Improving Outcomes When Lecturing Online

PUBLISHED: Dec 28, 2020

In This Episode.

Did you know that at any given point during an online lecture, 40% of students’ minds are wandering? Join Dave and Steve to learn about “persistence” vs. “transience” in memory, and how to improve your learning outcomes

Episode Archive

Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because as Bertrand Russell said, most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. And now your hosts Steve Perlman and Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: Welcome back to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast. This is Steve.

Dave Carillo: I’m Dave.

Steve Pearlman: So today we’re looking at what is presently, but hopefully not long term, still a very pressing issue for a lot of educators, which is in part, the need to promote learning through online lecture with our students. And we hope that online lecture might be diminishing as the vaccines roll out in the coming year and schools are able to return back to normal. But we’re all going to be looking at the long term idea or the more general idea of just helping students to develop recall and understanding about what they’re learning. We’re going to keep a little bit of an emphasis on the online because that’s obviously very pertinent to our current circumstances in the world. But nothing we say here won’t translate out of online into other academic contexts in fancier terminology. What neuroscientists might look at with respect to memory are two competing issues, and one of them is persistence, persistence being the retention of memory and details and so forth. And the other is transience, which is the mind’s capacity to lose memory. One of our sources for this are our key source for this for this particular podcast, at least because it does a wonderful job of bringing these two ideas together, as well as some fascinating research on it is the persistence and transience of memory by Blake Richards and Paul Frankland. And this from twenty seventeen. So it does a fairly good job of summing up and also contributing to the body of research on this in a fairly contemporary way.

Dave Carillo: Yeah. And let me just jump in, Steve, because I’m always encouraged to see this kind of neurobiological research that we can use so readily to translate into practical uses for our listeners. One of the things that has always been a challenge when talking about critical thinking or anything that relates to critical thinking is the need to find the kind of research that speaks directly to what the brain is actually doing. And this is perfect for that.

Steve Pearlman: I agree, and I think a lot more education, as we’ve harped on on this podcast many times, really needs to be informed by our scientific research rather than sort of what’s commonly adopted as practice, because it sounds good to us as educators or we feel as though it’s working in our classrooms. Which is not to say that none of that is working in our classrooms, but is to say that if we’re going to be careful educators, then we need to also look at the science and neuroscience is one lens through which we can do this. And there are also some challenges in translating neuroscience directly into learning. But I think here we have some pretty clearer connections. One of the interesting complications that Richards and Franklin immediately set up is that ultimately we really have the capacity to remember a lot more than we do. And so it starts to prompt the question as to why we don’t remember everything as they write quote when we consider the sheer number of neurons and synapses in the brain. It would seem that there is ample capacity to store many more memories than we actually do. For example, the human brain is estimated to have roughly 80 to 90 billion neurons. If we were to reserve only a tenth of those memories for memories of specific events, then according to computational estimates of capacity in audio associative networks, we could reliably store approximately one billion individual memories.

Steve Pearlman: And so they asked the question, therefore quote, given that it is apparently possible to remember far more than most of us actually do. Why did evolution endow most individuals with brains that work to prevent faithful transmission of information through time? And that’s what they’re talking about with respect to transience? What they theorize here and what a lot of the emerging neuroscience is showing is that while memory is important for us to remember, specific events and specific details is certainly important for us in certain regards to certain extents and in certain contexts. Transients also serves very important function. Quote If the environment changes but our memories do not, then we may persevere to our own detriment. Therefore, transients may facilitate decision making by eliminating outdated and potentially misleading information, allowing an organism to respond more efficiently to changes in its environment end quote. And I think this is absolutely critical because if we want to think about why students don’t remember things, what’s really important here is to recognize that it might not just be that they’re not studying well enough, although we want to help them improve their study skills. It might be that fundamentally, if their brain.

Steve Pearlman: On a neurological level and also a level of cognitive psychology aren’t recognizing a need for that information if the circumstances around them are changing such that that information doesn’t have application or it is no longer relevant or perceived as relevant or important, then their brains are doing neurologically exactly what they are designed to do, which is to let go of that information because it’s not serving a function, and it will rewire and rewrite over those pathways to store new information that is more important or at least perceived as more important to survival. So when we look at students, we say, how can they not remember all these things that we tested them on or we taught them during class? I think we have to ask very serious questions at that point about the relevance or at least the perceived relevance of that information to their lives, because if they’re not perceiving it as important, then it’s very likely that their brains, whether they wish it to or not, are going to let go of those memories and overwrite them for the sake of survival. So let’s first frame this discussion of persistence versus transience with a nod to the importance of persistence, but also with a nod to the importance of transience.

