Tuesday, February 12, 2013

THE LEARNING TRIANGLE


I began giving teaching presentations about 10-12 years ago.   As I have said many times, I enjoyed that experience immensely because it forced me to spend serious time thinking more deeply about my own teaching.   I cannot begin to guess the number of times in the last few years that I have asked myself:
--What really happened in class today?  
--Why didn’t this work?
--How should I have changed what I did?
--What was wrong with that particular question?
--Why did the class seem unorganized?
--How did I manage to confuse so many students in that discussion?

All those questions eventually led me to begin writing about teaching and now I am up to over 250 pages.   And, I am still asking questions and still learning.

One of the very first teaching concepts that I ever developed for myself was “the learning triangle.”   I remember standing in front of 100 or so brilliant professors one day a number of years ago in one of my very first presentations trying to explain how the learning triangle could help their students to become more efficient.

I was reminded of this today as I contemplated giving my first test on Friday.   My guess is that a lot of the teachers who read this blog will also be handing out their first test around now.   I always believe the first test presents a good time, every semester, to stop and contemplate whether the students are progressing as you would like.   Are changes needed?    After the semester is over, there is nothing you can do to fix problems.   Why not consider making adjustments after looking over the results of the first test?

In sports, I am always impressed by basketball and football coaches who make halftime adjustments and get their team to suddenly play better.   Teachers should consider doing the same thing.   If the coaches can do it, so can you.

That brings me to the learning triangle.   Simply put, I believe that student learning is most affected at three specific points.  
--The first is how well students prepare before they walk into class.  
--The second is how efficiently the class operates.  
--The third is what the students do following the class to help organize and solidify their understanding. 

If a class is not going well, if a teacher needs to make some adjustments, then improvement in one of those three points of the triangle should help.  

Too often, we focus solely on the classroom experience.   For example, you might ask a veteran professor to observe your class and make suggestions.   And, in truth, a class can be a disorganized mess if the teacher has not spent sufficient time thinking through the step by step structure of the 50-90 minutes that make up most classes.   For example, if class coverage is not sequenced logically, the whole experience really can seem like an effort to herd cats.

However, I have long been a believer that the most benefit can be gained by focusing on the other two points of the learning triangle:   class preparation and the organizing and solidifying of understanding immediately after class.  

Class Preparation:   From my experience, a vast majority of students walk into class each day under-prepared to learn.  They have not been told what to do to ready themselves for class.   Or, they have not seen sufficient reason to exert much effort prior to entering the room.   I often raise this question and I think it is worth considering:   If students are not well prepared, what are they capable of doing during your class other than sitting like lumps taking notes?   You cannot ask a student to have a thoughtful discussion of Hamlet if the student merely skimmed the play.   You cannot ask students to provide insight into recent politics if they have not checked on the news in two weeks.   The kinds of discussions and debates that make college education so very wonderful are absolutely impossible if students walk into class under-prepared.   At that point, Socrates himself would throw up his hands.

What is the solution?   (1) Give the students very clear cut instructions on what you want them to do in advance.   Do not be vague.   Tell them the exact pages to read.   Point out the questions that you want them to answer.   Make the assignment a challenge but make it one that they can complete in a reasonable period of time.   (2) Make sure the assignments are reasonably interesting.   Ask good questions that make the students think and want to know the answer.   Don’t make learning a drudgery.   All topics can be enjoyable if they are approached in the right manner.  (3) Tie the subsequent class to that assignment in some very clear way.   If you tell a student to read the first 10 pages of Chapter 6 for class and then you never mention those pages, don’t expect the student to pay any attention the next time you give an assignment.   A student will label an assignment as “busy work” if you do not convince them otherwise.   The assignment has to tie into class in some important way.   (4) If a student does not do the preparation that has been required, you have to call them on it.   I send emails to students saying things like “I expect you to do better at our next class” or I call them to my office to find out why I am working so hard and they are not.  

Trust me – if you can increase the level of student preparation, you will be startled by how much more interesting class will become.   A lot of the burden of teaching is trying to figure out how to help unprepared students to learn.   And, that is never fun.

After Class.   No matter how smart your students are, they will leave every class with a brain full of disorganized material.   They simply cannot absorb college-level information quickly enough in class.   I always tell them that the knowledge will seep out of their brains in record time if they do not do some work very quickly after class.  

One of the best exercises is to simply ask them to write out what they learned in a couple of paragraphs.   Because words, sentences, and paragraphs are all sequential, this writing helps them to figure out how the pieces should go together.    A one page synopsis titled “What We Covered Today In Class” can be a great help to any student.   Or, perhaps you can provide some review questions or a practice problem.   
 
Since I teach accounting, I often send out an email almost immediately after class with this admonition:  “If you learned what I wanted you to learn today, then you should be able to work the following problem in 30 minutes without looking at your notes.   The answer is $385.   If you get that answer, you probably have a good handle on today’s work.   If you cannot get $385 in a reasonable period of time, come by and you and I can talk about what you missed.”  

To use an old cliché, teaching is not brain surgery.   I can promise you that if you figure out how to get your students to prepare better before they come to class and if you can figure out how to help them sort and organize the material after class, the learning will improve rather dramatically.   

And, you and the students both will enjoy the class more.

To make a halftime adjustment, focus on the points of the learning triangle.

 

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