Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Thorndike and Skinner

Edward L. Thorndike
Burrhus F. Skinner 
Two of the giants in the behaviorist tradition of learning theory were Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner. Skinner took Thorndike's work on behavior shaping to another level of complexity. But with greater complexity comes greater potential for being misunderstood, and that's exactly what happened. 

Thorndike observed a century ago that when a behavior is followed by a pleasant effect, the behavior is likely to be repeated in the same situation. Behavior followed by an unpleasant effect is unlikely to be repeated. Thorndike's Law of Effect is easy to understand, due partly to the language he used in describing it. There is no ambiguity in what he meant by pleasant, unpleasant, or effect.

The same cannot be said for B.F. Skinner. He called these same two ways of shaping behavior using pleasant and unpleasant consequences positive reinforcement and positive punishment. Positive didn't mean that they were good or kind or effective, as you might expect; positive simply meant that the effect was added in response to the behavior. Skinner proposed that reinforcement and punishment could also be done by subtracting an effect that was already at work when the behavior was exhibited. He called this negative reinforcement and negative punishment, respectively. Skinner's four ways of shaping behavior are known as the four quadrants of Operant Conditioning. Unfortunately, three of the four are routinely misunderstood.

Positive punishment seems like an oxymoron and negative punishment seems redundant because of Skinner's naming scheme. Those terms are seldom used outside of academic circles. In contrast, positive reinforcement has slipped into common language as a synonym for reward. No harm there. That's exactly what it is. 

But negative reinforcement is problematic. Too often this term is used casually as a synonym for punishment. It's easy to understand why. Negative has many meanings in the English language but the most common connotes undesirability and unpleasantness. Skinner used negative in a mathematical sense. Negative reinforcement is a way of rewarding behavior by taking away an aversive stimulus already acting on the subject. In horse training, for example, you may exert pressure on a horse to get him to move in a certain way, then instantly remove the pressure when he gives an acceptable try. The removal of an aversive is a reward, a pleasant effect. If you have trouble wrapping your mind around this, don't feel bad.

Not only is negative reinforcement incorrectly associated with punishment, it suffers from the association. Many people find punishing their children or animals distasteful and turn to other options. Clicker Training for dogs and horses, for example, uses a clicking sound and food treats to reward correct behavior. Incorrect behavior is ignored, or a different cue is given in hopes of getting a response that can be rewarded. Punishment is reserved for dealing with extremes of undesirable or dangerous behavior.

Learning theory is one of my favorite topics so I have studied Skinner's work many times. I'm always saddened just a bit by the language he chose because I know how often it is misunderstood. By the same token, I love the elegant simplicity of Thorndike's description of his Law of Effect. In the end, words do matter.     

Friday, April 1, 2016

Tips for Analyzing Research Articles

Identifying the Research Problem

Research articles are all about research problems. Sometimes this key piece of the puzzle is clearly identified. If not, you have to dig it out. It helps to remember that the research problem is an important gap in our knowledge about a real-world problem. For example, suppose you are interested in the attrition rate among graduate students. This is a real-world problem. It is important because it has negative repercussions for students. The fact that the reasons for attrition aren’t fully understood makes attrition a research problem. An investigation of a research problem may not solve the real-world problem, but it is usually a step in the right direction.
One helpful approach for digging out the research problem is to answer three questions about the article: What? So What? and Because Why? If you can clearly answer each question in one or two statements, you probably have a pretty good grip on the research problem, and you could probably explain it to someone else without their eyes glazing over. Let’s look at each question.
WHAT? This question focuses on the real-world problem and the specific gap in what we know about it. Your answer to the “What?” question might take the form, “Although A, not B.” For example, “Although student attrition has been shown to be an ongoing concern for many institutions, the reasons that students drop out are still not fully understood.”
SO WHAT? This question focuses on the undesirable consequences of the gap in our knowledge of the real-world problem; i.e., why anyone should care. Your answer to the “So What?” question might take the form. “Without B, C.” For example, “Without an understanding of the reasons students drop out, there is little chance of helping at-risk students reach their learning goals.”
BECAUSE WHY? This question focuses on the theoretical foundation or conceptual basis for the research problem. You don’t need to overthink this! Just point to the broad subject areas that relate. “Because Why?” statements might take the form, “This problem spans the domains of D, E, and F.” For example, “The problem of the lack in understanding of the causes of student attrition spans the domains of motivation theory, individual differences theory, and transactional distance theory.”

