HPL II – Ch 5 – Knowledge and Reasoning

This is the third in a series of posts examining the new text How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures a companion to How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. In this post I share my reaction to chapter 4: Processes that Support Learning.

Iterative knowledge building, learning and knowledge-related biases, and the value of “desirable difficulties” and elaborative interrogation are only four of the topics covered in this chapter but they are more than enough to focus on for this blog posting.

Learning Iteration and Bias

Meaning making is knowledge building and it’s a task all learners work through based on experiences they’ve had inside and outside of structured educational environments. As noted in chapter 4 memory is a “partial” but not a “perfect” record of what actually happened. In this chapter the authors further explain how

“…memory traces with common elements [that] are simultaneously activated and linked, knowledge is expanded and memories are iteratively reworked” (p. 86).

A web of connections to present and past experiences underscores all of the work that learners are doing to make meaning of new pieces of knowledge.

Picture of author as a child

Me as a novice learner. Strawberry Shortcake was my alter ego.

“…studies underscore the active role of the learner; that is, even young children do not simply accrue knowledge from what they have experienced directly but build knowledge from the many things that they have figured out on their own” (p. 87).

Expertise comes with many benefits and is most often seen as an asset in any environment, but although experts can organize their knowledge more efficiently and effectively, they also often have learning biases which are “implicit and unknown to the individuals that hold them” (p. 91).  A learner’s initial level of knowledge can also impact their interpretation of new knowledge (p. 92). Biases can have both positive and negative consequences. They can:

  • “Undermine the acquisition of new knowledge and skills” (p. 91)
  • “…blind individuals to new evidence” (p. 92)
  • “Promote well-being and health” (p. 92)
  • “Refine perception and serve to blur distinctions within categories that are not meaningful” (p. 92)

Desirable Difficulties & Problem Based Learning

Some of the desirable difficulties or “useful challenges” that are identified in this chapter as the best ways to positively impact learning include:

  1. “Retrieval practice
  2. Spaced practice
  3. Interleaved and varied practice
  4. Summarizing and drawing
  5. Explanations: elaborative interrogation, self explanation and teaching” (p. 98)

Problem based learning can also present useful challenges to learners and the learners point out that this learning technique “…instills in learners flexible knowledge use, effective problem-solving skills, self-directed learning, collaboration and intrinsic motivation” (p. 94).

Putting it into practice

So how do you apply this to the classroom? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Have students start a unit of study with a self reflection of what they already know about the topic. Use this as a starting point for them to examine as they move through the unit of study so they actively identify ideas/concepts that are disputed or different than what is being discussed and studied in class. Encourage them to examine why that is. Where did the original understanding come from? Is there some truth there?
  2. Identify content in your class that students need to know quickly in order to access other knowledge. Definitions and calculations often fit nicely into this category, however you could also use this activity with a topic like connecting the correct genre to a piece of writing to help students become more comfortable with identifying and differentiating between different genres of writing. Using a quiz mechanism return to this practice of retrieving the correct answer/classification throughout the semester using different examples and questions. By spacing out these practices you will further strengthen students’ knowledge and retrieval skills
  3. Design a problem based unit of student that requires students to explain and teach complex topics to support their proposed solution. This activity has the added benefit of providing potential presentation and public speaking practice. Like this — SO AMAZING!!

What’s up next?

Next week we’ll take a look at one of my favorite topics – motivation.

Pumpkins and Processes that Support Learning

This is the third in a series of posts examining the new text How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures a companion to How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. In this post I share my reaction to chapter 4: Processes that Support Learning. PS: You’re going to have to read a bit to understand the relevance of pumpkins – but trust me – it’s in here. 🙂

In this chapter the authors explore the ways that learners use different processes to put the pieces of learning together. The authors refer to this as “orchestrating learning” and explain that it is comprised of three core parts: 1. metacognition, 2. executive function and 3. self regulation (p. 70). Some of the findings in this section that were most intriguing to me included:

Development and Decline of Executive Function

“Components of executive function develop and decline in neither linear nor binary (all or nothing) fashion” (p. 72).

Since so much of learning is built on a structure of building skills over time, it was interesting to consider that this is not the timeline on which all components of executive function get stronger or weaker.

