about teaching and its improvement, what terms and definitions do we need to add to this list? Please add comments below or email me at ehrmannsteve at 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What is Liberal Learning? (No, really...)

This is the third in a series of posts about my own deepening understanding of liberal learning.   The first summarized a talk by Michael Roth on the values of liberal education and the second speculated about why it had taken me so long to learn to see the beauty in an equation

Eric Liu, author of A Chinaman’s Chance, opened a door for me in his recent keynote at AAC&U when he talked about a "virus" that's loose in the world. Liu described the virus as a passionate belief that there is only one correct, virtuous way to see and to act in the world. Folks with this virus believe that something is inferior or wrong about people with any other view. This virus can be a belief in the primacy of one's country of birth, one's skin color, religion, or ideology (for example, the passionate belief that the world can be totally understood and improved by paying attention only to market forces).

Liberal learning, asserted Liu, is the antidote to this virus. Liberally educated people:
  • Understand their worlds from varied and conflicting perspectives, as economics and as ecology, as a balance of power and also as the sum of its accidents and also as the result of individual decisions.
  • Realize that all their options are, to some extent, imperfect and subject to criticism and opposition. Nonetheless, they are intellectually and emotionally prepared to use evidence, to act, and to live with the consequences.
  • Can use evidence and reason to question accepted truth. I know from a variety of perspectives and from many sources of evidence that this way of seeing the world, and acting in the world, doesn't come quickly or easily. 

In fact, liberal learning is the toughest and most time-consuming part:
  1. of effective education for work,
  2. of education to be an effective citizen, and
  3. of education that enables you to transform yourself.

All three of those goals are important.

But my caution light goes on whenever I hear people who simply advocate higher education for work. Period. Without a liberating education, those employed graduates will only be able to do the job the way others do it. They won't have the ability to question accepted wisdom, to bring others around to their novel point of view, and to change what's done, or how it's done. And they won't be prepared to change jobs or careers (without going back to school for a different form of training).

That was Liu's point: training people for a specific job is not enough to assure a healthy democracy because effective citizens need to question their way past slogans and opinion leaders. It's not enough in a society that values innovation. It's not enough to help someone become (perhaps somewhat to their surprise) into a different person (I entered college at 18 with life-long desire to be an engineer and graduated as someone who looks a lot more like the me of today, not just in career aspirations but in perceptions and capability).

Liberal learning ought to be the toughest and most valuable feature of education for jobs and professions. It needs to be the toughest and most valuable part of learning to be an effective citizen. And it is certainly the toughest and most valuable part of a college education whose graduates habitually question their own comfortable beliefs and perceptions.

Perhaps the most important challenge to champions of higher education is to figure out more affordable ways of strengthening the heart of liberal learning.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

To love the beauty of an equation, what do you need to learn? (Some Observations about a Liberal Education, and Three Roles for Technology)

My last post, summarizing a talk by Michael Roth on the values of liberal education, was the first in a series that are part of my own redefined, re-energized sense of the goals of a college or university education. The post that follows was originally written in 2006.

In 1967, when I was first-year student in engineering, I took physics. To derive a mathematical equation to describe how a pendulum sways back and forth, the professor began with Newton's Laws. Then he write line of line of algebra, crawling down the blackboard, each line representing a step in the reasoning. The climax at the bottom of the board: a surprisingly short equation which, the professor told us, was called the Equation of Simple Harmonic Motion. T is the time it takes the pendulum to swing, L is the length of the pendulum, and g represents the strength of gravity. One implication: the time it takes a pendulum to swing doesn't depend on how hard you push it, just on how long the pendulum is.

The professor then pointed out that this equation doesn't just describe the swinging of a pendulum. The same equation, he said, also describes the vibration of a weight suspended between two springs. And it also describes the flow of electricity in a simple electrical circuit that consists of a battery and three elementary components (a resistor, a capacitor, and an inductance, as I recall) linked together with wire. Then the professor leaned forward over the lectern and asked passionately, "Isn't that beautiful?" I was in the second row and I wrote it all down, concluding my notes with the word 'beautiful,' just in case "beautiful" turned up on the next quiz.

Several months later I learned the same equation again, this time in a calculus course, and the lecturer said the same thing. And "beautiful!" I wrote once again in my notes. And I heard "beautiful" down a third time, two years later, in an introduction to electrical engineering.

Two years later, I had become a doctoral student in management at that same university. I shared an office with Lew Erwin, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. We had been undergraduates together and were good friends.

"So why did you leave engineering?" Lew asked me one day. I was already enough of a manager to answer a question with a question, so I retorted, "Why did you stay in engineering?"

He thought for a moment and then responded, "Well, take something like the Equation of Simple Harmonic Motion. It describes the motion of a pendulum, and a mass vibrating between two springs, and electricity flowing through a simple RLC circuit, and I think that's beautiful!" What happened to me at that moment has happened again every time I've told the story. And it's happening as I write these words. My eyes teared up, my jaw dropped, and I said in awe, "My god, it is beautiful."