Dave Carillo: You know, Steve, if our students see on our syllabus that the semester is divided up into three major tests and a final exam, they’re going to aim to survive the class by cramming for the first test and then cramming for the second test and cramming for the third Test. And there might be some kind of element of retention when they get to the final exam. But for the most part, what’s been crammed for the first test is going to be gone for the second and what’s been crammed for the second is going to be gone for the third and so on. And so all of us at one point or another have been annoyed, we’ll say, by a student’s framing what we’re doing in class in terms of what they need to know and what they don’t need to know. And will this be on the test and so on. And now we’ve got this beautiful neurobiological backdrop here that’s so interestingly does frame it in an entirely different sense, right? It’s not necessarily that the students don’t care about learning or don’t care about the subject. They just know subconsciously that the information in front of them is the most important and what came before is not nearly as important.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, and we’re this translates as a message for us is that we might be teaching students certain things and those things might actually be important. But the students might not be able to recognize the importance. There might be certain foundational things that they’re learning that are very important to the field and they really will need later on. But if their brains actually don’t see that, if maybe if they appreciate a conceptually but they don’t really experience it meaningfully, then transients may become a greater force for them. And perhaps an analogy that I can offer for this. It’s not really directly relevant to memory, but it nevertheless is, I think, a good analogy, which is that I teach martial arts and my martial arts teaching. We spend a lot of time right from the beginning with students practicing footwork, just doing footwork drills, and we do that every class. And it’s not the most exciting thing to do in martial arts because there’s not punching or kicking or grappling or interaction with an opponent in some way. And it’s very repetitive, and students can’t really appreciate the importance of that footwork early on. And there’s no way that they can. As they become more proficient, they all realize eventually. It’s the most important thing because footwork leads to positioning relative to opponent and positioning relative to opponent leads to entry and entry is really how you win or lose a fight entirely, and you have fellow martial arts out there will understand that all martial arts really happens from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

Steve Pearlman: But students don’t know it. And so it’s not until they experience a moment when they’ve applied the footwork and it works that they really appreciate it and then start to train it differently. But they can experience that moment till I have some of the footwork to apply, so there’s a little bit of a chicken and egg problem there. Nevertheless, I think that’s a good analogy. We are trying often intellectually to take students through what might be very important concepts or pieces of information that they need to know, but they can’t necessarily appreciate the importance of it and therefore their brains air towards transience. And one of the things that Richards and Franklin also demonstrate, and they’re not the only ones who have studied this. This is in reference to a lot of other research as well. But what they basically show is this if they create memory, a lot of this was done in testing on rats or what have you. But if they create memory and then they put the animals into a rich environment where there are a lot of other stimuli, and then they go back and test the memory, that memory degrades.

Steve Pearlman: Why does it degrade? Because the brain becomes consumed with a lot of other stimuli? It’s learning things about those other stimuli and its existing context that’s immediate for its survival. Well, parallel that to our students. They might come to our classroom or read our texts or what have you and in. Doing so, they learn or to a degree, remember certain things, maybe they even remembered after the test or for the test or what have you, but then they go off into these rich environments that are filled with friends and jobs and other concerns and COVID and stressors and stimuli and so on and so forth. Many of which, perhaps most of which, perhaps almost all of which for some of them seems much more important to or relevant to their survival. So what are their brains doing? Their brains have no incentive to maintain persistence of the information they learned in your academic classroom. When the environmental stimuli around them that are much more immediate and much more life relevant are pushing them to move towards transience with respect to that information and overwrite those pathways for current ones. So I think one of the things that we’re setting up for this podcast, therefore, is let’s recognize the brain’s natural desire to do that and the function that it serves in life, which is very important.