What a Problem Isn’t

Identifying a real-world problem might seem easy to do. But let’s think about problems for a moment. Often what seems like a problem is really just a state of affairs. For example, “It’s raining” is not a problem but a state of affairs. If you’re a farmer worried that your crops aren’t getting enough moisture, rain is a good thing. If you’re clinging to your rooftop with flood waters rising all around you, rain is not so good. The point is that context is what turns a state of affairs into a problem. For example, “It’s raining and I have to walk across campus to my next class” provides some context and gets us much closer to a real problem, but even this leaves room for interpretation. “It’s raining, I have no umbrella, I have to walk across campus to my next class, and I’m already catching a cold” leaves little room for doubt. You have a problem! 

Research Type

After you’ve nailed down the research problem, it helps to determine the type of research being done. Here’s a quick overview of how research type is traditionally broken down:
Hypothesis-testing research manipulates variables and studies causality. It may be experimental in which assignment to experimental and control groups is completely random. This is is relatively rare because completely random assignment is hard to achieve. More likely it is quasi-experimental, wherein the experiment uses a convenient population of participants and assignment to experimental and control groups in not totally random. "Experiment" in research simply means that some treatment is performed and the effects are observed.
Descriptive research describes something that already exists. It may be historical, correlational, or a case study. Problem-solving research seeks to fill needs, right wrongs, or improve situations. It may take the form of theory building, design and development, or action research.

Research Data

Research requires data. Without data of some kind, an article is an opinion piece. There’s nothing wrong with opinion pieces, but they are not research. The nature of the data, the way it is collected, and how it is analyzed is determined by the research design. Data may be numbers such as test scores, visits to a web site, or machine measurements. How people feel can also be turned into numeric data by using survey questions that ask them to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with a statement. These are called Likert-scale questions and they can be converted to numeric data suitable for quantitative analysis. (By the way, it’s pronounced LICK-urt, not LIKE-urt.) Numeric data are analyzed with software such as SPSS (Statistical Program for the Social Sciences) using quantitative methods that yield statistical results. The results allow conclusions to be reached and predictions to be made about other individual cases. Using a general rule to predict specific outcomes is deductive reasoning. 
Data don’t have to be numeric. Data can also be subjective and unstructured. For example, interviews, observations, recordings of participants thinking out loud, and open-ended survey questions are all valid research data. This data must be analyzed using qualitative methods, which seek to identify ideas, concepts, and categories that appear in textual data and reduce them through a sort of distilling process until an overarching theme is obtained. This is an inductive process; i.e., using specific outcomes to infer a general rule. Qualitative analysis is like outlining in reverse. You begin with detail and group the detail together into more general categories, then group the categories into broader descriptions still until you reach the highest level. That is when you have your overarching theme, conclusion, or rule. Data are collected with an instrument, which simply refers to the tool used to get the data. The data collection instrument may be a survey, or a test, or simply the researcher’s observations. Whatever means is used to get the data is the data collection instrument.

Showing Your Understanding

Understanding the research articles you read is one thing; putting that understanding in writing is something else entirely and is usually done as part of a literature review. The literature review might seem overwhelming so here’s a trick to break it down into manageable chunks: Do your analysis of each article as you find it.  A good format to use is the annotated bibliography citation. An AB is just what it sounds like: a bibliography or list of sources with notes about each. The AB entry starts with the proper APA citation for the article. If you use the article later, it’s a simple matter to copy and paste the citation into your list of references. Following the citation is 150 words of descriptive and evaluative text. This is a concise narrative written in your own words that identifies the problem investigated, methodology used, results and conclusions, and your opinion about what the article adds to the body of knowledge on the article’s subject. When you construct your lit review, you can draw your discussion of the article from the AB narrative you created earlier, fleshing it out as needed. Sometimes you can even use an AB entry verbatim. 

The Literature Review

A good literature review is more than a collection of article analyses, however. It is a cohesive, smooth-flowing document of its own. Thus, it needs to have a logical, hierarchical organization. It must also contain introductory, transitional, and summarizing sections that connect the ideas contained in the articles. This aspect of creating a literature review has the quality of synthesis; i.e., bringing together discrete parts to make a whole. Your finished literature review should be written clearly and economically, be grammatical, and adhere to the style and format rules that apply. Minimize the use of quotes. You might think that quoting an author makes your writing more academic or more credible. It doesn’t. Quoting can make your writing seem choppy and even lazy. It’s better to paraphrase an author’s work in your own writing style. You might even say it better! While we’re at it, beware of making your writing overly formal or academic. Before using an uncommon word, ask yourself if a common word would do. Remember, someone unfamiliar with the subject should still be able to get a basic sense of what is going on through your writing alone. The best academic writing is free of ego. Its purpose is to communicate clearly, not demonstrate the writer’s intelligence or mastery of the subject. 

