Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Identify the Important Things to Learn for Student Success

Students need to know what parts of your instruction are most important. It is very easy for students to get lost in the details of your instruction. If you consciously identify the important elements for the students, you are providing the structure to which they will attach details. Students need you to provide this structure, identify the connection between these elements and the big picture view of the content, and to provide the rationale for why they should focus on these elements. Helping students to understand the overall structure and the important pieces of that structure allows you to discuss with students how you expect them to progress in regard to skill and knowledge development.

Most instructors are very good at delivering oral cues to identify the most important parts of their instruction. You will hear phrases such as “The first major point is…”, “Note this point…”, “This point is very important for understanding…”and “This point will be on the test.” These oral cues help focus student attention on the important elements. Distance educators should be more intentional about writing cues and directional language in their courses. This should help focus attention on major points while excluding details.

Some additional ways to identify important elements in a distance course include:
  1. Use bold text to identify important elements
  2. Use numbered lists
  3. Use headings to identify important elements
  4. Provide an outline of the material to give a big picture view
  5. Insert intentional pauses in the material to allow the student to process information

Svinicki, M. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Monday, May 14, 2012

Less May Actually be More

student overwhelmed (Microsoft.com)
There has been an explosion in the amount of content that is seen in courses. More and more content is being pushed to students at all educational levels. Talk to almost any parent with school aged children and they will tell you about encountering content that is entirely new to them or that they did not see until college. As new information becomes available in disciplines, this information is almost immediately available on the Web. New information forces textbook publishers to redistribute content to keep textbooks from becoming too large for use. Supplemental content, learning activities, and test banks regularly accompany college textbooks. It is rare when there is not enough available content for a particular course. In fact, it is far more likely that too much content is readily available for students.

With all of this available content, it is logical that content experts saturate their courses with content. The content expert, almost by definition, knows a great deal of content and loves to expose others to the content. Content experts often come from doctoral programs that are rich in content. In some programs, reading one or two books a week is the norm. Almost all of these programs feature copious amounts of readings. In many of these "content saturated" environments, there is an almost singular focus on the acquisition of content. Participants often receive little or no instruction on how to teach others this content. Although we try to stay away from general statements, it is fairly safe to say "content experts routinely create other content experts. Content experts do not routinely develop and create experts on teaching the content."

Content experts, with little grounding in teaching methodologies, often cram courses with content. Unfortunately, they often expose others to so much content that learning may be impacted. In many cases, it is possible that vast amounts of content come at unsuspecting students at breakneck speed because there is so much content and only so many weeks in the semester. The phrase "an inch deep and a mile wide" accurately describes this superficial coverage of vast amounts of content. Almost no content is covered in a great amount of detail. You might also heare this discussed as a "coverage" approach, implying that the intent is to cover as much material as possible. As instructors, we all seek some level of transfer. We want students to learn something and then be able to apply this knowledge to other situations. The ability to transfer concepts and skills learned in one setting to a novel setting demonstrates a more sophisticated level of understanding than the ability to regurgitate factoids for a test. To take what we know and use it creatively in another setting or for another purpose is the type of learning we want for all students. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000, p. 58) state "...attempts to cover too many topics too quickly may hinder learning and subsequent transfer." Whitehead (1929) mentioned "...let the main ideas which are introduced be few and important, and let them be thrown in every combination possible (p. 2).

Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000, p. 31) stated:

An understanding of fundamental principles and ideas appears to be the main road to adequate transfer of training. To understand something as a specific instance of a more general case -- which is what understanding a more fundamental structure means -- is to have learned not only a specific thing but also a model for understanding other things like it that one may encounter.

Bruner (1960, p. 31) observed that teaching specific skills or topics without grounding them into the larger context of a field was uneconomical. He went on to say that such teaching made it difficult for students to generalize from what was learned to what might be encountered. He also suggested that information learned in this manner would not be retained.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

30 Seconds to Determine if an Instructor is Helpful

In a study done in 1993 (Ambady & Rosenthal) 13 college teachers were videotaped and then these tapes were edited into one master videotape. Each teacher was presented multiple times for very brief exposures (approximately 10 seconds) on the master videotape. A panel of judges reviewed this master and rated each teacher for teaching effectiveness. These ratings were compared to the end-of-semester student evaluations. “On the basis of observations of video clips just half a minute in length, complete strangers were able to predict quite accurately the ratings of teachers by students who interacted with them over the course of a whole semester (p. 435).

In a replication of the original study, the authors used 13 high school teachers. One master videotape was developed in each instance with multiple very short clips of the teachers. Researchers were able to replicate the results of the previous study with this different sample of teachers.

In a third study, the time each teacher appeared on videotape was adjusted. On one master videotape, each teacher appeared 3 times for five seconds. One the other master, each teacher appeared three times for two seconds. “These analyses show that there were no significant differences in the accuracy of judgments based on video clips 10s, 5s, and 2s in length. In addition, there were no significant differences in the accuracy of judgments for the two samples of teachers” (p. 438).

Researchers found “that the ratings of complete strangers based on very thin slices of teachers’ nonverbal behaviors (video clips from 2s to 10s long) predicted with surprising accuracy the ratings of the same teachers by people who had substantial interactions with the teachers (students and supervisors, for example)” (p. 438).

In discussing the significance of the study, Ken Bain (1994) suggests “…students, with long histories of dealing with both highly stimulating and discouraging teachers, may develop an ability to guess quite accurately, even after only a few seconds of exposure, which professor will advance their education and which will not” (p. 14).

If students form impressions of teaching effectiveness based on very brief exposures, distance educators should pay particular attention to the tone and design of all initial activities in the course.


Ambady, N. & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64. P. 431-441.

Bain, K, (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.