' '

Practice and feedback for deeper learning

Posted by on 17 January 2018

Dr Patti Shank is a leader in evidence-based learning. We're excited about the release of her book Practice and feedback for deeper learning, and Patti is our guest on this episode of the Learning While Working podcast. Robin and Patti discuss the need for more research in L&D, the importance of practice and feedback for deeper learning, and the different between shallow learning and deep learning. .

Subscribe using your favourite podcast player or RSS

Subscribe on Android Listen to Stitcher rss icon

Sign up to our email newsletter to get podcast updates

Links from the podcast

Transcript

Robin:
Hi, it's Robin here — the host of the Learning While Working podcast and founder of Sprout Labs. Welcome to 2018. We've got some plans for some different formats for the podcast this year, and we're also thinking about making the podcast weekly. I wouldn't mind your feedback on that idea, actually.

In this podcast, I'm talking with Patti Shank about her new book called Practice and feedback for deeper learning. Patti has done an amazing job of taking academic research and making it really easy to apply in workplace learning. It's a really significant piece of work that she's doing and it could be quite transformational for L&D.

We start by talking a little bit about why L&D is not more research-driven. We explore a little bit about micro-learning — in actual fact, both of us are people who don't use the term lots — and then we explore fidelity in e-learning as well.

I say in the podcast and I'll repeat it here, this is one of the best learning books I've read in 2017 and it's possibly one of the best learning books I've ever read. You can buy the book from Amazon: the link is just above the transcript on this page.

Welcome to the Learning by Working podcast, Patti.

Patti:
I'm really glad to be here, Robin.

Robin:
Your books do a really great job of transferring research into practice. Some industries, specifically healthcare, are really research-driven. Why do you think learning and development, and especially workplace learning, is not more driven by research?

Patti:
That's a great question, and it's one that I ponder on a regular basis. I'll give you some answers that I've figured out. One is that workplace learning, and what they're learning about how we learn in academia, are just totally disconnected. At first I was really upset about that, but I have come to realise that people who do research on learning, and workplace learning, are not interested as much in it being practised as in being known in their field. So there's just a total disconnect.

Whereas in medicine, that disconnect does not seem to be as bad, although there are plenty of disconnects in medicine. My own background is in health care. There are disconnects between research and practice in medicine. In learning, there's a couple things. One is that anyone with the right tools can develop whatever they want and call it instruction.

What is instruction? How do we define that? How do we define the competencies and professional behaviours of someone who develops instruction? That's never really happened.

There are organisations that are interested in those questions, but we're not all connected up. I'm not connected up, or people like me, who are really interested in the research, are not connected directly to academic researchers, although I have made efforts to do that and will continue, because I think it would be helpful if they cared about the result of their research in actual practice. There are people in our field who do want to do that.

Robin:
To me, it also seems like a lot of the educational learning research is helping essentially university lecturers improve their practice, and then there's a sort of circular thing that happens. Just occasionally you get a snippet that breaks out that becomes more practical for workplace learning.

Patti:
Right. I just had this discussion on Twitter with someone that I really like, and she asked me, "Why aren't you referring to the following research?" And I said, "Because it was all done on K through 12."

One of the things about research that's important is whether it generalises. What that means is whether we can apply it in different settings. Research done on K through 12 has a completely different purpose, different outcomes, different people, different developmental processes, and so I don't refer to that research because it was all done in K through 12, and the people who refer to it are using it in K through 12. What I am using is similar research that was done in workplace training.

You and I were talking off-air about how I started doing this. When I first started doing this, I realised that most of the resources out there to use for writing these books were K through 12 and that was not adequate. It's one of the reasons it took me so long, is that I had to find the researchers who were researching the same things in workplace training.

Robin:
Actually, that's really interesting, because one of the first things I did with your book was go to your bibliography and see, oh, where's the sources, or how has she been able to find these gems of gems of wisdom in amongst all this research that's actually not quite often focused in that area, so thank you Patti for doing that. I think it's a really significant set of work you're doing for the industry at the moment.

Patti:
I love it, and I'm very passionate about it. I feel very grateful that people are buying the book so I can write more.

Robin:
Yes, which is great. I'm just really interested to hear, why did you choose practice and feedback as your topic?

Patti:
Well, I chose practice and feedback because that's one of the key items for instruction that's left out of way too much workplace training. I didn't know if it would even sell because if people aren't doing it, do they want to know about it? And people are buying it! The interesting thing for me is that people are saying things to me, writing on Twitter or emailing me, and saying things like, "I had no idea I was supposed to do these things."