Becoming Self-Regulated Learners

“Successful self-regulated learners have developed the skills and habits to be effective learners, exhibiting effective learning strategies, effort, and persistence” (p. 73).

The concept that learners can be taught methods to improve self-regulation is particularly exciting when I think about the world of online education where self-regulation is a critical component. This indicates that scaffolding in skills and habits to help students be successful, can be an effective way to address and correct deficits in this area.


Picture of a pumpkin

My pumpkin…grown just a few years after I drew my first one.

I learned the most about memory in this chapter. As I read about the way that the brain processes, uses, and recalls memories I couldn’t help but think of some of my earliest memories and consider the reason why those memories are clearer than others. One of these memories is of drawing a pumpkin that was sitting on a big pink circle. I still have that picture. It’s tacked into my baby book and highlighted as my first piece of “art”. After reading through this chapter I wondered whether my memory of drawing the picture is strengthened or completely derived by the baby book entry.

To explain consider that the authors point out that the common conceptual model of memory as a “filing cabinet” is faulty. The authors explain:

“What the storage metaphor does not capture is the fact that learning actually involves skills for reconstructing memories based on past experiences and cues in the present environment” (p. 74).


“The representation is not a perfect copy of the world but rather a partial record of the individual’s subjective interpretation and perception” (p.75).

So it is entirely possible that my memory of drawing the picture is recalled from a partial record of the visual imagery in the book and the memories my parents have shared of that time.

Connecting Memory to Learners

I found the following three connections to educational contexts and working with learners’ memory to be most impactful in my work to support learning design:

  • “First undue weight should not be placed on any single assessment of learner’s knowledge and skills.”

  • “Second memories are reconstructed more easily in situations that feel conducive and relevant to the content of the memory” (p. 77)

  • “…help learners recognize and leverage their strengths in other contexts” (p. 77).

For example, many athletes can use their experiences playing sports to consider elements of physics (the movement of a ball) or interpersonal skills (teamwork and leadership).

Putting it into practice

Using the information from this chapter here are four action-oriented steps that you can take to integrate these findings into your curriculum to improve student learning:

  1. Explicitly teach skills and habits to help students become successful self-regulated learners. For example, topics such as time management, discipline specific note-taking methods, and self-checks on understanding would all work towards this goal.
  2. Use multiple assessments to measure student learning and use the information collected by these assessments to develop a more holistic understanding of the students’ strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Make instruction relevant/connected to student experience in order to make it easier for students to process and remember course content. Presenting examples that feel familiar to students can help to achieve this goal.
  4. Early in the semester have students self-assess their learning strengths and weaknesses and identify one step to work on to strengthen a weaker skill. Return to this work throughout the course and ask the students to reflect on their growth in this skill at the conclusion of the semester.

Looking Ahead…

Next up is chapter 5 which focuses on knowledge and reasoning. As a parent – I’m particularly interested in the reasoning portion of this chapter!


Picture of a closet

How People Learn II: Types of Learning and the Developing Brain

This is the second in a series of posts examining the new text How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures a companion to How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. In this post I share my reaction to chapter 3: Types of Learning and the Developing Brain.

Chapter 3 of HPL II focused on discussing different types of learning and examples to demonstrate that learning. It was fascinating to examine the different ways that learning occurs and apply those different types to various teaching methods.

My take-aways from this reading:


“…the prevalence of habit-driven acts shows that much of our behavior is not consciously chosen” (p. 39)

Remembering being a novice & perceptual learning

“It is easy to forget how dramatically people’s perceptions and actions can be changed by experience because once they have changed, the individual no longer has access to the earlier perception” (p. 44-45)

“The importance of perceptual learning for academic topics can easily be underestimated. One reason is that experts may not realize how much of their understanding steps from perceptual learning” (p. 48-49)

The impact of “critical and sensitive periods in development”

“The best-known example of a critical period is that for development of vision: without the opportunity for sight during certain periods of infancy, the brain will forever be visually impaired” (p. 57)

Brain Adaptation in Response to Learning

“The reciprocal interactions in learning between the dynamically changing brain and culturally situated experience form a fascinating developmental dance, the nuances of which are not yet fully understood” (p. 59).