And Then There’s APA

For writing in education, and the social and behavioral sciences, the style and format rules that apply are those of the American Psychological Association. The APA publication manual is a must-have. The APA rules may seem foreign, arbitrary, or even illogical to you at first. Get over it. APA is one of those things in life that you just have to accept and make the best of. The good news is that you’ll become a better and more disciplined writer as a result. You’ll also begin to take pride in your ability to write within the APA framework. Style rules are common in all industries and good writers do not feel constrained by them any more than they feel constrained by traffic laws.

Final Word

Even when they follow the rules, research articles are seldom easy to read. Take heart. You’ll get familiar with the structure and the language used.  You’ll get faster at forming an impression about an article, and if you choose to use it, you’ll know instinctively how to describe it. And of course, you will learn what not to do in your own writing. There is even a chance that you’ll come to enjoy research. Imagine that! 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Jump Starting Your Literature Review

Let’s assume for a moment that you know how to select a research-worthy problem, find good literature sources, and identify the main components of a research article. These are not trivial skills!  Even so, a formal literature review is a different beast.  A quick way to get off the mark is to start summarizing the articles you want to use. My favorite format is the annotated bibliography citation.    

An annotated bibliography is just what it sounds like: a bibliography, or list of sources, with notes. Each entry begins with the proper APA or MLA format for listing the article in the reference section of your paper. This alone saves lots of time later. Following this are about 150 words that describe and evaluate the article. I like to identify the problem being investigated, the methodology used, the results and conclusions, and the limitations and open questions. That’s the descriptive part. My evaluation would be my opinion of how the work contributes to the body of knowledge on the subject. Doing all this in 150 words is good practice in thrifty writing.  When you start assembling the literature review you can draw directly from these summaries, sometimes even using them verbatim. Voila! You have a big chunk of the lit review out of the way.
A good literature review is more than a collection of article analyses, however. Synthesis is also needed. By synthesis I mean weaving together a cohesive narrative around your analysis. This is partly a matter of organizing the material in a logical way but it also includes introductions, transitions, and summaries that draw out and connect the themes that are present in the literature you’re reviewing.  Good analysis and good synthesis, coupled with good writing that allows any reader to understand, make for a good literature review.
While we’re on the subject of writing, I consider the best academic writing to be easy to read. It is designed for clarity, it is grammatical and adheres to guidelines, and it is free of ego. By that I mean that its purpose is to communicate clearly to any reader, not to demonstrate the writer’s intelligence or mastery of the subject.  As with many things in life, more is not always better when it comes to writing. In fact, more is often simply lazy or undisciplined. This is another reason to cut your teeth on AB citations. They tighten up your writing measurably.
The literature review can be fun. It is an opportunity to dig into a subject that interests you and to exercise your creative and intellectual muscles. Think of it as sharing what you’ve learned.  Remember, when you perform this level of research on a topic, you become something of an expert on that topic. You can take pride in that. 


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Thoughts on Preferred Learning Styles

What is the easiest way for people to learn? Does this change from person to person or situation to situation? And to what extent does accommodating a student’s preferred learning style help him or her become a self-directed, lifelong learner?

Understanding learning styles

How individual humans learn is a meaty subject, and if the research of heavyweights Howard Gardner (2009) and David Kolb (2011) is any indication, it gets meatier the longer you think about it. Over the years, both have expanded the number of learning styles identified in their work, producing increasingly complicated – and presumably accurate – views of how people prefer to learn. But for our purposes, we can take a simpler view.

VAK – or Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic – is a learning styles model with intuitive appeal and a history going back nearly a century. Seeing and reading comprise the visual learning style, listening and speaking comprise the auditory learning style, and touching and doing comprise the kinesthetic learning style. “According to the VAK model, most people possess a dominant or preferred learning style. However, some people have a mixed and evenly balanced blend of the three styles” (Chislett and Chapman, 2005, para. 9).