Steve Pearlman: But then let’s also, since this is a podcast for educators, recognize that if we do need to get students to learn certain things in the class, though, this should make us rethink those things. But when we determine there are certain things that the students need to learn, how do we best serve them in that regard and teach in ways that create persistence rather than just transience? Ok, and just as an interlude here, before we get back to the podcast, we just want to remind everyone to please, like and share our podcast like it on Apple or whatever streaming service you listen to. Please post something about it on your social networks, anything we could do to get the word out there more if you like what we’re doing here. We’d really appreciate it greatly. I also want to mention again that my book is out America’s critical thinking crisis, the failure and promise of education available at Amazon digitally through multiple retailers. I hope you’ll consider giving it a look. It makes a great stocking stuffer and a wonderful New Year’s Eve present because that’s a thing. Anyway, now back to our program.

Dave Carillo: So in an effort to talk a little bit about how these kinds of issues translate into the classroom, we’ve got this other fascinating piece of research by Donald R. Bacon and Kim A. Stewart entitled How Fast Do Students Forget What They Learn in Consumer Behavior? A Longitudinal Study. Bacon and Stewart are essentially concerned with what they deem the process of forgetting and possible remedies. They run through three causes of forgetting. Forgetting can be caused by the process of decay, which they define as a spontaneous forgetting of information. The process of interference, which is more germane to what we’re talking about. Interference is the interactions between two memories, and they give a good example of this. They say interference is, for example, quote when a marketing student learns one framework for consumer decision making and introduction to marketing and another framework in consumer behavior. The first framework may interfere with the retention of the second, and the third is the absence of appropriate retrieval cues. Now, generally, they’re interested in the distinction between surface learning and deep learning. And a really quick example of that is surface learning is learning vocabulary, but deep learning could be construed as learning to apply it or understanding when certain concepts should be used and when they shouldn’t, so on and so forth. And they go on to say that there are a few basic methods that a teacher should employ to avoid interference, and they are deep learning, repeated testing and project related learning. Quote information that is tied into an extensive and redundant cognitive structure is sharply resistant to forgetting isolated pieces of information, in contrast, are much more vulnerable. So they have three hypotheses for this study.

Dave Carillo: One. Deep learning will be directly related to retention to retention will be directly related to repeated testing, and three project related learning will be directly related to retention. What they found was that hypotheses one and two were directly supported, and Hypothesis three, although it wasn’t directly supported, was leaning in the direction of helping students to retain information. So from the results, they come to a couple really compelling conclusions. One quote develop a pedagogy that requires deep learning early and often. So again, if we go back to the distinction between surface learning and deep learning, the kind of rote memorization of multiple choice tests or vocabulary studying and so on and so forth constitutes surface learning. Whereas anything that requires students to think more deeply about subject matter to apply the subject matter, to question the subject matter and so on constitutes deep learning. And along with that, they suggest sacrifice breadth for depth. In other words, try to aim for a more in-depth discussion of important material rather than covering as much material as possible. Additionally, they say focus course content on concepts and tools that students will encounter in their first job and use cumulative exams. Now, this last one is an interesting one, and what they mean there is that exams that are testing concepts that occurred across the course of the semester are more effective because it allows for the brain to avoid learning some information and then dumping it when they know that there’s another test along the way. So very interesting results from this particular study, and they do speak to ways to remedy the kinds of things that were that we saw in the first one.

Steve Pearlman: And that brings us to another article as well. By Spooner Khan and Schachter. Interpolated memory tests, reduced mind-wandering and improved learning of online lectures, interpolated memory tests being a fancy way of saying multiple memory tests interspersed throughout the learning process. And as we promised, we were going to get to really focusing on some of the online aspects of this. And what they found really isn’t very surprising, but it’s nevertheless important that we study it. What they discovered was basically that rather than having students only take a test at the end of four units, having them take a test at the end of every unit was. Beneficial to the students in terms of how they did on the final performance, as well as the amount of note taking that they did, as well as the effect it had on reducing their mind wandering during lectures. And this isn’t surprising, I don’t think, because if we know that a test is coming sooner, then we might not be able to sit back and say to ourselves, Well, I don’t have to pay as much attention right now because I can cram before the exam. Rather, I have to learn it now because there isn’t going to be time to cram as much before the immediate test. Now a frightening aspect of this, however, is that what they found is that at a given time during an online lecture, approximately 40 percent of students admit that their mind is wandering away from the lecture.

