Lesson in Explicitness or Lack Thereof

head slapEver developed one of those killer assignments that you know would be dynamite … and then you review the graduate student submissions and wonder – How could they have missed that!?!?

Yep!  It happened to me this week.  It happened ironically during a synthesis assignment on attention, memory and thinking, and it pointed out to me (again) how critical being explicit is in online learning (or any learning).

Let me provide some context.

For the past four weeks, my EDU 6323 class on Technology as a Medium for Learning has been reading the chapters on attention, memory and thinking in Michelle Miller’s Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology.  I had previously blogged about her chapters last year – see my posts on Attention, Memory, and Thinking.  These chapters provided background as we explored digital tools for tagging, aggregating, social networking, and collaborating.

During those same four weeks, the students began using a group page in Diigo, purposefully curating resources around the topics of attention, memory and thinking.  They collectively shared over ninety articles, both from scholarly sources as well as mainstream media.  See below for some examples.

The assignment this week:

Over the past weeks, we have explored a number of Web 2.0 technologies (and we have a few to go).

EDU6323coursemap .

We have also been reading Miller’s book Minds Online. Chapters 4-6 focus on key cognitive attributes of attention, memory and thinking.  Also, we have been collectively gathering web resources on these topics in our Diigo Group page.

During this week, you will submit a 2-5 page double-spaced paper, synthesizing the lessons you take from these chapters and resources, and discussing specific ways some of the technologies we have discussed could be used to improve your teaching and student learning.  You will bring highlights of your thinking into this week’s discussion to share with your classmates.  The focus this week is on “collaboration” – so let’s learn from each other!

I thought it self-evident that the “collectively gathered web resources” in Diigo would inform their papers.  But that was not explicitedly stated in the assignment nor the rubric.

One student did, weaving in to his analysis three different articles that other classmates had saved in Diigo.  Four others used one or two of their own resources that they had added to the Diigo group page, but none from their classmates.  Half of the class had Miller’s book as their only resource, with no mention of the curated resources.

I place the “blame” (if that is the right word) squarely on my shoulders.  I did not make my expectations explicit and I did not provide enough scaffolding.  For the past three weeks, I have reminded students to pay attention to Miller’s chapters, as they would be using them as a lens for their upcoming paper.  In doing so, I focused their attention strictly on the book…and failed to highlight the importance of the other sources they were dutifully collecting.

In general, the papers were fine.  They summarized Miller’s key points and then discussed possible applications to their own teaching situations.  I just assumed that they would connect the dots between (1) the activity of gathering resources on attention, memory, and thinking and (2) the paper they were writing on applying the lessons to their own teaching situation.  That connection was crystal clear to me … but alluded 93% of my class.

My fault!

This is my first time teaching EDU 6323.  Next time, I will spend more time connecting the dots – and making explicit my expectations.

And just to share some of the good work the class did curating resources, here is a sampling:

I would welcome any suggestions you might have on making lessons more explicit.  Maybe I watch too much NCIS – but a head slap is what I feel I need right now!


{Graphics: Chris Sabo, Watwood EDU6323 Course Graphic, Patricia Goldbach}

Attention, Cognition, and Online Learning

Twitter-AttentionLast week, I began discussing Michelle Miller’s new book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology.  In my post, “Cognitively Optimized Online Course,” I reviewed the first three chapters on online learning, how it works, and the psychology of computing.  In this post, I look at the fourth chapter, on attention.

Sooo … has the cute picture of the little dog grabbed your attention?

And in doing so, have I sidetracked our exploration of attention?

Michelle’s chapter begins with an exploration of the Stroop Effect, and how easy it is to derail attention.

StroopThe link above takes you to a simple task of speaking two sets of words, with the caveat that you speak the color, not the printed word.  It took me about 50% longer to complete Set #2 over Set #1, because my mind kept focusing on the mismatch between the printed word and the color.  Michelle noted that you cannot separate cognition from the mechanisms we use to allocate our cognitive resources…so paying attention to paying attention is important in online course design.

Yet, attention can easily be shifted.  The message ding on our phone pulls us away from the computer screen.  Images in our lessons that do not align with the task impact our attention.

We also have limitations, including inattentional blindness when we focus.  It goes back 8 years ago, but I used the video below as an example of inattentional blindness during a job interview.

As Michelle noted:

“The inattentional blindness effect illustrates a broader truth about human perception and attention, that looking and seeing are two different things – and that we are remarkably prone to missing stimuli when our attention is directed elsewhere.”

… as “The Invisible Gorilla” showed.

While capacity cannot be expanded, it can be altered by practice. Actions that become automatic free up the brain to process other information.  Michelle is quick to note that practice does not mean we can actually multitask…we just think that we can.

Attention is highly intertwined with visual processing, which is another facet of online course design that matters.  She describes change blindness, in which changes to the screen are not picked up readily.  Most people think they perceive more change than they really do.

 Working memory is an area of significant variation among individuals.  Michelle noted that attention directs what goes in to working memory, so again, understanding attention is important to creating a learning environment.

minds_online2Michelle suggested several strategies regarding attention and online learning.

  • Ask students to respond
    • Chunk material into short segments and have students do something (answer a question, click on a hotspot, etc)
  • Take advantage of automaticity
    • Use auto-grading features of LMS’s to provide practice opportunities and feedback, with incentives for completion
  • Assess Cognitive Load
    • You really can do little to impact the cognitive demands of the topic or the individual, but you can impact cognitive load by design features.  Poor instructions or requiring new features without practice can negatively increase cognitive load.
  • Discourage Divided Attention
    • The web is full of distractions, but simply informing students that they should pay attention actually increases attention.

The chapter on attention suggests that educating students about multitasking, making materials as seamless as possible, minimizing extraneous attention drains, and keeping them engaged through compelling activities – these will help with learning in online classes.

From attention, Michelle moves to memory – my next post.

{Graphic: Social Caffeine }