Reflecting on my preferred learning style

My first pass at the VAK self-test confirmed what I had discovered before: I’m predominantly a visual learner. I prefer text sources in my schoolwork, maps for getting around, and recipes for cooking. I read instructions when I get a new piece of electronic equipment, and use email most of the time to communicate with the world. In these situations at least, I seem to trust words on a page more than anything else. After reflecting a bit on this, I decided to revisit the self-test with some different scenarios in mind. The results surprised me. I found that I was sometimes an auditory learner and sometimes a kinesthetic learner, as well.

For example, I was recently in a music store in Iceland and saw instruments I’d never seen before. I immediately wanted to pick them up and experiment with them. It never crossed my mind to read a manual. Then I considered how I exercise. I watch myself in a mirror and note how the correct form feels. In both cases, I’m using a kinesthetic learning style. As for the auditory component, I learn a tremendous amount from listening to old-timers talk about their experiences with horses, just as I learn a lot when I share my own experiences with my students. I also listen to talk radio daily while exercising or doing outside chores. These are certainly examples of an auditory learning style. So what does all this mean? Could it be that preferred learning styles vary not only from one person to the next but also from one context to the next?

Learning theories and learning styles

Learning styles are part of the larger subject of learning theory. Learning theories abound – fifty of them are nicely summarized in the Theory into Practice Database (Kearsley, 2011) – but those that have been most influential in American education during the past century are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. In very simple terms, behaviorism is concerned with manipulating stimuli to produce correct responses in the student. Cognitivism focuses on the mental processes and structures used in learning. And constructivism sees learning as creating personal meaning through authentic, problem-oriented experiences.

Which of these learning theories supports my preferred learning style? The answer, of course, is that all of them do. When I learn a new musical instrument I do it by immersing myself in the sort of authentic, hands-on scenario that constructivists endorse. When I reconcile what I’ve learned from an old-timer with my previous schema about horses, I’m using the mental processes of most interest to cognitivists. And when I consult a manual to learn how to find
unused frequencies for a wireless microphone, I’m firmly in the world of behaviorism.

Systematic eclecticism
Like many of my classmates and instructors, I claim no allegiance to one learning theory over another. In fact, I think it is foolish and unnecessary to become an “ist.” Each theory is a window giving me a different view on the complex phenomenon of learning, and there are contexts where each will shine, where each will be the most appropriate underpinning for an instructional strategy. The worst thing a learner, teacher, or instructional designer can do is become so loyal to a particular learning theory as to miss seeing when it’s not the best choice. Indeed, choosing the best approach for the context – a sort of cherry picking G.E. Snelbecker dubbed systematic eclecticism (as cited in Ertmer & Newby, 1993) – has genuine appeal to those of us who like a little common sense with our learning theory.

Should learning be easy?
But there is another issue wrapped up in the notion of preferred learning styles. Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar” (, 2010). Learning is, by its very nature, a growth experience. It requires stretching, getting out of one’s comfort zone. It can be unsettling and difficult, which is precisely why there is such satisfaction awaiting the diligent student. Yet aligning learning theories and instructional strategies with a student’s preferred learning style is intended to make learning easier. Ignoring for a moment the impossibility of catering to every student’s preferred learning style in every course, is this really the right thing to do? Is this the right way to encourage scholarship and the will to be a self-directed lifelong learner?

Thinking back
On this subject, I need to make a distinction between my views as a student and asfa teacher. My return to college was after a 36-year absence. It seemed like everything had changed. I had my doubts about the instructional strategies used in the program. I wasn’t always sure what to do. Some of the reading assignments were long and difficult. I was older and philosophically out-of-sync with some teachers, and most of my classmates. Certainly I wasn’tin my comfort zone, nor was I using my preferred learning styles. So, I did what I had to do. I adapted, I stretched, I grew, and now I am succeeding. The feeling of accomplishment is indescribable. I am better for having worked outside my comfort zone.

When I’m really honest with myself, I don’t care much about whether instructional strategies align with my preferred learning styles. I know that I’ll adapt and learn, regardless. I also know that I tend to learn differently depending on the context and that I can learn as much – or even more – when there is poor alignment between the instructional strategy and my instinctive approach to that learning task.

As an educator, I can’t afford to take this attitude. I need to serve students with all levels of motivation, experience, and ability. Understanding how they prefer to learn is good information to have, especially if I want to challenge them now and then to try something different.