Robin:
One of my frustrations with workplace learning is it's so focused on content, we talk about learning content -

Patti:
Oh, my God, don't get me started.

Robin:
This is where the practice and feedback is, there's that shift. It's actually about - and I have this thing - that learning is about process not content. I think that's where you've really given a nice set of frameworks in the book to be able to help people build opportunities for practice and feedback in learning.

Patti:
One of the things I was reading this morning was it's about the mental integration of all the things that you need to do with all the things you need to know. That's really quite complicated. I'm writing about it now. I remember someone asking me, within the last year, "Why are you writing about learning? It's easy. You tell people stuff, they learn." I said, "Nothing could be further from the truth," you know? It's actually quite difficult for many reasons, one of which I explained in the book, which is that our working memory can only hold a little bit at a time.

So that's one. The other thing is that, what I wrote this morning was about think of anything you need to do, and know, to ride a bicycle. It's overwhelming. It's the reason why that's such a big deal when children get on a two-wheeler. They have to balance, they have to point the handlebars, they have to balance their body, they have to move at a certain rate so they don't fall down. There's just a lot going on. That's something we think of as simple. Take that up 20 notches to driving a car. Driving a car now is very simple because it's been coded into long term memory, and we no longer have to use working memory to get that done.

Robin:
There's a quote, I haven't been able to find the source of it and it's a really nice one, that people don't learn how to ride a bike by reading a book.

Patti:
Yes. I've heard that, too. You have to do it because there's so many things happening. The reason for practice and feedback is that's where - I'm going to take your quote a little bit further, that's where the rubber meets the road.

The whole purpose of practice is for encoding what you are learning into one thing so that you can recall it as a ball, you can recall it all together, not as fourteen things you need to do. That's why our memory works the way it does.

Robin:
There's another part of the book title, which is actually what you're sort of hinting at is deep learning, because essentially everyone thinks learning's simple. Everyone does learning all the time, so they think they know how to help other people learn and the knowledge is part of that experience, but it's almost like there's a - I'm not quite sure if you actually talk about it, it almost feels like workplace is after a shallow, quick learning but in actual fact the sacrifice of that is people actually don't change behaviour, and we need to focus again on that deep learning.

Patti:
They can't change behaviour, because we haven't given them what's needed to shift from that shallow learning that is just to pass a test or to get your certificate, to the type of learning that allows you to actually do what you're learning.

Robin:
This is interesting, because your book's got so much information in it, and I was really trying to wrestle with how do we distil it down. It's an interesting conversation we're having around the edge of some of the things that are more general around practice and feedback. If there were maybe three bits of research that could really revolutionise and transform workplace learning, what do you think they would be, Patti?

Patti:
You mean from the book, or just in general?

Robin:
Either. I'm just really interested. I am also asking you to do something that's quite difficult, to just-

Patti:
No, no, it's not.

Robin:
Okay, oh, it's not? Awesome.

Patti:
It's not, because I think about these things. The one is to tie together what's needed to improve proficiency quickly. Here's what I've read, and here's what I think I know because I spent many years as a training director, and before that as a trainer and doing all kinds of training. The research says that people get to a certain level of functional performance, and they don't tend to improve. This is true for instructional designers, doctors, and many others; it doesn't matter. You get to a place where you know how to do X and Y, and you do X and Y. But the world has greatly changed in the last couple of years, with the changes in technology, artificial intelligence, globalisation. All of these changes. They're calling it the fourth industrial revolution, and I recommend that people look for that on the web.

The World Economic Forum did a wonderful research paper on what this is meaning for work and for skills. What's happening is, it used to be that we learned how to do our job, and then we didn't improve much but our job didn't change that much either so it wasn't horrible. These days almost all knowledge jobs, of which ours is one, change regularly. They have new skills, they have new needs, and in that environment, the ability to learn quickly and move forward and pull together what you know with what you're learning is desperately important, and here's why. The organisations that can't do that - the longevity of corporate entities has reduced by more than half, because organisations are not used to having to deal with these changes this quickly, and the only way people can deal with these changes is to learn new skills as needed, and quickly.

The thing that would revolutionise our industry the most is not technology, but using what we know about learning to help people learn quicker, faster, easier. That's the bottom line.

