Chapter Seven Reading

Just when I thought I couldn’t get any further behind in my reading and blogging…

Chapter seven in Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology by Michelle D. Miller is about incorporating multimedia effectively.

Miller starts off the chapter by explaining the philosophy of Perceptual Learning Styles (aka VAK)–and then she proceeds to characterize it as one the greatest psychological myths.  Yet it endures.

Her argument against labeling learners as visual vs. auditory vs. kinestethic is that we are constantly recoding information across those different modalities–so it makes little sense to assume we are restricted by whichever method is presented by a teacher.  Miller adds that perceptual learning theory can be dangerous because it can be a convenient excuse for students that absolves them of the responsibility of taking an active approach to their learning (the idea of students being active participants in their own learning is a consistent thread woven through this book).

After describing the pitfalls of VAK, Miller moves on to Multimedia Theory, which–to me, at least–seems to be conventional wisdom; the idea that adding pictures and diagrams to textual information is superior to text alone when it comes to enhancing the learning experience.  Another best practice she advocates is including audio narration with video instead of text because the text causes students to have to shift visual attention back and forth.  She also advises that narration should be conversational to promote better retention, and that there’s a “Goldilocks just right” between verbatim narration of video and highly discrepant narration.

Some other multimedia best practices according to Miller:

  • Signaling principle: visually highlight the most important points you want students to retain so they stand out.
  • Spatial contiguity principle: place text/captions as close to graphics as possible even within diagrams or animations.
  • Temporal contiguity principle: present spoken narration and graphics as close in time as practical–both at once is better.
  • Segmenting principle: break longer presentations into shorter segments and let students control rate of advancing from one part to the next.
  • Pretraining principle: set up a module to teach major concepts and terminology to be completed beforehand
  • Modaility principle: students learn better from pictures plus audio narration than from pictures plus text–unless there are technical words or symbols or students are non-native speakers.

Miller presents another idea, which is similar to one from one of her earlier chapters–where she suggests that whatever measures instructors take to design their lessons for attention-impaired students will also benefit students that have not been diagnosed with an attention impairment.  In this chapter, Miller advocates that instructors design their course material with accessibility guidelines in mind.  She reasons that such an approach will not only cater to students with visual, hearing and other impairments, but those accessibility guidelines will help create better multimedia content for non-impaired students.  A win-win.

Like the more recent chapters, this chapter also read like a cookbook in some ways–which, again, is not a criticism by any means.  It just adds to this book’s value as a continuing reference when designing or redesigning a course.

Two more chapters to go: “Motivating Students” and “Putting It All Together”.

Chapter Six Reading

Since I’ve fallen so far behind in my blog posts about Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology by Michelle D. Miller, I decided to go back through my notes and catch up.  Here’s my take on Chapter Six–which I think dethroned chapter five as the most dense chapter in the book so far.  Chapter six is about thinking.

Miller starts out by defining the higher-order thought processes: formal reasoning, decision making, and problem solving.  And the takeaway for me from this chapter was her statement about how we all have a deep-seated predisposition to avoid quantitative reasoning in favor of almost any other method.  And here I thought I was a pillar of logic and reason…  To illustrate this, she cites a scenario of meeting a person in an airport who is dressed in a cowboy hat and boots and who claims to enjoy country music.  Would we assume that this person is more likely on his way home to Los Angeles or Texas?  Statistically, it’s more likely he’s headed to LA, since its greater population increases those odds.  But his attire and his manner–and our related assumptions–might lead us to assume he’s from Texas.

Miller goes on to dissect the idea of problem-solving–citing the travel metaphor of progressing from an initial state to a goal state–and how a well-defined problem varies from an ill-defined problem, and how insight affects problem solving and creativity (which could be a chapter in and of itself, in my opinion).

Miller then goes on to break down analogical reasoning (solving a new problem based on an already-solved problem) into its discrete cognitive processes: completing an access stage, mapping, then inference, and lastly, learning (gaining a deeper understanding of the principles that tie together both problems). Miller advises that instructors actively engaging students in the source problem promotes better mapping and helps prevent the backfire of inappropriate mapping and the resulting misconceptions.  She also suggests that prompting students to devise their own analogies can be effective–with adequate instructor engagement.  Miller adds that emphasizing organization and classification of knowledge and the conceptual interrelationships may accelerate development of expert-like knowledge structures in students.  This idea relates back to an example in an earlier chapter about a basketball expert–who is more efficient at incorporating new knowledge into an existing framework because he or she has a strong understanding of how all the information interrelates.  Experts better understand these knowledge matrices because they can better “see” how everything relates.  Novices have more trouble discerning between important vs. relatively unimportant.

Next, Miller writes about the holy grail of learning: Transfer; and how metacognition promotes transfer.  She notes that self-reflection, emphasizing process over product, depth over breadth, and focus on underlying principles and conceptual structures all help promote transfer.

Critical thinking comes next.  And Miller suggests that critical thinking is similar to transfer and analogy in that it involves applying previously learned strategies to a new problem. She also suggests that students may not necessarily be bad critical thinkers–they just may not know when to apply those skills.  And she adds that the online environment typically promotes more deliberate student reflection over face-to-face instruction, since students have the luxury of being able to think more about their written responses vs. a live verbal discussion.

Miller closes out the chapter with more advice and best practices for tailoring an online course to cater to how students think.  And, like chapter five, this section also read like a recipe–which merits further review later.  She outlines four strategies that incorporate problem-based learning (PBL), using analogies the right way (an important distinction), specifically targeting the thinking skills desired in the students, and using discussion to build higher-thinking.  She also offers some specific advice against potential pitfalls–including instructor modeling of discussions to keep them from meandering into idle chit-chat, making analogy mappings as obvious as possible, and incorporating a strong narrative component in PBL.

