Applying principles of learning to teaching—with or without technology

By Michael Wong posted on July 31st, 2015

“Technology doesn’t change or transform education. People change education.” Those were Dr. Marsha Lovett’s opening remarks as she kicked off the first day of the 2015 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) conference. Co-hosted by Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, STLHE 2015 welcomed over 700 attendees to Vancouver in June.

Lovett is director of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, and a Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology, both at Carnegie Mellon University. She is also the co-author of How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. At STLHE 2015, Lovett spoke about how deliberate instruction can enhance teaching and learning. She discussed how instructors need to deliberately identify the skills that students need to learn, and showed how deliberate instruction can have a positive effect on the student learning experience.

Technology use in the classroom

“Higher education is at an exciting and…maybe a transformative time,” Lovett said. “I think it’s very interesting that a big source of the attention higher education is getting is thanks to technology. The technology is often these days seen as the driver of these transformations.”

Lovett introduced the SAMR model and its four phases of technology use to discuss how technology is being used in higher education. The first two phases, substitution and augmentation, involve the enhancement of the process. The next two phases, modification and redefinition, involve significant task redesign and the creation of new tasks. “The overwhelming majority of teachers, even with great technologies, tend to employ the technology to sustain the existing patterns of teaching, rather than to innovate,” explains Lovett. As a result, most instructors tend to engage in the phases of substitution and augmentation. “We as educators and educational developers can…leverage the technology to enhance education and enhance our students’ learning,” Lovett said. She stated that by thinking more deliberately about instruction, instructors can focus more on the modification and redefinition phases. It is with these phases that educational transformation happens.

Even though technology can be used to enhance the learning experience, Lovett was quick to point out that there are some unintended consequences. Lovett used the example of lecture capture, which could be seen as an example of substitution. With lecture capture, a camera records a lecture for students to review at a later point in time. As a result, some instructors stand only where the camera is pointed, and refrain from moving around the classroom. Lovett noted that it might also promote a stand and deliver approach, and discourage questions and answers, as this type of interaction might not be caught on video. “These unintended consequences are what we don’t want technology to do,” says Lovett. “We don’t want to get in a situation…where the technology and the goals we have are not matched.” She added, “I think if we are deliberate in our thinking about teaching and learning, I think we can avoid this.”

Learning is skill-specific

Lovett introduced two fundamental findings from learning science: learning is skill-specific and practice need not make perfect. “Thinking about it in terms of how we create learning experiences for our students is a piece of this idea of deliberate instruction,” explains Lovett. “If you’re not paying attention to the skills students are supposed to learn, you’re missing something fundamental.”

“The key to understanding students’ performance is identifying the skills,” says Lovett. “What are those components of knowledge that students need to learn?” Lovett noted that instructors can set learning goals by specifying what skills and components of knowledge are required to achieve the goal. They can then provide practice and use assessment to measure student performance in terms of those skills.

Lovett also pointed to the idea of expert blind spot, where instructors become blind to the skills that students need to practice in order to achieve mastery. “We as experts can overestimate what novices know and can do,” notes Lovett. She refers to this as “the difficulty of unpacking one’s expertise.” As teaching experts, instructors have to bridge the knowledge gap for students. “This idea of being aware of the skills and really trying to dig in deliberately and think about what are the components of knowledge my students need to learn, that’s a key piece of deliberate instruction,” Lovett said. “The other piece is this idea that practice need not make perfect.”

Practice need not make perfect

For Lovett, the second fundamental finding from learning science is that practice need not make perfect. She referred to the work of a former colleague, K. Anders Ericsson, who studied the theory of deliberate practice. “What he found time and again is it’s not just the number of hours put into practice, but it’s the number of hours of deliberate practice which really leads to expertise,” explains Lovett.

Deliberate practice involves focusing on an explicit goal, receiving feedback to compare actual and desired task performance, having an appropriate level of challenge, and building in opportunities for repetition so that a desired level of performance can be achieved. If instructors want students to learn a specific skill, they must build in deliberate practice opportunities to hone that skill. “If you are practicing deliberately, you can and will get better,” Lovett said. In addition, if instructors want to improve their teaching skills, they must use deliberate practice. “We as educational developers and we as faculty can engage more deliberately in our practice,” Lovett said. “Take some of these ideas of deliberate practice and make it deliberate instruction.”

Deliberate instruction

As a way of thinking deliberately about the student learning experience, Lovett has come up with a new term, deliberate instruction. “What I think of as deliberate instruction is creating for yourself an explicit goal, such as improving an aspect of your teaching,” Lovett explained. “The goal is one piece, the other pieces are to get feedback…and then once achieved, shift your goal to another appropriate goal to stay motivated.”