“Individuals are not infinitely adaptive, but the extent to which they can rise to cultural expectations when provided with opportunities and support is impressive” (p. 62)


Novices, experts and messy closets…

I’m always intrigued by writings that explore the differences, weaknesses and strengths of novice and expert learners because teachers need to float in this space to really be successful. They need to have the expert in-depth knowledge of their discipline to provide context to facts and methods to help new learners make sense of new knowledge, but they must also remember what it was like to be a novice to be able to empathize and support their students.

Picture of a closet

Closet by Sofy Marquez, cc licensed on flickr at https://flic.kr/p/aDLzzs

I envision learning like a closet. If you throw facts at a new learner it’s like throwing clothes on the floor of a closet. You get a pile of junk that all needs to be sifted through to find one piece of information. If a teacher structures their content in a way that contextualizes each piece of information and works to connect it to other ideas and methods in their discpline, they are placing those clothes on sorted hangers. It provides a structure, or schema for students to more quickly and logically connect ideas and sequences in ways that make sense. An added complexity explored in HPL II is the way in which cultural schemas can impact knowledge creation and interpretation.


picture of a boy wearing headphones

So you want to podcast….

picture of a boy wearing headphones

boy_stand_headphones by Tom Ray, cc licensed on flickr at https://flic.kr/p/4V6Zfm

Since I started working in Academic Technology five years ago interest in podcasting has remained relatively constant. Over the years we’ve worked to streamline processes and recommendations to make the process of creating a podcast as straight forward as possible. Podcasting is a great way to strengthen a student writers’ voice and encourage them to connect to new audiences in a conversational tone. It also provides a means to consider how ideas and concepts should be organized to tell a story to listeners as well as how reorganizing can shape or manipulate a message.

If you are interested in getting started with Podcasting here are some great resources to familiarize you with the process of creating and teaching the assignment.

Teaching Podcasting: A Curriculum for Educators (from NPR)

Podcasting with Youth Radio (from KQED Teach)

NPR Training – Storytelling Tips and Best Practices

Additional Resources for Middlebury students, faculty & staff:

Suggested podcasting timeline/workflow

Audacity Lynda tutorial

Garageband Lynda tutorial

Equipment Borrowing at Middlebury

Make an appointment with a member of DLINQ

Audio Components

ccMixter – Creative Commons licensed audio files (background music, etc)

Internet Archive – non-profit digital library

Creative Commons Search – a means to search creative commons licensed media files

How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts and Cultures

This is the first of a series of posts examining the new text How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures a companion to How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. In this post I share my reaction to chapter 2: Context and Culture.

“Learning does not happen in the same way for all people because cultural influences pervade development from the beginning of life.” (p. 22)

In this chapter the author’s dig into the concept of culture and how it impacts not only “what people learn but also how they learn” (p. 23). The impact of culture on an individual’s learning is vast when all of the components of culture are taken into account. The chapter covers topics including:

  • The role of culture in learning and development
  • Learning as social activity
  • The dynamic interaction of culture, biology and context
  • Social and emotional influences
  • Physical influences

Some of the most interesting takeaways:

The importance of early childhood education and childcare:

“A large body of work published before HPL I (but not addressed here) established that socialization practices – caretakers’ ways of interacting with children – shape how children learn, what they learn, how quickly they learn, and even what the developmental end point of that learning is (for everything from walking to how they interact socially).” (p. 24)

Cultural impacts on biology & childhood development:

“Human development, from birth throughout life, takes place through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interactions between the human individual (an active, biopsychlogical organism) and that individual’s immediate physical and social environments. Through these dynamic interactions, culture influences even the biological aspects of learning.” (p. 28)

The impact of emotion on learning and motivation:

“People are willing to work harder to learn the content and skills they are emotional about, and they are emotionally interested when the content and skills they are learning seem useful and connected to their motivations and future goals” (p. 30)

Strong beginnings

As I read this chapter I couldn’t help thinking about how much of this content is driven by the very beginnings of children’s lives and how little influence our institutions of education have on those circumstances. It also reminded me of some work that has been done to identify the high return on investment in early childhood education. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania has collected some great research and articles about this topic here.


