Last week, over one hundred CCV instructors gathered at the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee for the Faculty Summer Institute, an annual two-day conference devoted entirely to faculty professional development.
The conference opened with a keynote address by Dr. Michelle D. Miller, who teaches in the department of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University. Miller has authored several books and articles, including the 2014 book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has extensive experience integrating cognitive psychology into teaching practices. “I got very passionate about how we can put those most important and most relevant findings in the hands of people who are out there really on the front lines of higher education.”
Miller’s Thursday morning lecture was steeped in her many years as both a scholar and teacher of psychology. Titled “Getting Into the Minds of Learners to Promote Learning: Principles from Cognitive Science,” her talk looked closely at three core areas of cognition, with the idea of applying basic cognitive principles to common teaching challenges. Her goal, she told faculty, was “to spark your own creativity, because you know your students, you know your courses, you know your discipline better than anybody else.” While the discussion wasn’t specific to online learning, most of the content was relevant to teaching with technology or in an online setting.
Miller asked her audience to keep a few questions in mind as she spoke: What are the specific challenges? What is the gap, as in, what is the difference between where students are and where you want them to be? What could students be doing that would directly address that gap? And, what resources might you need in order to facilitate that?
Miller framed her address around the topics of attention, memory, and thinking. While we don’t have a really technical working definition for attention, she said, we do have a solid understanding of what it’s for. “Attention is all about prioritizing. So on a millisecond to millisecond basis, you’ve only got so many cognitive resources to go around, you’re figuring out where to direct those. You have a number of brain structures and mechanisms that work together to support your ability to do that.”
Lots of things get in the way of being able to effectively capture and keep student attention, said Miller. To address this gap, she suggested engaging students by asking for response. Ask them for an example, an application, or a question. Leave room for open-ended discussion. She introduced the concept of “automaticity,” the ability to make certain tasks routine and efficient in order to maximize the amount of energy available for higher-level thinking.
Attention, said Miller, is closely linked to memory. “There is a long-standing thought in cognitive psychology, which I still subscribe to, which says that in order to form a new memory you have to have focused attention on it.” Memory is an essential part of learning. “For a long time, we have not thought about memory as a place to put things, we think of memory more in terms of an adaptation, something that helps us do other things that help us survive in our environment,” said Miller. “Memory is not so much a place as something that the mind does.”
Teachers can use the psychology of memory to encourage students to fit new information into existing information; in other words, link content to what students already know, to something they’ve experienced, or to an emotion. “We can take in a remarkable amount of information if it’s something that maps onto things like strong emotions,” said Miller.
Two key concepts around memory and learning, said Miller, are the testing effect and spacing effect; the former backs up the idea that retrieving information, such as quiz-taking, does in fact enhance absorption. The latter promotes the distribution of study as a more effective means of integrating information; for example, spread studying out into three twenty-minute sessions rather than one sixty-minute session. Miller encouraged faculty to utilize both of these concepts. “Technology’s also great for staggering deadlines, and helping push students in that direction of frequent engagement with the material,” she added, “and this is very good news when we have working students who have so many demands on their time.”
Last but not least, Miller touched on the psychology of thinking. “When we talk about thinking, as cognitive psychologists, that’s a very big broad umbrella term,” she admitted. But it can refer to a range of processes, from formal reasoning to applied problem solving, from analogies to critical thinking. And Miller brought up one major barrier to the development of high-level thinking. “Something about the way the human mind works that’s not favorable to us as teachers is that thinking skills can be very context-specific,” she noted. “It’s very hard to say that’s there some global thinking or problem-solving ability that we can simply reinforce, sprinkle that around and students will always have that. Transfer, in particular, has been a topic that educators and researchers have grappled with for a long time.”
So how to get students applying classroom concepts to real-world scenarios? For starters, said Miller, “students need a lot of practice…it does help when they have practice that keeps an underlying principle and changes the superficial details. That, after all, is what expert thinking is all about.”
When it comes to critical thinking, “we’ve found that it’s not even just being able to do it, it’s having the inclination to do it and remembering to do it in the right situations.” In encouraging students to develop critical thinking skills, Miller says it’s important to resist the urge to focus too heavily on content. Instructors should ask themselves, “what do I want my students to be able to do?” and not simply, “what do I want them to know?”
“Since transfer is important, practice is important, thinking is very context-dependent, we can think more about having students actually carry out those skills,” said Miller. She suggested activities like role playing, scenarios, problem-based learning, and case studies. And there are lots of ideas out there—some based in technology, others not—for designing and utilizing these types of activities.
Miller closed by sharing examples of some of these resources. “Sniffy the Rat” is an animation that simulates training rodents in a lab; “CogLab” turns classical research methods into simulations that students often find more accessible and engaging; a colleague of Miller’s from SUNY Oswego uses email to create fictional clients for her web development students.
Miller’s a big fan of this last idea, and it happens to be a good example of the kind of approach she hopes to inspire. “It’s not about having high tech or a lot of resources,” she said. “It’s about being creative, and really thinking and reflecting about what I want my students to be able to do, and designing an experience that carries that across.”