Thinking Better (and Visually)

Cover image of MINDS ONLINEI am continuing to explore Michelle Miller‘s new book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology.  This post looks at her examination of the third broad area of cognition – Thinking – as well as the effective use of multimedia in online courses.

Michelle defined “thinking” as:

“…using logic to reason based on the available information, analyzing a problem and developing solutions that are both feasible and effective, and applying creativity in order to come up with new and nonobvious approaches.”

She noted that effective thinking is something that sets experts apart from novices…and it is a skill that can be built with practice.  Cognitive scientists have broken thinking down into the discrete areas of formal reasoning, decision making, and problem solving.  Formal reasoning is hard … and our brains tend to take shortcuts when faced with reasoning problems.  Her take-home lesson for online (as well as traditional) learning is that:

“Nearly everyone – A-student or not, math whiz or not – experiences occasional failures of reasoning, oftentimes stemming from an aversion to quantitative reasoning but also because fully abstract logic eludes most of us.  And people are particularly prone to being sidetracked by memorable details, substituting those for more systematic, mathematical thinking.”

One area that I found fascinating is the research on creativity.  Michelle noted that students who are given explicit step-by-step instructions tend to produce less creative work products compared to those who were given less-structured directions.  In many of my online classes, I have used fairly open-ended question prompts – which sometimes leads students to suggest that “I am not teaching them.”  Yet, intuitively, I have seen students provide very creative responses when I do not box them in with my own expectations.

Michelle noted that experts solve problems better – not because they are smarter but because they can draw on a richer base of stored and connected knowledge.  She suggested that for online teachers, providing practice opportunities is important, but equally important is providing scaffolding in the form of knowledge organizations and conceptual interrelationships.  This can help move students from the novice stage to a more expert-like stage of reasoning.

Michelle suggested that in designing online learning opportunities, one integrate metacognitive activities with learning activities.  These can include:

  • Emphasizing how knowledge is organized,
  • Going for depth rather than breadth,
  • Emphasizing underlying principles and conceptual structure,
  • Providing practice in recognizing the kinds of critical-thinking problems that are typical in your field,
  • Providing frequent and low-stakes formative quizzing,
  • Telling students why wrong answers are wrong, and
  • Having students reflect on the process of learning as well as what they are learning.

Michelle suggested the following strategies for online teaching and learning:

  • Assign students to practice the thinking skills you want,
  • Set up varied, realistic scenarios for reasoning, such as Problem-Based Learning or case studies
  • Use Analogies as Teaching Tools
  • Use discussion to build thinking skills

I like this last strategy.  My online courses heavily use discourse for instruction, and “discussions” – whether in discussion boards, wiki discussions, or blog posts (my favorite) – allow students to construct arguments, debate issues, analyze underlying aspects of problems, and reflect on their own learning.  This of course suggests that we as online teachers put some “thinking” into the questions we use as prompts in our courses.

Multimedia image by GeoffreyChapter 7 dealt with incorporating multimedia effectively into online learning.  Multimedia – a mix of text, audio, images, video, and animations – can engage students … but it can also distract students and impede the learning process.  Each modality of media affects learning in its own particular way.

Michelle discusses the time honored learning styles of VAK (Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic), noting that “VAK may go down as one of the greatest psychological myths of all time.”  The cognitive research suggests that we all have ALL styles and that there really is not one that dominates.  She noted that people tend to not know what their “true” style is and have poor skills as self-assessing.  Assuming one style can lead students to disengage if presented with an alternative style, negatively impact learning.

That said, the “multimedia principle” holds that adding pictures to text produces enhanced learning … but it is not that simple.  Images can be seductive, decorative, or instructive.  Seductive images are visually engaging but unrelated to the material.  Decorative images may not be as engaging, but again are unrelated to the learning.  Images can help with learning, but they need to provide a substantive connection to the learning.

Michelle also discusses accessibility issues, providing useful tips for making online material more accessible.  Something I had never thought through before (and routinely am guilty of) is to avoid using color to convey meaning in text, as colorblind students might not pick up on the visual cues.

The take away for online teaching is that pictures, audio and video can enhance learning, but the multimedia needs to align with the learning, not (1) overload or (2) distract.  Thinking inclusively, one should augment any multimedia with alternative options.

One post to go … the final two chapters are on motivating online students and “putting it all together”.

{Graphics: Harvard Press, Geoffrey}




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