Assessing Participation

Picture of a classroom full of desk

old school by alamosbasement via flickr, cc licensed at https://flic.kr/p/6r26iv

Whenever I discuss grading or assessment with a teacher, participation ultimately comes up in some form. One part of the conversation usually focuses on the goal of assessing participation such as improving verbal explanatory and argumentative skills, and then turns to how that assessment is recorded in a learning management system. Although there is plenty to discuss in terms of the goals of assessing participation, this article will focus on the logistics of recording participation in an LMS and differing ways of configuring this in Canvas.

First, a few things to consider:

  1. Do you want students to see their participation grades as they progress through the course? Are you using this as a barometer that students can use to improve their participation?
  2. Is completion of assignments factored into a part of your participation grade?
  3. Is attendance factored into participation?

Sharing Participation Grades

If you want your students to see their progression in this area you will need to:

  1. Make sure that your gradebook is visible to students on the Canvas menu
  2. Design your gradebook so that a weekly participation grade is entered/calculated

Factoring Attendance into Participation

We suggest calculating a daily amount for attendance and manually awarding points based on the students’ attendance for the week. However, you will want to consider what you will do in the case that a student is absent due to a cause that is not under their control.

Factoring Assignment Completion into Participation

If these assignments are only assessed based on completion this can be set up in Canvas for assignments and discussions. However, if you are also assessing the content of the assignment/discussion forum post, you will need to consider an alternate assessment method that may involve dual scores if you want to be sure to break out the participation component.

Questions of Pedagogy

All of these considerations will provoke additional pedagogical questions. For example:

  • What role does attendance play in the learning process? Is it possible that that role is actually conveyed in another assessment tool that you are using?
  • Similarly, does assessing the completion of assignments demonstrate the achievement of a learning goal?
  • Are you providing multiple means of participation to ensure that you involve all your students?

Assessing participation on a weekly basis can be time consuming so you’ll want to ensure that this time is accomplishing your goals. In many cases there are alternate methods that will result in the same or a similar outcome.

Picture of baseballs with Ted Williams batting averages written on the balls

What’s a grade distribution graph?

Picture of baseballs with Ted Williams batting averages written on the balls

Ted Williams Batting Average Chart – National Baseball Hall of Fame by Dan Gaken via Flickr at https://flic.kr/p/nVoGTJ

Did you know that by default your students are able to view grade distribution graphs in Canvas? This feature allows students to see the high, low and mean scores for the class. However, faculty can disable this feature while still retaining the ability to view this information for themselves.

To disable this feature for students follow these instructions.

Small move #4: Student-centered course design using Canvas

Picture of an old teacher's desk

Teacher’s Desk – Linn School, by Todd Petrie, cc licensed on Flickr at https://flic.kr/p/omuFWN

This is the 4th in a series of posts to cover small actionable steps you can make to create a more student-centered course design in Canvas. These moves were developed from the Zoom session hosted on October 25th.

Small Move # 4: Virtual office hours

How convenient can you make it for students to have one-on-one time with you? By coupling Canvas’ scheduler function with your personal Zoom room you can offer flexible office hours without having to adhere to a set physical location meeting space.

To set up online office hours using the scheduler in Zoom follow these instructions.

To get started using Zoom visit help documentation here.

What does this look like to students?

To view this functionality from a student perspective contact me to be added into a course space designed to demo this feature.


Small Move #3: Student-Centered Course Design Using Canvas

Image of tired student with text "What are your students' concerns?"

How do you know unless you ask?

This is the 3rd in a series of posts to cover small actionable steps you can make to create a more student-centered course design in Canvas. These moves were developed from the Zoom session hosted on October 25th.

Small Move #3: Interest Surveys

To be able to tailor some of the content or options available to your students throughout your class is helpful to know their interests and questions as early on in the semester as possible. You can use the ungraded survey (quiz) option in Canvas to construct some quick questions that can help you collect info that would be helpful to you when making these adjustments.

As you create your questions think carefully about what information is helpful to you and how you might use that info in your course. Most will find this to be an iterative design process that they tweak each semester to best serve their needs based on previous semesters’ responses and your unique course content.

Connected Canvas Help Topics:

Creating a survey in Canvas

Viewing survey results in Canvas

What does this look like to students?

