Learning is More Important Than Teaching

Last week, I got to attend a teaching and learning conference and surprisingly, the keynote was wonderful. I say this because I have honestly been to so many conferences over the years for which the keynote was decidedly a snooze. But today, Dr. Todd Zakrajsek from the University of North Carolina gave a great talk that hammered home a lot of what I’m already doing in the classroom, but with more data to back it up! Here are my key takeaways:

“Active Learning,” though it is an overused buzzphrase, and though it is an important component of effective teaching, does NOT mean we dump the lecture entirely. Zakrajsek noted that when we use the term “passive learning,” we are immediately placing it in opposition to other ways of learning even though few of us would argue that most forms of passive learning, such as reading a book or watching a film, are necessarily ineffective. Lectures, therefore, despite being painted as the sort of boogeyman of passive learning, aren’t intrinsically bad. The most important thing to remember is that a blended approach yields the best results, according to the available data. This should be a relief to most of us, I think, who may despair at the thought of writing 75 minute lectures or preparing 45 different group work exercises for each class meeting. You don’t have to! Find a balance between student-student interaction (group work) and instructor-student interaction (lecturing).

In order to lecture effectively however, one has to be aware of “cognitive load” and how much information a brain can really absorb effectively. A lecture will max out a learner’s cognitive load at about the 15 minute mark. This is not the same thing as boredom (although anyone could be bored at anything, anytime), but is rather a function of the brain’s ability to take in information. To offset this load, lectures should be kept to short, “mini” lectures, interspersed with other learning methods. This was particularly reassuring to me, as this is often what I do in the classroom; I give short lectures to help set up concepts such as historical context or a critical theory’s main ideas, before I turn things over to a more “active” project or discussion in the class. Zakrajsek also mentioned that body language can be helpful for reinforcing concepts and information. I do this A LOT. I will walk laterally to indicate a progression of an idea, for example, or move from one side of the room to another to indicate opposing concepts. Also helpful, according to Zakrajsek: storytelling/concrete analogies to illustrate complex concepts.

The cognitive load is made up of the following components: Intrinsic Load, Extraneous Load, Germane Load. Intrinsic Load is simply how difficult or complicated the material itself is. So, for example, learning post-structuralist theory carries a higher cognitive load than learning the form of a simile. Extraneous Load is anything in the instructional process that might affect learning separate from the intrinsic load, and found in the presentation of the material to the learner. Zakrajsek used examples of things that would distract a student in the classroom such as peers chitchatting, lights not working, talking too fast (gulp!) etc. I would also add issues like mislabeled diagrams or too-small fonts to that list, as well. These are all things that take up cognitive resources in the brain, thus reducing the amount of cognition available to learn the material or solve the problem at hand. This should be decreased as much as possible. Germane Load is the remaining cognitive space which can be devoted to processing and recalling information, and should be increased as much as possible.*

Zakrajsek said that as teachers, we can affect Extraneous Load and Germane Load, but not Intrinsic Load. Some material is just hard to learn. So our job is to provide the best, most effective instruction possible (duh) in order to reduce the cognitive load so that students have the best opportunity to learn. I am sure we can all think of ways our classrooms might provide too much Extraneous Load and not enough Germane Load.

Finally, Zakrajsek provided a good way of thinking about our work in the classroom: it is “teaching focused” or “learning focused”? A good way to tell you are teaching focused is if you refuse to incorporate any student engagement techniques (say, other than lecturing) because you have “too much to cover.” Zakrajsek would say that you need to then reduce the amount of material you’re covering. If you are so wedded to what you are TEACHING rather than what/how students are LEARNING, you have a problem. This resonated with me, because it reminded me of my time teaching Group Exercise back at IU Bloomington. Our boss always reminded us that group exercise classes should be participant focused, not instructor focused. In other words, this 60 minute cardio kickboxing class is not your chance to get a good workout, or to try some brand new technique that you want to master. It is an opportunity for participants to get an intense cardio workout and learn some basic skills, and thus your teaching methods should have that goal in mind.

Teaching in the college classroom is much the same. The instructional methods used should be geared to ensuring student learning rather than reducing your prep time or allowing you to cover vast amounts of material quickly. I’ve found that working on your learning outcomes/objectives/goals/means/whatever is a great way to help you see if you are being learning focused. If you set out specific objectives and the students meet them, then you can safely say you are being more learning focused. I think these learning outcomes can be a kind of tyranny sometimes (especially because while I know there are differences among means, goals, outcomes, and objectives, I find the terms to be used nearly interchangeably, even by scholars of teaching and learning who live for this stuff), but I would really encourage anyone to do it–it does help!

I left this keynote feeling encouraged and well prepared to head back into the classroom this fall, and ready to tackle new activities, classroom experiences, and learning goals.

*Although I see that some research questions this 3 fold structure of cognitive load. For more, see the article “What Does Germane Load Mean?”

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