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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Retaining Course Content in E-Learning


What are some of the cognitive processes involved in retaining course material? In the case of e-learning, retention is often associated with higher-level reasoning, problem-solving, and synthesis, as well as basic multiple choice and interactive drills. It is useful to look at the processes, as well as effective instructional practices.

Here are a few key steps in the cognitive process involved in retention:

1. Identification. Presentation of the material; acknowledgment by the student that this is material to be learned. (identification process)

2. Classification of material. Organizing the material into categories that correspond to desired outcomes.

3. Processing of information / course material.

- making connections between the material and outcomes

- making sense of the material (relating to one's life, one's experience, prior knowledge; knowledge paradigms)

- social mediation of material (discussing with others. What do they think it is?)

- making meaning -- social processing (discussing with others; feedback from professor; cognitive apprenticeship)

4. Cognitive apprenticeship.

- reality checks. What does the learner think it is at first? What does the knowledge do? How does the facilitator help guide the learner?

- collaborative learning. Other students (through discussion boards or collaborative activities) work with the material and then come to a collective decision about it; or, they help explain to each other how and why the information means what it means.

- scaffolding. The faculty member or other students help show how the course material becomes scaffolding toward the learning outcomes that have been identified for the course as a whole, and/or for individual units.

5. Testing and application of course material.

-different assessments (quizzes, application to actual problem, problem-solving)

-transformation and processing of course content (using for problem-solving, building a cognitive model or general application (meta-cognition))

-synthesis, general conclusions, applying conclusions from the processing of material to an actual problem

-situated learning - cognitive apprenticeship: relate to other similar applications of the course content and compare the socio-historical knowledge needed to use and apply the information (determining how / when to use information)

When I think of the list of common educational practices and I think of the activities listed above, it is clear that some of the common educational practices will fit well. Others will be utterly disastrous, and could actually result in an inability to use, process, or retain course material.

Good practices:

* prerequisites (helps integrate prior knowledge)

* term papers (helps learners situate the knowledge)

* small group discussions and activities (social learning facilitated - cognitive apprenticeships in action)

* instruction provided online (facilitates "just in time" capturing of knowledge and encourages applied knowledge)

Possibly ineffective practices which may discourage retention:

*Lecture (not engaging, no cues, not applied / situated)

*Podium (not engaging) -- this could also apply to audio or podcasts that lack have ancillary material, such as text or media files with key points and organizing tools

* Irrelevant discussion board questions (content is not likely to be connected to something meaningful)

* Pop quizzes (content never enters long-term memory)

* Classes in 50 or 80-minute periods ("seat time" does not replicate real learning; could be insufficient time to articulate, reflect, and explore content; not enough time for the social aspects of learning - cooperating, motivating, establishing a community of practices)

For me, good practices encompass the list. The also include innovative, "blended" practices that encourage the instructor to do the following:

* modeling

* scaffolding

* coaching

* self-regulation (time management, etc.)

* motivational strategies (identifying needs of affiliation, power, control, etc.)

* intrinsic and extrinsic motivators

* modeling the ways to transform the material - make complex, make more specific, encourage metacognitive conclusions

In my own classes, I try to develop activities that encourage

* applying the content to context (write about something that means something to the student, his life, her goals, her prior knowledge)

* practicing with gradual change / application (revision, peer review, etc.)

* social learning (discussion board, etc.)

* cognitive apprenticeship (situated learning)

* substantive feedback and coaching, with modeling of feedback giving (for discussion activities).

Useful References on Cognitive Apprenticeship

• Bredo, E. (1994). Cognitivism, situated cognition, and Deweyian pragmatism.

• Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18 (1), 32-41.

• Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator, 6-46.

• Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1990). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

• Kearsley, G. (1999). Situated learning TIP theory.

• Kumar, V. S. (1997). Situated learning.

• Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

• Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated learning: Legitimate periperal participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

• Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117-175.

• Scardamalia, M., &Bereiter, C. (1985). Fostering the development of self-regulation in children's knowledge processing. In S. F. Chipman, J. W. Segal, & R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills: Research and open questions (pp. 563-577). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

• Stein, D. (1995). Situated learning in adult education.

• Wilson, B. Dynamic Learning Communities: An Alternative to Designed Instructional Systems.

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