Follow (learning) science and put problem solving at the center of teaching



The disruption of higher education due to Covid-19, especially the sudden forced shift to online and digital learning, has spurred a lot of thinking about the lessons and improvements that higher education institutions (HEIs) could withdraw from this experience. Here we develop our contribution to a recent Global Learning Council report on the digital transformation of higher education, focusing on the most critical aspects of teaching and learning.

A learning transformation, not a digital transformation

The digital tools and the data they can provide have great potential to improve almost any large-scale human activity, including education. However, this only happens if these tools are used properly. Technology can take an educational approach and make it more available, reliable, affordable, and data-rich, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more efficient. To be truly effective, technology must be based on an evidence-based learning approach (not so typical in higher education today) and it must do two things: provide students with the opportunity to practice meaningful and realistic problem solving, and follow it up with feedback that will help them hone these skills.

Learning outcomes and environments should reflect the science of learning

The most important educational need in modern society is to have citizens and a workforce capable of solving complex real world problems. To achieve this, one must move away from the traditional curriculum built around a historical canon of knowledge to be memorized and instead focus on teaching the skills and knowledge used by modern experts.

It turns out that finding out what top performers decide and do takes a concerted effort – careful interviewing to unpack the conscious and often unconscious (during practice) decisions they make. Getting all students to learn to do things this way should be the goal of higher education educational outcomes. While HEIs often claim to aspire to such goals, in fact most teachings, textbooks and exams focus on learning facts and procedures.

Achieving this more ambitious learning outcome will only be possible if universities use what we know about human learning to create optimal learning experiences. Such experiences would require learners to spend most of their time practicing decision making and problem solving, then getting feedback and incorporating that feedback into later practice.

Of course, learners need knowledge, but it is best learned in the context of using it to make decisions and solve realistic problems. This develops an “expert” organization of knowledge which optimizes its productive application.

Research also suggests that different types of learning outcomes benefit from different types of practice:

  • Knowledge that skilled practitioners frequently use in different contexts, separated in time
  • Recognize the key factors in solving a new problem through repeated practice by examining contrasting cases – rank the factors in a variety of situations
  • Learn key relationships by a) predicting the results of changing inputs, and b) diagnosing the sources of a faulty output
  • Establish principles for incorporating uncertainty into decisions by practicing making relevant choices, with peer discussions and instructor feedback
  • Put all the pieces together to create solutions to problems by practicing explicitly.

Students should also acquire interpersonal problem-solving skills. They should practice collecting and giving feedback and organizing projects with a diverse range of peers, striving to maximize everyone’s contributions and success.

A learning transformed SEA would also match learning experiences to learners’ contexts and prior mastery. This avoids both repeating what learners already have mastered and overloading them with too many new things. Learners in higher education institutions bring many backgrounds and experiences. If teaching is appropriately linked to this range of experiences, each student’s learning is enhanced.

To learn even in the best-designed learning environments, learners must be motivated to put in great mental effort. This develops enhanced brain capacities, analogous to strengthening a muscle through intense exercise. A learning transformed HEI would ensure that all teachers know how to maximize learner motivation, including recognizing which factors improve motivation and which factors inhibit it. Research has revealed important inhibitory factors and how they can be treated:

  • The mismatch between the way the material is presented and the learner’s past experiences and future aspirations
  • The learner has been misled into thinking that he cannot master the material or how to try (for example, being told that he “has no mathematical brain”)
  • They see things that prevent their success (like their teacher or their environment).

Faculty must recognize that the background and beliefs of each student are important in finding the best way to support motivation; One size does not fit all.

Teachers’ attitudes towards student learning and student achievement are also critical. The belief of some teachers in innate talent, and the associated belief that they should seek to “eliminate the less talented”, is very damaging. These negative faculty attitudes tend to be rooted in the cultures of particular disciplines and institutions. Teachers need to recognize that what is perceived as talent is usually just an educational privilege, and that almost all HEI students can be successful with appropriate (expert) instruction.

Transforming learning requires continuous improvement

Higher education institutions need to take a stance of continuous improvement in their learning environments and outcomes. There should be a culture of collecting high quality evidence on the learning environment and learner outcomes (motivation, persistence and learning). It is important to analyze them for all parts of the student body to ensure that all are successful. This evidence should guide changes in curriculum and teaching practices, and document the impact of any changes.

There must also be a system of evaluation and teaching incentive based on the extent to which each faculty member uses the best teaching methods and achieves the best results for the students. There should be training aligned with the assessment system and guided by research on learning, in this case learning pedagogical expertise.

The pandemic has been an international tragedy, but it has pushed higher education institutions into new territory of rapid educational change. If HEIs can embrace this trajectory of change to create a continuously improving, evidence-based future, then faculty, learners and the society they serve will all benefit.

Carl Wieman is professor of physics and the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University and Bror Saxberg is vice president of science learning at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.



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