According to Lovett, deliberate instruction involves five steps:

1. Identify target performance tasks
2. Analyze skills required for those tasks
3. Align practice with those skills
4. Provide targeted feedback
5. Collect data—at the skill level

For Lovett, deliberate instruction involves the growth of the instructor. “It highlights that experts…are not born, they are made,” she says. “You can hone this craft.” She adds, “I want us all to give ourselves the gift of being deliberate in our practice of teaching.” With deliberate instruction, both students and instructors benefit. “It’s about the student’s learning,” notes Lovett. “Think about how we can help them learn and transform.”

As an example, Lovett provided a case study about how deliberate instruction can be used with instructional videos. “Maybe if we take this idea of deliberate instruction, we could make that technology more positive and transformative,” states Lovett. When creating an instructional video, instructors should be thinking about what they want students to learn, and what pieces of knowledge students need to come away with. Instructors need to identify the task and analyze the skills.

In an effort to engage students, instructors can intersperse questions or tasks. Doing so aligns practice with the skills instructors want students to learn and provides feedback. “If there are interspersed questions with feedback, the students can gain a lot from that,” Lovett said. “Find ways to incorporate practice with feedback.”

Lovett referenced a study in which students answered questions after watching instructional videos. “What these interspersed, low stakes questions did was encourage students to engage in more active learning,” states Lovett. “I think this is a really great example of how instructional videos, with these pieces of deliberate instruction supporting effective design and use in our teaching, can really be helpful.”

Lovett shared a second case study, and discussed the online course design for an introductory statistics course at Carnegie Mellon University. When designing the online module, Lovett was able to identify the target tasks by having the instructor walk through an assignment and solve it. “I had him talk out loud as he did it,” she explains. “It’s a lot easier to think about the skills one would need when you have a specific problem in front of you.” As a result, Lovett was able to extract the knowledge components and skills that had to be included in the online module. This helped overcome the expert blind spot, and helped align the learning objectives with the instructional activities and assessments. “It’s a different way of thinking about course alignment,” Lovett noted.

Lovett also worked with the instructor to embed questions for students to complete in the online module. They were able to collect data on how students were doing with the activities, and mapped this to the skills they wanted the students to learn. “We had a treasure trove of information that we could feed back to the instructor,” Lovett stated. With the data collected from the online module, Lovett noted that the instructor was able to change his teaching approach. After identifying which skills students needed further practice on, the instructor was able to change his lecture and provide further practice with problem sets in the in-class portion of the course. “This, I think, is a great example of deliberate instruction in action,” Lovett said. “I think this is just one really good example of where technology can actually help us transform teaching.”

In addition to the case studies that involved educational technology, Lovett gave two examples of how deliberate instruction can be applied without technology. In her first example, Lovett discussed the use of problem sets in an introductory physics course. One of the learning objectives of the course is for students to be able to apply physical laws to solve problems. “One of the key skills in solving physics problems is setting up the problem,” explained Lovett. “In fact, it’s the skill that is most difficult, that students struggle with the most.” In an effort to build these skills, the instructor assigned problems where the end point was to set up the problem, not to solve it from beginning to end. This gave students more practice and feedback on a key skill. “It was more productive for learning,” Lovett stated. “We were giving students deliberate practice through this deliberate instruction.”

Lovett also showed how deliberate instruction can be applied to paper assignments. “If you think about a typical paper assignment, the target task is very clear,” Lovett said. In an effort to analyze what skills are needed to complete the task, and to provide practice and feedback, Lovett referenced a tip that she once received from a colleague. “If you want to understand how to help students best achieve a good paper, write one yourself.” By completing the assignment, an instructor can more easily identify what skills are needed and what they want students to learn from the assignment. “Think through what you are having to do,” Lovett noted. “What are the hiccups that my students are likely to have?”

Similar to the physics case study, instructors can identify the key skills students need to learn and create mini assignments that practice these specific skills. “You could actually create a paper assignment that does not involve writing the entire research paper start to end,” Lovett explained. She also noted that instructors can include milestones or checkpoints where students can get feedback along the way.

Lovett is hopeful that deliberate instruction can enhance teaching and encourage instructor growth. “I really hope that this idea of deliberate instruction inspires you to kind of be your own coach as a teacher,” she said. With the case studies, Lovett showed how deliberate instruction can be used to enhance student learning. “Technology can be a great asset when we use it deliberately,” Lovett said. “If we use technology to address teaching and learning challenges and enable new opportunities, that would be truly transformative. But along the way, let’s not forget about unintended consequences.”

By being deliberate with their instruction, Lovett feels that instructors can positively transform the educational experience. “I think that with this idea of deliberate instruction, we can really be focusing much more on modifying, redefining, and truly positively transforming the learning that happens in our classrooms.”