An Interview with Stephen M. Kosslyn: Active Learning Online

Feb 3, 2021 by

Active Learning Online: Five Principles that Make Online Courses Come Alive:  Kosslyn, Stephen M.: 9781735810706: Books

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself- your education and experience?

Sure. First, let me say a few words about what I’m doing now and how I got here: I currently am the President of Active Learning Sciences, Inc., and the Chief Academic Officer of Foundry College. Prior to that, I was the Founding Dean and Chief Academic Officer of the Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute. And before that, I served as Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University after having been chair of the Department of Psychology, Dean of Social Science, and the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. While at Harvard, I was also co-director of the Mind of the Market Lab at Harvard Business School and a member of the Department of Neurology at the Mass. General Hospital. I received a B.A. from UCLA and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, both in psychology.

My research has focused on visual cognition, visual communication, and the science of learning; in the past decade or so I’ve really doubled down on the science of learning and worked out ways to apply theory and lab findings to practice. I’ve authored or coauthored 14 books and over 350 papers on these topics. I’ve received numerous honors, including the National Academy of Sciences Initiatives in Research Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three honorary Doctorates, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

2) When did you first get involved in online learning?

I got seriously involved in online learning in 2013, when I was the Founding Dean and the first faculty member at a start-up university, the Minerva Project. (Looking back, I’m nostalgic about how easy it was to convene faulty meetings and how little dissent there was—but Minerva soon grew much, much larger and those early days became only a dim memory.) I was charged with laying out the curriculum and developing the pedagogy. All courses at Minerva are delivered live over a propriety teaching platform, which eventually evolved into what is now the Minerva Forum. I spearheaded developing new forms of active learning that could take advantage of unique features of the platform, which in turn led to new features being added to the platform (such as those that monitor the amount of time each student has talked, which gives the instructor information about which student to call on next).

3) Obviously, recently there has been a trend toward online learning and Zoom- due to Covid 19- to use another phrase ” What hath Covid 19 wrong” or brought about?

Yes, there was a rush to teach over Zoom, precipitated by the virus. For many instructors, their initial impulse was simply to try to do what they had been doing before, but now lecture into a camera. This typically did not go very well. It reminds me of what happened at the advent of movies, when plays were simply filmed, which also was not optimal; different media have different requirements and invite different approaches.

My impression is that a lot of instructors have now figured this out, and I’m hoping that instructors have learned that some sorts of teaching can actually be better online than in person—such as small group interactions. By the same token, my sense is that many students have also come to appreciate that online education is more effective than they previously believed.

Thus, I don’t think the end result of the forced use of online education will be all bad—but, clearly, there still are advantages to “face-to-face” live instruction (such as the possibility of accidental encounters outside of class), and many have come to appreciate the value of such advantages even more than they did before.

4)_ Parameters- how young can a student be and what grade and how do we determine the effectiveness of online learning for first graders for example?

This is a difficult question to answer, in part because there are many different sorts of “online learning,” which can be more or less appropriate for given types of subject matter at different ages. If we are talking about synchronous (i.e., in real time) online, of the sort possible via Zoom for example, then students at all ages can take part. However, the younger the student, the shorter the amount of time one can teach at a stretch. And, of course, the nature of the material must be very different at different ages.

About how to determine effectiveness: There are three crucial ingredients. First, you need clear learning objectives; you need to know exactly what it is you want the students to learn (otherwise you won’t know what to assess). Second, you need a way to measure the learning outcomes, what the students actually achieved.

There are many such assessment measures that can be used even with very young children, ranging from simple true/false tests to complex performance (e.g., playing a tune or making a sketch). When performance measures are used, they can be videoed and recorded and then graded via a rubric. For older students, you can also use additional assessment types, ranging from multiple-choice tests to developing a slideshow to writing an essay. But the third ingredient, if you really want to know how effective online learning is per se, is a comparison group. “Effective” is relative, so you need to decide “effective relative to what.” In the ideal world, you could do an A/B test, where you directly compare an online and traditional course. Short of that, if you have assessment measures from previous years when material was taught in traditional face-to-face live settings and teach the same thing online, you can compare the outcomes.

5) Jumping to college/university- how can science/art/music/theatre- and some of the other performing arts- best engage students in active learning online?