Almost twenty years later, I was listening to a couple of physicists at the University of Maryland, Joe Redish and Jack Wilson, talk with one another. By this time I was a program officer with responsibilities to find and then support innovative work in higher education. I'm afraid my attention wandered after awhile as they talked with one another. One of them said something like, "Yahda yahda yahda equation of simple harmonic motion." And suddenly all of those things that happened in college came up back to me and for the first time I wondered, "Why was it that three excellent instructors worked so hard to teach me something, and failed completely, when a couple years later a simple remark did the trick?"

So I wrote a little paper for myself, comparing two quite different notions about why this might be so.
  1. Maybe I'd matured, in the way that William Perry once described college students maturing. Perry's research suggested that younger students tend to see the world in black and white terms, with the professors the sources of truth and knowledge. After a couple of years of development, they can conceive that there might be more than one truth but, at this point, they have only themselves as a point of reference. "Everyone has a right to his own opinion," is a comment that's a hall of this stage. Only later, often not until after graduation, can students use evidence and their own values to choose among several 'truths,' using evidence reason to take a stand and to act.
  2. Or perhaps I'd seen the beauty so easily because, by this time, I'd done research myself and had learned how hard it is to describing something complicated and real in a simple, useful way, and how much harder it is to come up with such a simple, useful conceptual description that would 'work' for three different situations that, on the surface, looked completely different. (By that argument, the way to help freshmen see the beauty is to make sure they do this kind of research when in high school).
I finished the paper unsure of which explanation was more persuasive. It seemed a good agenda for future research.

I sent a copy to Lew Erwin, by now a professor himself at our old university. Next time I saw him, I asked "So which of these two theories is right?"

"You're wrong," he laughed. "Both your theories are wrong. You learned about the beauty of the equation from me because it was me who told you. I'm your friend. That's certainly how I learned it. At nights sometimes, I would sit on the roof of our fraternity with my friend Phil Abbot, looking at the stars and talking about things like this."

Lew went on, "I've been teaching for a while now and I've figured out that a teacher may be able to teach what to think. But only a friend can teach you how to feel about it."

I think there's some truth in all three explanations. College does help some students develop through a very complex process of reorganizing the ways they understand the world. And research -- research that encourages students to develop explanations and then test those explanations -- can help. But Lew was right, too. Our relations and conversations with friends, often outside classrooms, can change how we feel about things

Lew died young. It was the most horrible of ironies: late one night, as he lay sleeping with his wife, his wonderful heart just stopped beating. I told this story about him, me, and the equation of simple harmonic motion at his memorial service. Ever since, I've told it to others, to let them know what Lew taught me. Please pass it on.

PS. Want to learn about the Equation of Simple Harmonic Motion? Here's one of many sources on the Web.

PPS. What does all this have to do with educational uses of technology?   We know that technology, whether that technology is a computer or a piece of chalk, doesn't cause learning.  However, technology can serve the cause of learning by enabling people to learn in ways that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. 

  1. So, if you believe the Perry explanation, technology can give students more choices in how to learn, choices that stretch but don't go beyond the student's stage of understanding. That's a strategy that Perry scholars have recommended.
  2.  If you think that research experience was the key, computers and the Internet have vastly widened the scope of meaningful research open to undergraduates and students in K-12 schools.
  3. And if you think that being with friends is key, consider how to use modern technology to increase the ways in which people can bump into one another, and commune. 
To repeat, none of these uses of technology would compel all students to learn the beauty of that equation. But aren't they three interesting ways to water the seeds we plant?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael Roth

  • Liberate
  • Animate
  • Cooperate
  • Instigate

Michael Roth, author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and President of Wesleyan University, used those four terms to summarize historical threads that have combined to justify and shape liberal education.  He explained them in a dynamic and sometimes hilarious keynote at American University's annual teaching day conference last month.  Roth's talk begins at the 57:44 mark of this video segment.

Liberate - as Jefferson and others argued, higher education is a process in which, through inquiry, students should learn who they can become, and what they can do.  This ideal is the opposite of the notion that students should first decide what to do, and then to college in order to become an X as quickly as possible. The latter is something between training and indoctrination, Roth argued, not a liberal (liberating) education.

Animate - As Emerson and others asserted, higher education should make elements of the world come alive for for the student while making the student more alive to that world. Things that had seemed dull, stupid or inscrutable can become marvelous, intimate, and awesome to a more educated human. 

Cooperate - American pragmatists argued that freedom is empty without cooperation and interdependence.  William James said that education is overcoming your blindness about how the world looks to others, why those others think as they do and feel as they do.  Education should attack the pathologies of individualism, not reinforce them. another thread: Jane Addams wanted an education that would prepare a student to make a better world, not to paralyze and distract them by only being able to finding the faults in the acts of others. Don't sacrifice compassionate understanding on the alter of critical thinking.

Instigate -John Dewey, Richard Rorty,and Emerson saw a goal of liberal education as helping students learn to think against the grain, to question and change what has been accepted as normal or obvious.

This is just one of the reasons why I've recently come to see more clearly that education for the workplace should not define higher ed:  potential student (a) picks a job, (b) picks a course of study, (c) succeeds in that course of study, and (d) gets that job).  Instead much of the hard work of higher education- that part that can take several years of work - is to developing the kinds of capabilities described above - capabilities essential for a respondible job, for becoming a citizen, and for becoming even more true to your self.