How Humans Learn

PUBLISHED: Jul 3, 2020

In This Episode.

Join us for an exciting announcement and an interview with John Eyler, Ph.D., author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching.  Wishing everyone wellness, safety, and satisfying teaching (or a much needed break!) in this time of COVID.

Episode Archive

Podcast Transcript

Steve Pearlman: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the critical thinking initiative. You’ve got Steve here you were interviewing Joshua Eiler, who is the author of the book How Humans Learn. We’re confident you’re going to see a lot of parallels between what Josh talks about in his book and what we talk about on the podcast overall. Before we get to that, we want to express our hope that everyone out there is as safe as possible through this COVID craziness. We hope all of our listeners are taking necessary precautions and doing what they can to remain safe. We’re fine here and with everything that’s been going on, took a hiatus from the podcast for a little while, but we’re excited to be back and actually have some new and exciting news. One of the things that has been keeping us occupied and one of the reasons we haven’t found the time to podcast for you is that we’ve been burning away, working diligently on developing the Critical Thinking Initiative online program, our Level one program that we designed specifically for students high school through graduate school. It’s about a two and a half to three hour user experience. And what this is going to do is it’s not only going to take students through our unique, proprietary model for critical thinking, not only going to show them rules for critical thinking, the mind sets for critical thinking in our particular process for critical thinking that works interdisciplinary on any subject, but also going to show them how we analyze text to construct a paper or an essay using this critical thinking process.

Steve Pearlman: And then even better than that, it’s actually going to walk them through that process themselves so that by the time they are done with this program, not only will you be able to validate that the students will have learned certain things about critical thinking in terms of how to define it in terms of what mindsets are involved and so on. Not only will we have dispelled many myths about critical thinking that they might have adopted tacitly through their education experience, but this program actually walks them through thinking critically about texts and building an essay of their own through this user experience through this online interface. Again, this is the Level one program. We hope to have a Level two program out sometime in the future, but it gives them a strong leg up, especially because most students never get any instruction at all on specifically how to think critically. And we know that explicit critical thinking instruction is the only research supported way to actually improve critical thinking outcomes from students. We hope to have a preview of this ready in a couple of weeks, and we expect to have this ready to go for the academic year, so it’s something that you’re interested in. Please just send us an email and we will put you on the mailing list for this and we’ll be sending out announcements about it as well. Just email us at info at the Critical Thinking Initiative.

Steve Pearlman: Org That’s info at the Critical Thinking Initiative. Dot org. We will get you a preview of the program, and we’re just really excited about it. While we believe the strongest learning always needs to occur face to face between great teachers and students. We know, first of all, that that’s simply not the time we’re going to be living in for a while, and the need for online resources is imperative regardless of whether they generate better or learning outcomes or not. That’s all we’ve got. But secondly, we really think that as an introductory experience for students, something to get the ball rolling for them in terms of critical thinking, this particular approach we’re taking is going to do a lot so that they can then go into your classes and be able to build on that and apply that into your curricula, into your classroom experience, and you can further coach them on the development of doing this. In fact, we’ll not only have the core experience for students we’re going to have for any educators who are using it. Some instructional resources where Dave and I will lead you through how to work with this system in your class and beyond. So we’re going have one thing for the students that’s direct to them and then some additional resources for any of you who want to work with this in your teaching, which we hope you all do because we really believe in it and obviously believe in the critical importance of critical thinking.

Steve Pearlman: So as for a podcast today, as I said, we’re interviewing Josh Eyler. Josh is the author of the book How Humans Learn, a book that really echoed a lot of the same themes that we talk about on the podcast. We depart from Josh, and he departs from us in certain ways, but think certainly we’re all kindred spirits in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish. In addition to being author of the book, Josh is the director of faculty development and director of the Think Forward Quality Enhancement Plan at the University of Mississippi. His work includes teaching and learning initiatives at Columbus State University. George Mason University and Rice University. And we would have liked to have gotten this to you a lot sooner, and we apologize to Josh for not getting it out faster. This ran into some technical issues and then some additional technical issues and then COVID hit and everything for us just got put on the back burner for a little while as we worked on this other project, but we’re really excited to bring the podcast to you now. Very excited about what we talked about with Josh and look for another podcast coming soon from us. We won’t be gone. So long. Hope everybody as well, here we go, interviewing Josh Isler, author of How Humans Learn. So Josh, thanks so much for joining us today on the podcast. We really appreciate your time.

Josh Eyler: Thanks very much for having me. I appreciate it.

Steve Pearlman: As we noted in the introduction, your book is called How Humans Learn the Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching. And maybe for those of our listeners who haven’t read the book, you can give us a brief synopsis of what your main messages are in the text.