I find it useful to distinguish between two kinds of learning objectives: Knowledge-based and skill-based. Knowledge consists of information that you understand and integrate into what you already know; skills are things you do. Some skill-based learning takes place via direct instruction (e.g., learning music theory is key to becoming an accomplished musician), but much of it is by imitating a model (e.g., listening to the precise timing of a particular piece of music is often better than simply reading the notation). In both cases, to engage students, they need to do the relevant activities. These activities can be performed online in real time (e.g., playing a musical piece, performing a dance) or they can carried out offline and then the products are presented online (e.g., as in creating a drawing or doing a science experiment). Having students actually perform the relevant activity is important not only to engage them, but also to assess their learning.

6) Parents’ role has obviously changed- but for elementary students, how do we make sure that parents are getting their children online and involved?

The parents need to be aware of the learning objectives (the point of the instruction) and the specific activities and assignments—and then need to ensure that their children actually participate in class. Many (most?) parents will care about their children enough to check up on them regularly, asking about what they are doing in class, as they did prior to online instruction. But if you want to motivate parents to ensure that their children attend class, you can use techniques from behavioral economics.

For example, you can set up a bank account for parents that contains—say—two dollars for every class session that child should attend (so, if there were 30 such sessions, $60 would be put in the account). But these funds are not immediately available to the parent; they only become available gradually, as the parent photographs their child actually taking each class and emails that photo to a specific address. Every time a photo is verified, $2.00 is confirmed and is available to the parent—but if the parent fails to do this for a class session, they lose $2.00. Loss aversion is a powerful form of motivation. This sort of technique has proven very powerful for motivating diabetes patients to take their medicine, and I suspect that it would work at least as well in an educational context.

7) Physical education- yes, can be done online- but how do instructors ensure accountability?

The same sort of behavioral economics technique I just described could also be used here. But in this case, the student could do the activity and take a photo of themselves in a mirror, and email that photo—and the student then would reap the rewards.

8) Tell us about your book- and what it contains.

The book, Active Learning Online: Five Principles that Make Active Learning Come Alive, is about how to use active learning in both synchronous (in real time) and asynchronous (not in real time, but rather self-paced) settings. Active learning occurs when a person uses information in the service of achieving a learning outcome. In the classroom context, an instructor has clearly defined learning objectives (intentions of what the students should learn) that lead to specific learning outcomes (the actual learning that is achieved). The book helps the instructor to design activities that will engage students in material that will help them achieve at least one learning outcome. I argue in the book that active learning is not just “learning by doing.” Rather, the activity needs to have been designed with a specific point in mind, and students need to be engaged in the activity.

At the heart of the book are five principles derived from the empirical literature on learning and memory. I not only describe them, but also provide demonstrations and many examples of how to apply them in teaching. Briefly: Principle of Deep Processing: The more mental processing one performs on information, the more likely one is to retain it; thus active learning should engage students to pay attention to and think through material that underlies the learning objective.

Principle of Deliberate Practice: Learning is enhanced by paying attention to feedback and using it to update one’s knowledge and subsequent behavior; hence, active learning should include feedback, which can be achieved at scale by having peers use rubrics ot evaluate each other (with the results then being checked by a teaching assistant or faculty member). Principle of Dual Coding: Learning is more effective when material is both shown and described; this principle implies that appropriate illustrations—including charts and graphs—should be included when they can usefully supplement descriptions.

Principle of Chunking: Learning is easier when material is organized into three or four organized units, each of which itself can contain three or four units; this principle can be used to organize entire lesson plans and also operates at more granular levels (e.g., it governs how much material should be presented on a single slide during a lecture). Principle of Associations: Learning is enhanced by associating new information to what is already known; appropriate associations can help students to organize material effectively, help them integrate it into what they already know, and can help them subsequently to retrieve stored information.

9) What have I neglected to ask ?

What’s next? After life returns to something resembling “normal” education, will education simply revert to what it was before? I don’t think so. I think instructors (and administrators) have learned that online education is actually better than traditional “face-to-face” live education. For example, not only can breakout groups be composed quickly and easily online, but also groups can have instant access to a huge range of customized resources (ranging from documents to spreadsheets to videos)—and students can share and collaborate on documents and other work products easily. I would bet that a new kind of hybrid education will emerge, which will combine face-to-face live education with both synchronous and asynchronous online education, taking advantage of the strengths of each modality. I doubt that teaching will revert back to what it was, after the Covid dust settles.

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