What Promotes Learning: Practice, Practice, Practice, Reflection (Digital Tools Can Help)

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This reflection meanders a bit before it gets to the heart of the matter. Its object is teaching practice in general, but much of the thinking that took place as my fingers worked at the keyboard was overshadowed and inflected by the notion of e-learning. The genesis of this piece lies in a note that I wrote to myself some time ago about online teaching, and that I have been trying to understand and elaborate on: “Quantity of engagement. Not necessarily quality. Just something to keep in mind.”

This semester (spring 2019), I will be teaching an online (read: e-learning) course. This is my second iteration of formal/group teaching online, and the fourth time that I have taught in a fully digitally mediated way. (I have also done two digitally mediated tutorials.) Having learned a great deal and having benefitted enormously from “e-learning” myself via MOOCs, however imperfect these vehicles might be, I am convinced of the value of e-learning, of digital technologies for communication and/or collaboration, and digital spaces for learning. Unlike many colleagues in my academic department, indeed, across the College of Arts and Sciences at my university, I believe that undergraduate students can indeed learn robustly, significantly and consequentially online. I believe quite sincerely that digital technologies can — but do not necessarily do so — permit real and consequential communication, knowledge-building, research and shared reflection, even among ostensibly immature undergraduates. I believe that digital technologies allow a greater range of possibility in learning.

Of course, and therein lies the rub, it generally depends on the seriousness, attention and self-discipline of the learner who engages in digital learning. In the case of mature and highly motivated adult learners, instructors can count on significant levels of engagement and focused intellectual performance. What is more, adult learners have more experience and more cognitive slots to accommodate new knowledge and new experiences. Those conditions contrast with, for example, general-education teaching of immature undergraduates who sometimes have difficulty focusing on tasks, or manage their time poorly, or just generally fail to do what it takes to understand, to learn, to grow intellectually.

So… it depends on the learner. It also depends on the instructor. Some professors are quite adept at facilitating digital conversations and digital collaborations. Indeed, some professors know how to use the affordances of digital environments to promote and facilitate connection, collaboration and communication for high-quality communal learning. Some professors are adept at motivating even “unmotivated” students.

Increasingly, I am of the opinion that what is important is not so much the quality of what students do as it is the quality of the instruction and the pre-organization and scaffolding of learning experiences. For the learner, what is important is the quality of their attention and motivation, not the quality of their performance. So, it is the instructor’s duty to motivate and scaffold in order to assure a certain quantity of learner engagement with well-defined, well-organized activities, reflective practices and collaborative knowledge-building. Indeed, there are ways in which what we call “quality” turns out, in fact, to be a question of quantity. (How much time, how much thought, how many reasonable arguments generated, etc.) The optimal result is to encourage all students to engage in significant amounts of practice, in a number of different helpful learning activities, and to pursue substantive amounts of sincere and engaged reflection. That’s what it takes. Practice, practice, practice — and experience and reflection. If you properly manage that combination, learning happens. I don’t quite want to say: “Quality be damned.” But I do believe that, say, in writing, an intense professorial focus on providing highly detailed feedback about the quality of writing, or offering suggestions for improving its quality, will ultimately be less useful than simply providing many opportunities to write, stoking motivations that push the learner to spend large swaths of time engaged in the processes of writing, reflecting on writing, and revising that work.

In my own teaching, I think I’m going to shift my rubrics from a focus on quality per se to focusing on the amount and intensity of certain kinds of intellectual labor that learners devote to tasks. To teach well, it’s not a matter of monitoring the quality of student products and promoting increases in quality of production. It’s about assuring that learners make a lot of effort in a variety of learning tasks, lots of efforts and products that are “good enough.” That’s more important, probably, than striving for perfection or excellence by pushing my own standards of quality.

This idea — preferring quantity of practice that is “good enough” and is varied vs. focusing on the quality of each student product or performance — is worth considering further. It is inspired largely by the way some e-learning experiences are structured and evaluated, with the effect of maximizing practice and reflection without focusing explicitly and obsessively on teacher assessment of the “quality” of student products. It think that there is real merit to this intuition.

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