Monday, December 26, 2011

Study Groups

In last weeks NYT, a major piece on Mitt Romney told about his days at HBS, and the intense study methods he used to become one of the best, if not the brightest: study groups

Instead, Mr. Romney threw his energy into being the best. Nearly all business school students formed study groups to help them digest the constant flow of cases, but Mr. Romney recruited a murderers’ row of some of the most distinguished students in the class. “He and I said, hey, let’s handpick some superstars,” said Howard Serkin, a classmate.
Every day for an hour, the all-male group — there were relatively few women in the program back then — sat at a semicircular table outside the classroom and briefed one another on the reading material. It was an exercise in mutual protection, since any of them could be called on in class and their performance would affect their grades. Mr. Romney served as a kind of team captain, the other members said, pushing and motivating the others.
“He wanted to make straight A’s,” Mr. Serkin said. “He wanted our study group to be No. 1.” Sometimes Mr. Romney arrived early to run his numbers a few extra times. And if his partners were not prepared, “he was not afraid of saying: ‘You’re letting us down. We want to be the best,’ ” Mr. Serkin added.
The students were experiencing the most unusual, distinguishing aspect of a Harvard Business School education: in every class, even accounting, there were no textbooks, no theories of management, just the school’s vaunted set of cases — one-page summaries of real-life corporate situations.
The case study method “doesn’t start with the theory or even principles,” said Kim B. Clark, a friend of Mr. Romney’s who later became dean of the school. “It starts with ‘All right, what is going on? What does the data tell us?’ ”
The cases did not even lay out questions. Students had to analyze the material, sometimes just a paragraph long, figure out the company’s problems and pose solutions. “The case study method is like trying to train doctors by just showing them [sick] patients, rather than by showing them textbooks to depict what a healthy patient should look like,” said Mr. Brownstein, the former classmate.

From College Board site:

The Power of Study Groups

Working Together Helps Everyone

You may have noticed that when you’re explaining something you've learned to a friend, you begin to understand it better yourself. This happens because, when you explain an idea, you need to think more deeply about it.
The same principle makes study groups useful. Studying with others in a small group is helpful because you:
  • Think out loud.
  • Share ideas.
  • Learn from one another.
In an effective study group, you and other students hash out lesson materials together — explaining concepts, arguing about them, figuring out why one person's answer differs from another's — and in the process, you most likely learn more than you would have studying by yourself.

The Benefits of Study Groups

Group study offers other advantages in addition to gaining a deeper understanding of class material. These include the opportunity to:
Reinforce note-taking. If your AP® Biology notes are unclear, you can ask a member of your study group to help you fill the gaps.
Share talents. Each person brings different strengths, such as organizational skills, the ability to stick to a task or a capacity for memorization.
Cover more ground. Group members may be able to solve a calculus problem together that none would have solved alone.
Benefit from a support system. Members often have common goals, such as good grades. Each person’s work affects the other members, which results in making members supportive of one another. 
Socialize. It's more fun to study with others; the give-and-take makes it more interesting. And because it's more fun, you spend more time studying!

Guidelines for Getting a Group Together

Here are some guidelines for creating and running a study group:
How many? Create a group of four to six people. In a larger group, it's easy for someone to get left out and smaller groups can too easily get off track.
Who? Pick classmates who seem to share your interest in doing well academically. Look for people who stay alert in class, take notes, ask questions and respond to the teacher's questions. Include someone who understands the material better than you and can explain the concepts and someone who doesn’t understand it as well, to whom you can explain the material.
Where? Hold study group sessions in a place that is free of distractions and that has room to spread out books and notes.
How long? Meet for no more than two to three hours at a time. Having a time limit helps the group focus. If you know you only have an hour, you're more likely to stay on task.
When? Try to meet regularly, on the same day and time each week. Treating the study session as you would other activities helps you to keep to a schedule and ensures that everyone attends.

Getting the Most Out of a Session

Here are some tips to help your group get the most out of each study session:
  • Decide what you’re going to do in advance.
  • Prepare for the session, so you can make the most of your time together.
  • Take turns teaching, to reinforce your own knowledge.
  • Stick to the session topic.
By supplementing your individual study with a study group, you can reinforce what you've learned, deepen your understanding of complex concepts, and maybe even make a few new friends. Whoever said learning can't be fun?