Chislett, V. & Chapman, A. (2005). VAK learning styles self-test. Retrieved from

Ertmer, P. & Newby, T. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4),50-72.

Gardner, H. (2009). Multiple intelligences. Retrieved from

Kearsley, G. (2011). Explorations in learning & instruction: The theories into practice database. Retrieved from

Kolb, D. (2011). Kolb learning style inventory (LSI) version 4. Retrieved from (2010). Retrieved from

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thoughts on Wikipedia

In one of my doctoral courses, a classmate posted concerns about Wikipedia being accepted as a source for college papers. Here is my response:

Reliability of a source is a difficult concept for me to grasp. By whose standards? A panel of academics? What about all of the experience and insight out in the real world? Do we just ignore it? In my world, veterinarians, attorneys, and a handful of nutritionists are the only ones with terminal degrees, and many of them are students of horsemen who barely finished high school. Knowledge is everywhere. This is part of the concept of connectivism.

As for Wikipedia, it is subject to market forces. If it does not present reliable information, it dies. For me, this actually gives it more credibility than something written by an academic who is protected by tenure. And what about all the lip service given to the notion of collaborative learning? Wikipedia offers the best of what collaboration has to offer with enough oversight to be sure that bad information doesn't get passed on. Yes, anyone can post anything on Wikipedia, but as I pointed out earlier, it will be quickly removed if it doesn't meet guidelines. Personally I've never found anything incorrect, misleading, or biased on Wikipedia. So what's the beef? Yes, it's a new model, but shouldn't we be open to new ideas?

Finally, I think accessibility of information is also important. On our last assignment, I wanted to add something about survey response bias to my paper. Within ten seconds, I found a comprehensive and very well written article on Wikipedia. I also found some great material on blogs and web sites. So I quickly connected to what I needed to know but I still had to find an "acceptable" source to use in the paper. I spent another half hour trying to find something useful in our academic data bases. I am pretty handy with search engines and it was still extremely frustrating. I finally found one source I could use.

As a teacher, I want to excite students about knowledge and how to access it, not frustrate them. We are in changing times. Maybe we need to rethink what constitutes acceptable sources.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Philosophy of Education

Every facilitator of learning, whether a teacher in a traditional classroom, a trainer in a corporate environment, or an instructor in a distance learning program, develops a personal philosophy of education. It may be conscious and structured, finding expression in the myriad decisions, attitudes, and interactions that make up the person’s professional life. Or it may lurk in the subconscious with subtler effect. For students of education – those of us engaged in the metacognitive journey of learning about learning – periodically giving shape and form to a personal philosophy of education is a useful exercise in introspection. In fact, there is no better way to crystallize one’s thinking than to share it with others. Such will be undertaken here.

What is the purpose of education?
The American thinker and social commentator, Eric Hoffer, put it very well: "The central task of education is to implant a will and facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together" (Yero, 2001, para. 7). Thus, education should create lifelong learners who not only have the ability but also the desire to learn throughout life. The benefits trickle up from the individual to the family to the society at large.

Novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, focused on another important purpose of education: “… to teach a student how to live his life – by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality” (Yero, 2001, para. 9). Education should have relevance and usefulness in everyday life.

Finally, Chinese Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, observed: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” (, 2010). We can take the proverb a bit farther: Teach the man critical thinking and problem solving and you not only feed him, but clothe him, house him, and stimulate him for a lifetime. The only thing you can’t give him is the commitment to make the most of those opportunities. That must come from inside.

The purpose of education is thus to create lifelong learners who have the mix of understanding and practical skills needed to be productive and contributing members of their societies.

How do people learn?
Lifelong learning is not so rare, really. Healthy humans learn by directly assimilating information from sources they find credible: Parents, peers, religious or governmental leaders, newscasters and commentators, even popular icons such as actors, musicians, and sports stars

They also learn as they experience life. Their senses receive information about what is going on around them; their brains process the information, construct meaning from it, and store the results in their memories.

Both of these informal or natural ways of learning are efficient and effortless for the learner. The challenge faced by the educator is to find ways to harness and give direction to a propensity for learning that humans already have. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, metaphorically speaking. Instead, the task of the educator is to get a perfectly usable wheel rolling toward a specific destination.