To view this functionality from a student perspective contact me to be added into a course space designed to demo this feature.

Vulnerability, messy learning & research — How can we be better?

Picture of a sunrise

Every new day is a new chance to learn.

A synopsis of chapter 8 “Teacher Learning” of How People Learn.

This chapter of How People Learn (HPL) focused on ways that teachers continue to learn once they are in their own classroom and how those compare to what we know about how people learn. The authors categorized the opportunities for learning for practicing teachers into three buckets:

  • Their own practice
  • Interactions with other teachers
  • From teacher educators in the schools (HPL, p. 191)

What I found most intriguing about this chapter is something which I have personally noticed about my teaching practice: the impact that being a parent has on my ability to teach. The authors noted that teachers “…learn about the intellectual and moral development in their roles of parents” (p. 192). This is not to say that a person without children cannot teach, however being a parent provides a unique longitudinal perspective of children’s development over years rather than semesters that can significantly impact an individual’s understanding of where a student might currently fall on that developmental spectrum.

The learning opportunities for teachers were also examined using the framework of learning environments that I discussed in my last blog post here. As a refresher those environments were:

  • Learner-centered
  • Knowledge-centered
  • Assessment-centered
  • Community-centered

I was most interested in the section on being knowledge-centered as it focused on the ways in which teacher prep programs impact this centering. For a little personal background, I attended an undergraduate college with a primary focus on education majors (k-12) that was founded as a teacher’s college. I was an English major with a focus in Secondary Education, however I was friends with several students in the Elementary Ed and Early Ed degree programs and I found it fascinating to see the differences in our curricula. The difference in comfort-level with specific subjects was very interesting. In my quick summary – it appeared that secondary ed majors were trained as specialists in content and generalists in pedagogy, whereas the El Ed and Early Ed majors were specialists in pedagogy and childhood development and generalists in content. It was satisfying to see this observation reflected in the HPL authors’ inventory of challenges facing teacher prep programs:

“4-year undergraduate degrees make it difficult for prospective elementary teachers to learn subject matter and for prospective secondary teachers to learn about the nature of learners and learning” (HPL, p. 202)

Consequently many student teachers feel vulnerable in various components of their student teacher placements. As the authors note:

“Learning involves making oneself vulnerable and taking risks, and this is not how teachers often see their role” (HPL, p. 195)

I immediately thought of all of my observations when I was student teaching and teaching in high school and how those lesson plans were always my least ‘risky’. I wanted to be in complete “control” of those lessons and project a classroom that “looked like good learning”. The problem is, in my experience and through much of what I’m reading in HPL, students often learn the most in very “messy” environments.

“When they [teachers] encourage students to actively explore issues and generate questions, it is almost inevitable that they will encounter questions that they cannot answer — and this can be threatening” (HPL, p. 195).

Raise your hand if you want to tell a student “I don’t know” while being observed by your direct supervisor. This is especially true if the culture of the school does not support the significance of this type of learning.

“Beginning teachers are especially influenced by the nature of the schools in which they begin their teaching” (HPL, p. 204).

Lastly, the authors attention to the way in which educational research is detached from classroom practice demonstrates one of the most wide-reaching negative impacts on the teaching profession as it is seeded at the beginning of most teachers’ careers.

“…a message is sent to prospective teachers that research in education, whether on teaching or learning, has little to do with schooling, and therefore, that they do not need to learn about the findings from research” (HPL, p. 202).

The example that always springs to mind is the many times I have heard teachers talk to other teachers and students about learning styles. In 2008 Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer and Robert Bjork authored an article titled “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. In their paper they outlined the research methodology that would be required to prove or disprove the science of learning styles and concluded that “…there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number” (“Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence”, p.105).

In 2017, in an article titled “Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?” in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Philip M. Newton and Mahallad Miah, the authors point out that “…a substantial number of participants (32%) stated that they would continue to use Learning Styles despite being presented with the lack of an evidence base to support them…” (“Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?”) which reinforces the authors of HPL’s stance that teachers are taught that

“…educational theory and research have little to do with classroom practice” (HPL, p. 203).

So my question to you – how does this change? Why don’t we listen to the research?