From U Minn Handbook (

Often college is seen as a competitive place, so we tend to overlook the power of cooperation. The power of groups is widely accepted in the business world and can easily be used in your job as a student in the form of a study group.
Here are a few pointers for setting up a study group:
  1. Select people who seem to share your desire to reach your academic goals.
  2. Look for people who stay alert in class, who take notes, who ask questions, who respond to the professor's questions. (This may represent two or three different people, but that's good because you may also have different learning styles represented in your group).
  3. Limit your group to four to six people (large groups get unwieldy and small groups can too easily get off track)
  4. Schedule a meeting to "test the waters" and see how you get along together. Once the group seems to be doing well, try to schedule regular meetings.

How about some "principles" to follow in your group?
  1. Question each other on the material assigned (Be sure to have all the readings and assignments done!)
  2. Take turns "teaching" each other the material. Arthur Chickering, a student development researcher, says that often a student's "most important teacher is another student." If you have to teach a concept, you really have to know that concept, so you are not only helping the other group members, but also you are reinforcing your own knowledge.
  3. Try to predict test questions. Write them down and begin to to develop your own "test bank."
  4. Make sure someone takes the role of the session leader to keep the session productive.
  5. Compare notes. Maybe you need yours "filled in" or maybe you can help someone else "fill in" theirs.
  6. Take a few minutes at the end of the session to evaluate what you've done. (Did everyone put in their full effort? Did we concentrate on to much on one topic? How can we improve our efforts?)
  7. Plan the next meeting. Give the group assignments if appropriate.

Deliberate Practice

It is clear, after months of study in a training effectiveness project I have been pursuing, that lecture is undeserving in its continued prevalence in higher ed and secondary education.

We have a solid evidence, based on emergent systems 1 and 2 thinking, that lecture has to go.

....In this study, Wieman trained a postdoc, Louis Deslauriers, and a graduate student, Ellen Schelew, in an educational approach, called “deliberate practice,” that asks students to think like scientists and puzzle out problems during class. For 1 week, Deslauriers and Schelew took over one section of an introductory physics course for engineering majors, which met three times for 1 hour. A tenured physics professor continued to teach another large section using the standard lecture format.

The results were dramatic: After the intervention, the students in the deliberate practice section did more than twice as well on a 12-question multiple-choice test of the material as did those in the control section. They were also more engaged—attendance rose by 20% in the experimental section, according to one measure of interest—and a post-study survey found that nearly all said they would have liked the entire 15-week course to have been taught in the more interactive manner.

DP is not lecture. What it is also not is playing games or teacher entertaining the class.

At the heart of it is what Kahneman tells us about all System 2 thinking: it is effortful. It is also social and features very short feedback loops.


From Freakonomics Blog:

Thanks to recent, hugely popular books about the development of expertise, the term deliberate practice is coming into common usage as the kind of practice that produces expertise.

Deliberate practice requires careful reflection on what worked and what didn’t work. (and this is key, I think: immediate feedback) A budding concert pianist may practice a particularly troublesome passage listening for places where his fingers do not flow smoothly. A chess student may spend hours analyzing one move of a world-championship chess match trying to see what the grandmasters saw. This kind of practice demands time for reflection and intense concentration, so intense that it is difficult to sustain for longer than 3 hours per day.

As I have learned more about deliberate practice, I often think about its lessons for the educational system. And they are not happy ones.

In the grade-school years, deliberate practice is already hard to find. My strongest memory from fifth-grade mathematics is pages and pages of tedious three-digit-by-three-digit multiplication problems. Day after day! It is, alas, the kind of rote practice that I have done for chess: simply playing lots of games.

In a classic paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in Chess Expertise,” Neil Charnessand colleagues studied the effect on chess rating of different types of chess practice, including total hours of serious study (i.e., deliberate practice) and total hours of tournament play (their Table 3). The effect of deliberate practice far outweighed the effect of tournament play. Related: Gutenberg method

What does the Gutenberg Method involve? Simply this. You assign the students portions of the textbook to study before they come to class. When they come into the classroom, they are already acquainted with the material. You don't waste your time, and theirs, outlining the course. You don't waste time telling them that butyric acid smells like rancid butter, and that valeric acid smells like old socks, and other difficult intellectual concepts. The textbook has taken all that drudgery off your hands. You don't waste your time doing what Frank Lambert calls "presenting a boardful of elegantly organized material with beautiful answers to questions that the students have not asked."

