In this post, I’ll outline how we can apply lessons from learning science for better professional development.
Learning science has taught us all some unexpected things about how our brains work. The authors of Make it Stick highlight the most significant studies on learning and share the best ways to make what we’ve learned stick in our long term memory. Their core takeaways are:
- Learning that is difficult helps make it stick.
- Effortful learning rewires our brains to make new connections.
- We learn better when we try to solve a problem before we really know how to.
Technology can feel alien, especially when we approach it for the first time. Help professional development learners relate the structure of an application to other things they’ve experienced. For example, you could frame file sharing permissions in Google Drive as keys that give different levels of access to a building. Then, ask students to come up with their own metaphors to explain abstract technical concepts. Building connections between new knowledge and previous experiences helps that new knowledge move into long term memory.
Distill underlying principles
Help students understand the structure of the tool they’re learning by making the underlying principles apparent. For example, once they know where the option for boldfacing text is, ask them to guess where italics is. Help students understand not just how to press buttons, but how the application is organized. They’ll be able to help themselves if they get stuck in the future, and they’ll have a better understanding of how it works in general.
Quiz, quiz, quiz
No one particularly likes testing, especially in a non-academic setting like professional development, but frequent low-stakes quizzing is one of the best ways to help students learn. An easy way to integrate this into professional development is to begin each class (or section, if you only meet once) with a short review quiz. I like to use polling tools likePoll Everywhere for this task. I create short, 3 to 7 question, quizzes and ask students to answer the questions as they’re coming into class. Then I project their anonymous answers and we review the correct answer together. A few tips for quizzing:
- Open response is more valuable than multiple choice because students have to supply the answer themselves.
- Review content covered in the previous class, but include a few questions from earlier classes as well. The more students have forgotten something, the more valuable it will be to retrieve it.
- Delay feedback. Always provide the correct answer, but ask students why they chose the answers they did and have a discussion about their answers first.
- Order questions randomly. If you have 4 questions on text formatting, 3 on inserting and editing images, and 1 on track changes, distribute them throughout the quiz. It’ll throw students off a bit, but that will help them think more deeply about the questions.
Include an exit ticket
At the end of class, ask students to fill out a quick exit ticket survey that asks “What’s your main takeaway from today’s class?” Asking students to rephrase core concepts in their own words helps them remember them.
Ask students to solve a problem before you teach them the answer
If you want students to learn to make a pivot table in Excel, ask them to try it before you show them how. Even if they don’t succeed, they’ll have gained new insight into how the application works. Working hard at it will help them remember how to do it in the future, even if they don’t get it right on their own. After you review the correct steps, ask students to answer the following questions:
- What did I do?
- How did it work out?
- How could I do it differently next time?
Spaced repetition is one of the keys to learning new concepts, but it can be tricky to implement in professional development because our classes are so short. Create automatic follow-up emails every month or so with questions that require your students to retrieve what they learned. Do make sure they can opt out, though!