The next chapter is about multimedia–which I am looking forward to, since that is my self-proclaimed area of expertise.  I expect to discover that I may not be as much of an expert in that area as I think I am.  🙂

Chapter Five Reading

I’m trying to catch up on my blog posts about Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology by Michelle D. Miller–so on to chapter five…

Chapter five seemed even more dense than chapter four–and reasonably so, since it is about memory; a crucial and often misunderstood component of learning.

One of the main takeaways for me from this chapter was Miller’s warning against relying on exposure to build memory.  She cites the study where students were asked to draw a penny–something we’ve all seen countless times–from memory, and how poorly the participants were able to accurately recall the specifics of how a penny looks.  I think it can be easy to assume that just because a student is regularly exposed to certain material, he or she will retain it–but Miller presents compelling evidence to the contrary.

Miller presents the three basic parts of memory, at least as they are commonly understood: encoding, storage, and retrieval.  She also discusses how the modal model is becoming more outdated in favor of the working memory model–where memory is not merely a holding tank of information, but rather a system of sub-components that handle specialized information.  Miller also suggests that we shouldn’t think of memory as a system or set of systems, but instead as capacities that serve our needs in different domains.  She adds that long-term memory is less of a repository of information, but more a mechanism for reproducing information based on cues.

Miller also notes that visual imagery is very powerful as it relates to memory, and that emotion–especially negative emotions–heighten memory.  I’m not sure how negative emotions can be used in a welcoming instructional environment, but that emotional component is still worth noting.

And, as is her custom, Miller again offers some techniques for tailoring online instruction to promote memory retention.  She makes a point to note the effectiveness of the Testing Effect, despite the prevailing opinion of students and even instructors that testing isn’t effective. Miller also mentions the Spacing Effect (spreading review sessions over time), the Interleaving Effect (weaving alternate topics that circle back to previous topics), and Desirable Difficulty.  I see the potential benefits of the Spacing and Interleaving Effects–but I also think they can be more challenging to incorporate into a traditional semester-long course.  But I guess that also depends on the nature of the course; I think certain disciplines better lend themselves to those approaches.

Miller again recommends frequent low-stakes quizzing that are shorter and allow for multiple attempts–which is relatively easy to do in most online courses. She also suggests that setting up spaced study can be accomplished through a recurring weekly schedule where different types of assignments are due on the same day of the week–which helps keep students from falling behind, yet lets them work ahead if they want.

One method Miller recommends for incorporating an emotional component is through video content–but she advises choosing such content prudently and offering an explanation beforehand or an alternative for students, depending on the subject matter.  Miller also suggests that encouraging students to publicly or even non-publicly share their work can also incorporate that emotional component that helps with memory retention.

Miller adds that prompting students to frame content in terms of how it relates to them–through personal examples–is one method for promoting deeper processing.  She also recommends finding ways to build new knowledge on top of students’ old knowledge as an effective technique.

In many ways, this chapter seemed more like a recipe for creating a more effective online course, compared to the other chapters.  That’s not a criticism–in fact, quite the opposite.  But for me, it does flag this chapter as one I’ll need to revisit later as a resource if/when I get the opportunity to help design or redesign an online course.

Chapter Four Reading

You wouldn’t know it by my blog, but I am still reading Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology by Michelle D. Miller as part of a campus reading group.  The chapters have gotten a little more dense recently–with a lot of information.  I may have to re-read a number of these chapters at some point.

Chapter four deals mainly with the concept of attention and analyzing how it relates to learning.  One of the main takeaways for me was the idea that increased repetition and practice doesn’t increase our bank of attention to devote to a particular task, but, rather that increased practice shrinks the costs.  Meaning, we all have a finite amount of attention–and with increased practice, we are better able to filter out the “noise” and hone in on what’s important and relevant, which results in improved performance.  An interesting idea as it relates to directing students’ attention.  And I could definitely relate to how when we are really focused on an engaging task, time seems to slip by unnoticed–because we’re ignoring the passage of time since we perceive it as yet another distraction.

Miller also mentions how easily our attention can be diverted by things like the “cocktail party effect”–which is when in a room full of people, we can still hear our name being mentioned amid all the background noise.  While something like this may seem irrelevant to a classroom or an online course environment, I still think it characterizes how difficult it can be to not only capture a student’s attention, but to hold it–especially while competing with all the distractions in our age of portable devices.  Another idea I found worth noting: Miller suggests that measures taken to assist students with ADHD will also benefit students without diagnosed attention problems.

As usual, Miller offers some strategies for keeping students’ attention in an online course environment.  For longer text passages, she suggests interspersing some active response questions throughout to help keep students focused.  Another technique she recommends is “branching” or “story-line” questions (which made me think of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books) to help keep students engaged.  And while it may be a challenge in a truly online environment, Miller also recommends scheduled synchronous activities that encourage student participation.

Miller adds that the online environment can more easily lend itself to promoting mastery of a topic through the automaticity of auto-grading–which offers multiple attempts at low-stakes assessment opportunities that offer immediate feedback. Plus, it offers instructors a way to track a student’s progress and identify areas where the student is having trouble.

Miller also touches on the concept of cognitive load, and notes that instructors can’t really do much to influence intrinsic and germane loads, but they can help reduce extraneous load by attempting to keep all relevant information in one place as much as possible so students don’t have to hunt around for it.  Miller also suggests that ensuring the technology works properly can help minimize that extraneous cognitive load and help keep students focused.