The students have read the material, they have thought about it, and they have questions to ask about it. You answer these questions, or, better still, try to get them to answer their own questions, or get other students to give the answers. You ask questions. You have a discussion. If they're slow to come alive, you take up points that you know give students trouble. You lead them through difficult problems. The entire class hour becomes like those few golden moments at the end of an old-fashioned lecture when a few students manage to rise above the system and gather around your desk.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Whitehead on Education

Interpreting Whitehead today:


Romance is the first moment in the educational experience. All rich educational experiences begin with an immediate emotional involvement on the part of the learner. The primary acquisition of knowledge involves freshness, enthusiasm, and enjoyment of learning. The natural ferment of the living mind leads it to fix on those objects that strike it pre-reflectively as important for the fulfilling of some felt need on the part of the learner. All early learning experiences are of this kind and a curriculum ought to include appeals to the spirit of inquiry with which all children are natively endowed. 

The stage of precision concerns "exactness of formulation" (Whitehead 1929, p. 18), rather than the immediacy and breadth of relations involved in the romantic phase. Precision is discipline in the various languages and grammars of discrete subject matters, particularly science and technical subjects, including logic and spoken languages. It is the scholastic phase with which most students and teachers are familiar in organized schools and curricula. In isolation from the romantic impetus of education, precision can be barren, cold, and unfulfilling, and useless in the personal development of children. An educational system excessively dominated by the ideal of precision reverses the myth of Genesis: "In the Garden of Eden Adam saw the animals before he named them: in the traditional system, children named the animals before they saw them" (Whitehead 1925, p. 285). But precision is nevertheless a necessary element in a rich learning experience, and can neither substitute for romance, nor yield its place to romance. 

Generalization, the last rhythmic element of the learning process, is the incorporation of romance and precision into some general context of serviceable ideas and classifications. It is the moment of educational completeness and fruition, in which general ideas or, one may say, a philosophical outlook, both integrate the feelings and thoughts of the earlier moments of growth, and prepare the way for fresh experiences of excitement and romance, signaling a new beginning to the educational process.

Whitehead's general concept of the nature and aims of education has as its psychological corollary a conception of the rhythm of education that connects him with developmental educators such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). For Whitehead, education is a temporal, growth-oriented process, in which both student and subject matter move progressively. The concept of rhythm suggests an aesthetic dimension to the process, one analogous to music. Growth then is a part of physical and mental development, with a strong element of style understood as a central driving motif. There are three fundamental stages in this process, which Whitehead called the stage of romance, the stage of precision, and the stage of generalization.

Read more: Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) - The Nature of Education, Educational Development and the Rhythm of Growth, Universities and Professional Training - StateUniversity

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Cost vs. Value

What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing 
-Oscar Wilde

In matters of training, this distinction is an important one. It underlies all of the discussions we have about relevance and effectiveness. More and more, I see the responsibility for giving value to training to fall upon those who would learn. Without the learner's effort, attention, and experiment (Wilde also said that "experience is what we call our failures"), noting is transferred into practice and no ultimate value is ever realized.
Thus, as would-be designers of learning (not training), we need to give more attention to matters of motivation and incentive, rewards and reinforcers of learning behavior. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Artifacts and Learning

Homo faber, homo discens.
Constructivist learning theory predicts that making objects derived from subject matter would enhance retention. ("If they build it, they will learn"?) Nothing new here. Traditional artifacts generated by the teacher/school since ancient times include models, maps, graphics, specimens, photos and media. Objects created by the student have also been around forever: : term papers, reports, presentation slides, drawings, posters, and e-media objects. The classic schooling has required student reconstructions of the knowledge object usually in oral or written form as the ultimate proof of mastery.

"Creative Projects: Medical students at the U of S have an annual art auction and an example illustrating the history of medicine in Saskatchewan is currently hanging in the Westwinds Clinic. Activities like this could be expanded into the classroom to create multi-modal learning resources such as models, illustrations, visual mnemonics and simulations".

Corporate learning events don't exploit this long tradition, and the solid science behind it nearly enough. A durable instance of a group-made artifact could be a powerful trophy for the participants. Overnight book-publishing is now possible, along with 3-d printers. Framed photos, posters, imprinted gear, jump drives ("enchanted crystals"). Artifacts might endure online as well as videos, blog posts and podcasts.

Issues: artifacts would have to be more than mere off-shoots inspired by a topic, but active re-creations or instances of the content itself, as in the model above, which retains the essential geometry of the famed molecule. The work involved, hours of motor and spatial rehearsal of the model, might be expected to leave deep mnemonic traces.

Group projects would have to derive from a process where each individual interacted with the entire object; division-of-labor schemes might be efficient but miss the point of the exercise.