Josh Eyler: Sure. Definitely. When I moved into working in teaching and learning initiatives full time about eight years ago, now one of the things I had to do to be really successful at that work was to move out of my disciplinary context, which was English and gather knowledge about and an appreciation for the teaching methods and habits of mind from many other disciplines. Since I would be working with faculty from across the university and as I was doing that kind of preparation. I kept running into the same question over and over again. The question I kept running up against was why do some things work well and others not? Why do some teaching strategies help students and why do others not? And that’s a simple question led me into a wide variety of other disciplines. And so cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, biological anthropology, a lot of different fields that we’re all addressing the fundamental question of how do human beings learn? But they were all approaching it from a wide variety of angles, which is, of course, understandable given our disciplinary norms. The other thing about that, though, is that even though they’ve been studying it for a long time, they weren’t really talking to each other about it. And so I was finding a lot of pieces of the puzzle of how people learn and spread out and saw it as my job, as kind of a generalist who was just curious about how we could help students to put those pieces of the puzzle together to try and gain a more holistic picture of how we learn so that we could be more effective teachers in the classroom.

Steve Pearlman: What were some of your main takeaways from that? If you had to synopses one or two of the main conclusions you had through your text and through your research, how would you characterize them?

Josh Eyler: One of those is that the topics or the threads that kept coming up over and over and over again were curiosity. Sociality meaning know our social nature as human beings, emotion authenticity. And by that, I mean the degree to which our learning environments feel real or perceived as real by our brains. And then finally, failure that we learn a lot by trying, doing, failing and trying again. The second thing was that it became clear early on the more I was looking at developmental psychology and evolutionary biology that human beings learn in much the same ways from the time we are very young all the way up through our adult lives. What happens is that the contexts change and our brains mature, but those mechanisms like curiosity, like emotion, those remain pretty standard. And so that really helps to inform. I think the work that we do as teachers, honestly, regardless of age group that we’re teaching. We just kind of shift the activities and assignments, but it allows teachers to see learning as a continuum that can be built upon year after year, but one that doesn’t alter very much in its kind of general shape.

Steve Pearlman: Translate that for our listeners in terms of what does that mean in the classroom? If we say that learning is a continuum when we learn the same way we typically do, what is a classroom look like with some of this information applied and without it? What’s the contrast?

Josh Eyler: Right? Sure. So some of it has to drill down into those specific mechanisms. So let’s think about curiosity for a second. The nature of learning is a continuum means that we can teach four year olds and five year olds effectively by priming their curiosity for a subject. And there are certain ways that in a preschool and kindergarten, teachers can do that for that age group, asking them age appropriate questions, getting them really intrigued to ask more questions. So that fundamental kind of mechanism doesn’t really change. We can also teach 18 20, 30 40 year old students by priming their curiosity. It just the strategies that we might use would be slightly different from as we move from context to context. But the idea that by helping students to develop meaningful questions, by asking them open ended questions, by drawing them into a subject by virtue of what they are curious about would help them learn is actually quite the same, regardless of what age we’re talking about.

Steve Pearlman: Well, I think this is a great point. And so how do we do it? What’s the mechanism where we can get students to ask those more interesting questions? What’s the mechanism by which we’re tapping that? Curiosity and analyzing it within a classroom experience, especially when we have a lot of faculty who have to get through a percentage, at least of material that’s considered to be known or wrote within a field. How do we get students to still develop that curiosity or form their own questions when the material or I’m going to risk a word here, which probably is one we don’t really want, but where the answers might already be known?

Josh Eyler: Ok, so how do you do this when you have to, or you feel as if you have to cover a certain amount of material? And that’s an area we don’t talk about enough in higher education. Is there a mandate to cover a through Z or does an individual faculty member feel as if he or she needs to cover a through Z? And that’s a different sort of question, and I think there’s a lot bound up in the traditions of our field, the responsibility we might perceive that we owe our field or our colleagues in our department. But for argument’s sake, if we are in a context where we have to march from A to Z in terms of content, the first thing I think we have to keep in mind is that it’s great if we are able to succeed in the goal of covering all that content, but it is less great if we march through all that and students don’t remember it at the end of the semester or beyond. And so these strategies can be implemented pretty easily. No one’s saying that you have to give over an entire class session to utilizing discussion or other inquiry based methods and in fact, interspersing short activities. You break up the lecture every five to 10 minutes, and those activities are encoding that information more deeply and allowing students to apply that information in ways that make it relevant and meaningful for them so that they remember it longer.