Traditional direct instruction (e.g. the lecture) seeks to trigger assimilation. It is relatively easy to design and deliver, and may actually be preferred by seasoned learners such as graduate students and researchers because of its explicitness. There is no wallowing about, trying to create personal meaning. The facts are presented; the student absorbs them, and then moves on to the next task. However, this is not an efficient approach for all students and all subjects.

Fortunately, direct instruction can be effectively coupled with the other flavor of natural learning, where meaning is constructed from experience.

The constructivist approach
“In the constructivist approach, students construct personal understanding and knowledge of the world by experiencing things and reflecting on their experiences” (Lang & Evans, 2006, p. 220). Constructivist approaches take the learner through stages of discovery, reflection, sharing, and evaluation. Strategies include

1. Learning by doing (experiential);
2. Learning by working with others (collaborative/cooperative learning), and
3. Learning by working through challenges (problem-based learning).

In direct instruction, the student is asked to accept. In a constructivist activity, the student is asked to discover. This changes the teacher’s job from being a dispenser of knowledge in the former case to an advisor and cheerleader in the latter. “The role of the teacher, in the constructivist approach, is to pose questions and guide students to assist them in finding their own answers” (p. 221). The teacher presents problems, establishes boundaries, provides support and creates an atmosphere of safety. The teacher incorporates both explicitness and vagueness to keep learners moving forward on the learning journey.

Learning styles and comfort zones
Students have preferred learning styles, modes of learning in which they feel most comfortable. But what is the role of comfort in learning? Again, Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu offered an important insight: “A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar” (, 2010). Deliberate formal learning – even when the best constructivist approaches are used, even when there is good alignment with a student’s preferred learning style, even with all of that in place - requires effort. It is a transformative process. It is by its very nature unsettling. The good news is that venturing out of one’s comfort zone and doing something substantive while out there, has the curious effect of expanding that comfort zone. The challenge of the instructional designer is to use a variety of learning activities such that each student is likely to find some comforting and some challenging.

Instructional delivery models
For this writer, balance is key in how instruction is designed and delivered. Just as natural learning features both assimilated meaning and constructed meaning, deliberate facilitation of learning through instruction is at its best when it does the same. In education, there is a time and place for explicitness and a time and place for ambiguity. Both can be part of a comprehensive instructional delivery model. For example, direct instruction is highly desirable for conveying instructions about an assignment, expectations for performance, assessment of outcomes, and even the baseline knowledge needed to begin an experiential project. In this context students need explicitness. This creates the boundaries and framework in which they can work through an experiential exercise, in which they can construct their own knowledge. It assures that they are headed in the right general direction without giving them a precise road map for getting there. Then the experiential journey – the experiencing, the reflecting, the sharing, and the evaluating – can begin.

Online education
An important mandate for education in the modern age is to make it suitable for online delivery. The Internet has been a game-changer. So profound is its importance to learning that the following can easily be imagined:

1. The history of learning will one day be divided into pre and post-Internet
2. “Online education” will eventually become a redundant term. Instruction – even the face-to-face variety – will be assumed to have an online dimension somewhere in its development, delivery, execution, or evaluation.

Connection is the service that the Internet provides, and this is both in the literal sense of providing linkage between computers and in the larger sense of creating channels of access between the people and resources that make up the educational experience.

Distance learning and socialization
If there is one persistent criticism of learning from a distance using online education, it is that it downplays the social component of traditional classrooms. But that could be precisely where its value lies! Decoupling social growth and academic growth allows each to proceed at the rate best for the individual student.

In his country hit, “Online,” singer/songwriter, Brad Paisley confesses, “I’m so much cooler online” (, 2010). In a traditional classroom, the shy and unsure student often slouches in the back of the classroom, intimidated by quicker-thinking, confident achievers who dominate a discussion. But in an online discussion board, that shy student can take all the time he or she needs to compose a thoughtful post and be certain it will be read. The student is not only cooler online, but smarter as well, spending more time on task and growing into the student he or she wants to be, less inhibited by social pressures. And what exactly is lost in the process? Nothing! Interaction with others is still present but doesn’t wield the power to compromise academic learning.

Taking it to the corral
Online education isn’t only for discourse-based subjects such as philosophy and sociology. Nearly any subject that can be taught has some component that could be taught online. A good example is the writer’s work as an educator in the horse industry.