What we know about the power of small groups might suggest not only strong retention effects, but powerful tokening, a high sentimental value placed on the produced object. Just as a trophy may recall the "agony and ecstasy "of a footrace 20 years ago, an attractively bound book, a professionally-finished poster or DVD, or even a custom-imprinted tee shirt might become a valued keepsake long after the learning event.

Delving into participative aspects of learning:

Multi-media from a librarian's perspective:

Sensemaking. Each learner will come away with a different mental model--is that OK, or inevitable? Does this apply in math?
"One of the primary ways of connecting with others in an open course is through creating and sharingartifacts of sensemaking. These artifacts are resources produced by individual learners (diagrams, summary posts, podcasts, videos) that reflect their attempts to make sense of the course from her/his perspective." 

Good discussion and study of role of artifacts in university-level teaching:
Teaching and Learning Artifacts:

Check out anything by Semour Papert on constructivism and Mindstorms application.

Common objects, either material or digital, could enhance individual recall and retention while capitalizing on the peer-learning effects of editing, idea production, and affiliation: examples might include mediated group reports, sticky-note assemblage/pastiche, posters, or physical models  such as soda straw constructs (see Gamestorming for more).

The remembered place as scaffold for retention of exogenous verbal material (memory palaces)
Visualization of abstract material
Tactile and gestural impacts on learning and retention

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thinking about Skype

I've been "Skype-ing" for a year or more, and I am just now getting into it (aside from Skype calls to our children and grandkids, which was an instant hit). I have been "Skype-ing" close friends and colleagues more often, but I still prefer the phone for a lot of business and personal interactions, but I have not been entirely sure why.

It may seem a strange admission for a "video professional", someone who has spent decades trying to visualize everything, but it's just now sinking in on me as to why video calls might NOT become the dominant form of business communication.

It's a performance, dude. No doubt about it, a one-on-one or group video call is more of an event than a plain 'ol phone call. For one, in my experience anyway, it's still common for such calls to be mutually arranged beforehand via text or voice--as we do for conference calls. In such occasions, I can feel my "inner producer" at work. All this suggests that, regardless of the payoff, putting on a video call "game face" demands more energy from us than other, "cooler" forms of communication.

So what are the differences between the phone and the video call? It seems to me there are at least three features of video call that might account for our disinclination to use it all the time:
  • On video, we are communicating a whole lot more as we speak. Real-time voice itself is a pretty broad-band affair, compared to asynchronous text. In an ordinary phone call, there are all sorts of "paralinguistic" information carried on through emphasis, intonation, pitch and other dynamics of vocal delivery. Doing all this on video widens the data stream, adding new meaning through facial and hand gestures, head and body posture, and overall animation.
  • We are communicating even when we are not talking. As a live audience, you inadvertently give off "comprehension cues" to the speaker. These cues may be largely subliminal for both of you, but they are there and have been demonstrated to influence the interaction. If it is easier for the speaker to know when you are not "getting it", it's also easier for him to read your "fake listening". Those wonderful little phone-silences-while-they-are-talking that allowed you to scratch your nose, roll your eyes (for the benefit of others in the room), or browse your email, are sadly missing once you get on camera. Ask any poker player about the unconscious "tells" they read in other players' behaviors.

  • The props and the set communicate too. One of the great things about video calling is the ability to aim the camera at the subject matter; that new baby's blue eyes, the new work on your back deck, or the graphics for last months's sales figures. Video calls are a great way to show off those new golf clubs. In business situations, though, small bits of "theatre",  like that five o'clock shadow on your chin, or a tacky backdrop, can trump the verbal message, and work against you. Over the voice-only channel on the other hand, both sides of the conversation are freer to "illustrate" the chat with an idealized image of one another and their surroundings.
All in all, video can make us more powerful presenters, but it can make us vulnerable too. In all but the friendliest situations, it opens us up to a kind of scrutiny not possible over the phone. It brings us closer to a "public appearance", giving us more to stage-manage*. Just as we will still resort to letters or email to communicate particularly intimate or potentially reactive messages to loved ones, we may find ourselves preferring the phone for business calls when, for whatever reason, we want to present a smaller target. 

More to think about here. One wonders for example, with all of the buzz around Apple's new Facetime and Cisco's HD "telepresence", just how far the deep human need for discretion and distance will allow those media types to reach into our lives.
*Erving Goffman, in his classic "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" (1959) saw social life as a kind of theatre and "impression management" as one of the main tasks of the ego. The new work being done in unconscious processing shows the breadth and depth of this real-time computation is far greater than Goffman ever imagined.