Dave Carillo: Josh, while we’re on the subject of things like lecture, you have a subsection entitled The Inauthenticity of Lecture, and in that little section there you cite Bly in Nineteen Ninety Eight who did research on this and comes to the conclusion that most classrooms are still functioning around lecture as the primary pedagogical mode. And in twenty eighteen, you’re still talking about this idea of inauthenticity, of lecture. And I’m actually thinking about this and your argument and Bly’s argument in relation to what GW Bock said in two thousand six in his book are underachieving colleges, where he seems to emphasize the gap between what researchers consider important and the behavior of teachers actually in the classroom. And it seems like not a lot has changed in terms of something like lecture since, say, like nineteen ninety eight. Where do you come into this conversation in terms of working with faculty who, like you said, feel strongly about this or are clearly valuing certain outcomes in their classes, but can’t really shake this idea of lecture? Like what kind of moves are you making? What kind of conversations are you having?

Josh Eyler: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think it’s an important one for really framing some of the conversations that we have with respect to teaching and learning and higher ed. And there are lots of angles here, but there is a report on it came a year or two ago and I can’t remember which agency produced it, but it was on STEM disciplines that found that lecture was still the dominant pedagogical method in a majority of classrooms in those disciplines. And then a very recent kind of a major report on STEM education from the AAAS with the NSF and CME that show that there’s still quite a lot of lecturing that’s happening. So, you know, that’s baked into the tradition of higher ED. It goes back literally a thousand years, although lecture back then was because people didn’t have books. So the way I think it’s important for us to talk about is that first, if you ask 10 people on the street to define the practice of lecturing, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. And I think that has partly clouded over the discussion that we have about lecturing. It’s that everyone has a different conception of what it means to lecture. For some people, it’s talking non-stop. For others, it’s a mixture of talking and active learning strategies.

Josh Eyler: And so if we can’t even agree on our definition, we are doomed to get in this tailspin of argument and disagreement because we’re all coming at it from different perspectives. The other strategy, I think, is really important is to lead with the research and to really just show what the literature says about lecturing. And for my reading of that research, there’s really only two things that you can say with absolute certainty. One is it is absolutely fine to have lecturing as one tool in the toolbox. But the second thing that the literature is crystal clear about is it’s OK to lecture, but not for very long. And that is the place where we have to put our eggs in one basket. That’s the basket that I want to put those eggs in that let’s look at how long we are lecturing. We’re not. Discount this as a strategy, but the best research out there about the efficacy of lecturing has to do entirely with how long we’re lecturing when the meta analysis of lecture based studies demonstrate that they are ineffective and detrimental to learning for all sorts of groups of students. It’s because the lecture has gone on for too long.

Steve Pearlman: One of the things you write in your introduction and I love this analogy and was hoping that we would naturally find a place for me to read it. You write quote. It turns out, though, that trying to get a handle on the meaning of a term like learning is roughly akin to the act of squeezing Jell-O. As you start to put pressure on it, it begins to slip out of your grasp and eventually fires out in many different directions. End quote and I love what you wrote there, and I think it’s such a great analogy for the concept of learning and how hard it is to pin it down. But I guess that sort of brings me as well to something that Dave and I struggle with and that we hear a lot of faculty members struggling with. And it’s something that is certainly becoming and we don’t have to tell you or anyone who’s listening, probably one of the hotter topics in education, which is assessment. So I think Dave and I both are on board and concur with everything that you are talking about in your book, and it’s the things that we talk about on the podcast. But at the same time, then where is the outcomes assessment of these other methodologies and whether or not these changes are in fact starting to have material effects on learning outcomes? What kind of outcomes are we seeking and how are you measuring it? And I would add one more thing. I’d piggyback on that too, which is how do faculty feel about that need to assess their outcomes, which is, of course, the more loaded extension of the question, right?

Josh Eyler: Currently, I’m leading our quality enhancement plan, which happens to be on critical thinking. And as a result of that, you know, there are definite benchmarks and outcomes that need to formally be reported to our accrediting body in five years. At the same time, in order to make an impact on teaching and learning at the university, you want the assessment to feel more authentic to the faculty. And so it’s a fine balancing act there, and I think it kind of captures the tension that you’re illustrating in the question. And that is, I think one of the worst things to happen to higher ED is that assessment got conflated at some point with compliance. And so now because of that conflation assessment has become a hugely loaded term on campuses and the responses to the requirement to report assessment results, I think can predictably range across the spectrum from frustration to anger in some cases. But that said, I come at the question of assessment from a very faculty centric perspective, having come out of the faculty ranks, still doing a lot of teaching. So the way I approach it is to simply talk to faculty about what do you want your students to have learned by the end of the semester? And how will we know that the students have learned it? And so I think approaching it that way makes the work of assessment feel more authentic and is built into, I think, the natural process of the work of a semester and then the reflection on that work. And so framing it as what do you want them to learn by the end kind of initiates a backward design model from the very outset.