The curriculum is horsemanship. One could easily presume that this is all about developing facility and technique in handling horses, and that it would not be suitable for online instruction. While physical interaction with a horse is certainly part of the journey, there is also a strong cognitive component, and it is this component that is best suited for development with distance education. Students are well served by studying the evolutionary history of equus caballus (modern horse), the resulting behavior complex, veterinary science, horsekeeping/husbandry, the history of horsemanship (including modern horsemen), and general principles of behavior modification as well as those that have been proven particularly effective with horses.

Target students are predominantly middle-aged women, college educated and computer literate, who are interested in increasing the enjoyment they get from their horses. They are accustomed to learning through technology. Indeed, many are already accessing the writer’s television and radio programs, and writings online.

Just how well can the natural learning phenomenon be harnessed to reach these students online? Direct assimilation of knowledge through readings, lectures, video, and audio has already proven viable in the handful of horse-oriented distance education offerings available today. The greatest room for growth, however, is in incorporating constructivist methods, and it is here where there is the greatest opportunity to have a positive impact. Discussion boards where learners can share experiences and learn collaboratively would be an easy first step.

What’s more, it is conceivable that one day, motion-controlled gaming technology (e.g. Nintendo's Wii™) could simulate a hands-on horse experience to safely teach newbies basic horse-handling skills remotely, similar to the way driving students use simulators or families play sports from their living rooms. This would undoubtedly improve the learner’s confidence and competence, enhancing the quality of the experience when human and horse meet.

A final thought
This writer’s focus is clearly on the individual, believing that individual freedom, excellence, and virtue are the proper starting points for achieving those characteristics in a society. A natural corollary to that belief is that the most formidable barriers to lifelong learning are not imposed from without but found within, the foremost such barrier being the learner’s own attitude. In a recent radio interview, a young Canadian horseman, Jonathan Field, shared an observation made by one of his mentors. There are three words that every learner should avoid uttering, for they all but assure that the learning has stopped: “I know that.”

References (2010). Retrieved from (2010). Retrieved from
Lang, H.R., & Evans, D.N. (2006). Models, strategies, and methods for effective
teaching. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc. (2010). Retrieved from
Yero, J.L. (2001). The meaning of education. Teacher’s mind resources. Retrieved from

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thoughts on Assessment

For me, assessment is the most difficult and least enjoyable part of being an educator. I have been on the receiving end of assessments that I felt were too critical and others that I felt were not critical enough. The one occasion when I taught college, I felt most uncertain about how to assess performance and assign grades. Now, sixteen months of grad school later, assessment is still not my favorite subject, but I am becoming less uncertain about my own feelings.

For one thing, I believe in the value of the traditional test, a relic from the reign of behaviorism, as well as reflective writing, the primary tool of modern constructivists. I feel no compulsion to pledge allegiance to one theory of learning over another. And why should I? I have found valuable insights in behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism. Metaphorically, I think of each theory as a door offering a different view onto the complex phenomenon of learning. Teachers in the trenches seldom commit to a particular ism, either, preferring instead to cherry pick the best ideas they can find to help their students, leaving behind what doesn’t work.

What works and doesn’t work in assessment
The view of assessment offered by constructivists Palloff & Pratt (2006) is perfect for cherry picking. They put forth a number of practical and common sense prescriptions for assessment in online courses, such as:

1. Use assessment techniques that fit the context and align with the learning objectives (p. 1); and
2. Design assessments that are clear, easy to understand and that are likely to work in the online environment (p. 1).

Yet some of their other prescriptions seem to intensify negative social influences on learning and abdicate assessment responsibility. These are best left behind:

1. Include collaborative assessments through public posting of papers along with comments from student to student (p. 1); and
2. Ask for and incorporate student input into how assessment should be conducted (p. 1).

Constructivism challenged
In my opinion, students of all ages need strong guidance from their teachers in both the learning and assessment phases if they are to achieve individual excellence. But constructivism pushes the guide off to the side, recasts him or her as a learning peer, and promotes the group to the role of primary facilitator of learning, changing the goal of individual excellence to the goal of being a good team player.

I’m not the only one who believes minimizing guidance is a mistake. Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) report, “The past half-century of empirical research on this issue has produced unambiguous evidence that minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning” (p. 76). In other words, there is evidence now that constructing meaning for one’s self is not the best way to learn. It follows that assessment methods flowing from that same faulty assumption should also be abandoned.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during
instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. Retrieved from
Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2006). How do we know they know? Student assessment
online. 22nd Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from OTL541/How%20do%20we%20know%20they%20know.pdf