Steve Pearlman: So when you’re giving your lecture online, please be cognizant of the fact that about 40 percent of your students might not be paying any attention to what it is you’re saying at that point. And what they did find was that again, suggesting that tests are coming and are going to be intermittent is going to improve your learning outcomes and also reduce minds from wandering. But it certainly doesn’t come anywhere close to eliminating it. In fact, it cut it roughly in half, which would be bound to about 20 percent instead of 40 percent, which is an improvement. But I don’t think any of us really want to feel proud of a 20 percent loss in students attention at any one given time. So it’s important, I think, in that regard to go back to what the other article was talking about with respect to fighting transients by those deeper learning processes. By sacrificing a bit of the memorize and regurgitate model for what Dave was discussing with respect to deep learning, learning that requires more thinking and thought process and learning that might be more related to life where the brain might therefore be more inclined to pay attention and more inclined for persistence than for transients.

Dave Carillo: You know, I keep coming back to the idea that this is not necessarily something that we haven’t said before, right? That rote memorization isn’t necessarily advantageous for the kind of learning we all want our students to do, but to be able to see the neuroscience behind why and to add a layer of this to our discussion is informative for all of us. We can be at least a little bit more confident if we have to change the way that we’re working through some of the course material or working through some of our courses because the neuroscience is giving us better insight into what the brain will do, and that allows us to take some of the implied stress off of us to question our student’s dedication as sometimes we do. Some of the changes that this research suggests is more in line with what the brain wants to do.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, I think it takes some pressure off of the educator and some of us who feel disheartened when we’re teaching that students aren’t recalling what we’ve taught as much as we would like them to. And we’re inclined in certain ways and sometimes with some justification, but we’re certainly inclined in certain ways to want to go ahead and say that the student isn’t a good student. The student doesn’t care enough about what I’m teaching. The student doesn’t care enough about themselves or their education and so forth. And there are those students, to be sure. But part of the reason for that, as you’re saying, their brains are designed to ignore some of that information. That’s an evolutionary mechanism. And it’s not necessarily that they don’t care, per say. It’s that there’s a deeper neurobiological mechanism that’s happening there. And I think it does. Also, Dave, and I think we’ve talked about this a lot before, and I think this is a critical call to action for everyone. Ask us to rethink the nature of education because the details and the specific bits of information aren’t as important. In fact, going back to our first article about neuroscience and what it demonstrates when people are put in situations that are highly in flux, they shift to what are called generalized models of memory, so they forget the specific details and they remember instead.

Steve Pearlman: Broader concepts quote When action outcome contingencies changed frequently, faster forgetting was optimal. In contrast, when action outcome contingencies changed infrequently, slower forgetting was best. So if they’re moving into a static body of knowledge that they’re going to need and that field isn’t going to change or that practice isn’t going to change, it is more important that they have prior information. But I think it’s so important for us to realize how much our world is changing with respect to new information. People are going to need to operate more in a world that’s in flux than a world that’s static, and therefore these generalized memories become more important. And because we are the Critical Thinking Initiative Podcast Skill sets the capacity to work with new information, to work that into patterns of critical thinking and problem solving and reasoning are going to become eminent as those things are always applicable in a changing world.

Dave Carillo: I think that at this point, we as a people, a species, maybe our. Going to need to have a much stronger foundation for critical thinking in almost every aspect of our lives. Maybe that’s an obvious observation. It probably is, but I feel compelled to say something along those lines in each and every podcast we do the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast and our smarter podcast. Everywhere we turn, it seems like a little bit more thinking might have helped us out.

Steve Pearlman: Well, Dave, I think it’s certainly hard to make the argument for less thinking, right? If only we had some less critical thought going on there, everything would have turned out better. It sure would be nice to have more critical thinking happening. And except when absolutely rapid decision making is required by rote process because there is no time for real cognition other than in that circumstance, I think more critical thinking is needed, allowing for transience as something that’s important and valuable, rather than something that’s merely frowned upon in our educational practices.

Dave Carillo: Well, put, man.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah. So please remember to like and share our podcast. Please mention it to your colleagues. Check out smarter and everyone. Stay safe out there in COVID.


Submit a Comment