Steve Pearlman: So let me circle back then a little bit because this is the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast and you brought up the initiative you have on your campus. I’m sure everyone would love a different perspective on that because they’re used to Dave and yammering on about that so much. How are you guys approaching critical thinking on your campus? How are you defining it? How are you approaching it as an initiative? What’s that process and how are you guys going about it there?

Dave Carillo: And Joshua, may I I’m just going to piggyback on Steve’s question and just barrage of questions that you’ll never hope to answer in any reasonable way. Along with what Steve asked, what are the particular challenges tackling a subject like critical thinking on such a large campus?

Josh Eyler: Ok, so I see, you know, enhancing students critical thinking skills is one of the great puzzles of education, and I think it’s important to note at the outset that this is our university’s quality enhancement plan, which is an official part of a RE accreditation cycle from Saks, which is the southern area accrediting body. And as you both know very well, one of the hardest things to do here is to define critical thinking in such a way that you could ever hope to measure gains in critical thinking. And so we want to look at critical thinking skills in lower division courses. And so essentially, that means our Gen ED program, but it really limits the range, which presents great promise and also great challenges, because how far can you move the needle from first semester freshman year to second semester sophomore year? So our definition of critical thinking is a domain specific definition of critical thinking. And the way we are going about this is to work with faculty to teach carefully defined skills within the content that they’re that they’re teaching in these courses to help develop those students critical thinking abilities over time. So that’s kind of our definition. There’s some kind of specific assessment templates that we have as a part of that work. They are actually designing specific interventions to demonstrate the efficacy of the redesign.

Dave Carillo: I have a little bit of a follow up question to bring it back to how humans learn. It goes back to something you said initially when you were doing research on how humans learn. You started to see that a lot of disciplines and a lot of experts were coming at the same kind of question, but either from different disciplines or through different sciences and in different directions. But there are very few people were really talking to each other about their research. And I’m wondering, are you finding that you’re able to get individuals to start to talk to each other about their research? Or are you seeing that you’re able to start to facilitate some conversations? Or have you tried to sort of push things forward the way every once in a while you’ll see someone who studies reading competency, hook up with someone who has a, you know, an fMRI machine? Have you been able to do that or are you trying to do that or?

Josh Eyler: That’s a really great question. I’m so focused on the teaching and learning programs that I probably don’t get to engage with people on their actual research enough. But the interdisciplinary nature of the programming that we’ve instituted here at the University of Mississippi, those conversations across disciplines about teaching often bridge into larger, more conceptual questions about the kind of intellectual project of the sciences and the intellectual project of the humanities. And how are they similar and how can we find common ground and work together?

Steve Pearlman: So in closing this out, you disagree with Deborah Blum at the end of your book, and Deborah Blum kind of calls for a revolution in terms of how we educate and for the educational system. And you disagree. You think that there are other opportunities and we don’t need such a whole scale revolution in order to start accomplishing gains. Well, I was just wondering as we exit here and we have so many faculty listening, so many educators listening and so many people who are steeped in institutional structures. If you could give a little bit more about why you disagree with that need for revolution and where you see the opportunities to roll this ball forward without completely changing the holistic structure of what we’re up to.

Josh Eyler: I really respect Susan, Deborah Blum’s work, and I am really sympathetic to the idea, and I actually agree in part that we need to change the way we talk about teaching in higher education. And if there’s any kind of revolution that needs to happen, it’s with the incentive structure at universities. You know what? What’s actually being incentivized? Despite what we’re saying, yes, we value teaching, is that actually our faculty being rewarded for our teaching in the same way they are for research. So to the degree that she’s talking about that kind of structure. I agree with her where we I think part ways is that I don’t think you need a revolution to make a difference in student learning. I think and I have seen with my own eyes that very small changes can have a huge impact on the environment of a course and the learning that happens in those courses. It’s making the kind of small changes we were talking about earlier, where you build in incrementally ways to engage students that has an immediate impact on their learning. So I think I don’t see a need for revolution because I have seen the impact that small interventions have made. Now, ideally, what you want for higher ED is that all students will have the benefit of those kind of profound, meaningful, engaged learning experiences. And I get that. But it starts with individuals making changes in their classroom. So I think it starts small doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul, but you can address it from a different angle.

Steve Pearlman: Josh, thanks again. So much for joining us. I think that’s a great way for us to wrap this up. The book, again, is how humans learn by Joshua Iler, and we hope everyone will go out there and get it once again. Please like the podcast and share the podcast with your friends. Recommend the book and thanks again, Josh, for joining us today. Thank you, Josh..

Josh Eyler: Thank you so much. It’s been a lot of fun.


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