Robin:
There was a stat sometime that I came across that talked about how much workplace learning is focused on initial orientation and induction into an organisation, and getting that first level of proficiency. That was sort of scary, because in some ways that meant that you got people job-ready, but you didn't - learning and development wasn't working with actually making people ready for the next thing, is the best way to put it.

Patti:
No, they're not. I would agree with you one hundred percent on that. That kind of thinking does not help organisations survive the kind of radical changes that are - they're not just radical, they're accelerating.

It's no longer adequate for a workforce to be barely proficient. They have to be good, and they have to be able to take on new skills. We have to do it knowing that the human brain is fairly slow compared to the technologies we're working with.

We have to use the very best techniques possible. That's the key one for me, that the future will be held by people and organisations who can do this, and they can do it but they can't do it the way we're doing it now.

Robin:
By just essentially providing information, or really low-level shallow learning experiences.

Patti:
Agreed.

We also have to go past training. People who need to learn quickly can't wait for the next training course. We need to understand people's jobs, and we need to be able to find out what resources they need and how to support them best. For instance, most instructional designers are learning the new technologies constantly. How do we do that? How do people learn to use new technologies and changing technologies all the time? That's a different role for us. One of the roles is less content, more practice. Helping connect mentors; people who are already there with people who are getting there. These are some of the key, high level things that L&D can be doing to help people move quickly.

Robin:
This is an interesting question. In some ways, some of what you're talking about is this notion of learning in the flow. Part of the reason why I talk about learning while working.

Patti:
Yes.

Robin:
There's a lot of hype around the term micro-learning at the moment. It's one of these sorts of approaches to reduce down the size of learning so it works better in the flow. It's not a term I personally use a lot.

Patti:
I don't like it.

Robin:
Yes. It's interesting that you've come back with that same reaction.

Patti:
We do know that the newer somebody is to something, the smaller the chunks should be. That doesn't mean they should be two minutes, because in order to make something two minutes you have to take out the context, right? One of the things we know about memory is the most significant memory aspect for remembering is context. You take the context out? People are doing what they think makes sense, but they don't have the big picture. The big picture isn't that - for instance, if you're teaching people a new language. I'm trying to learn Spanish using Duolingo, and it's micro-learning, okay? It's five to ten minutes, but there's tonnes of context, it goes back over, it uses spacing. If you don't get it right, it continues to bug you until you do get it right. It uses what we know about learning. It has context in it, but it's not so small - I mean, you can't do it in two minutes. Two minutes isn't enough for you to even figure out where you left off last time.

Robin:
Yes, I wonder whether or not, if you actually went to Spain and spent all your time with native Spanish speakers whether or not you'd actually pick it up faster, because you'd actually have the context. I know when I spent time overseas with native speakers, I started to sit there and go, oh, the conversations about such and such. It's that word, and that word. All of a sudden - and my brain is not wired for language, either, Patti, and it's going: that's a really interesting thing to sit there and go, how quickly when you've got the context and then the immersive experience it happens, compared to the book learning or the micro-learning.

Patti:
Here's some good purposes. One of the things you can do to reduce the mental effort is to pre-train people in things they need to know to understand the context. Facts that people need to know, language, terminology, stuff like that. That might be a good place for using micro-learning, and in fact it works really well in that Duolingo program. But when you're teaching people to solve problems, which is the main thing that you and I do every day, we need the context because the problem is all about the context.

Robin:
You need to build up that situation and essentially people need to have that spot to be able to practise and make decisions and a safe environment rather than quite often doing it in a real environment as well.

Patti:
That's exactly my thought as well. My thoughts are informed by what I'm reading. There are things that I might have thought were X, but after I read I find they're Y. I just have to change what I'm doing, because my understanding was incomplete. That's part of our role as trainers is to help people grow understanding so that they can do their jobs. Micro-learning can be a technique, but what is it for? Where are we going to use it, and how are we going to get to the real problems of workplace practice, which are all context sensitive?

Robin:
Yes. In your book you have some really nice examples of how to increase and give more opportunities for practice and e-learning. We just started to talk a little bit about decision making. When people start to hear people talking about those, they automatically go to simulations. Simulations sound complex and expensive, but you have some really nice sweet ideas around those. Can you just talk a little bit about those? I think you're doing a bit more work in this area as well.

Patti:
Well, simulations are great but they also don't have to be very complicated. I think what you might be referring to is when they talked about fidelity. It's just, how realistic does the situation have to be? Does it have to look like the situation, does it have to act like the situation? Because we'll get graphic artists who will spend weeks making it look perfect, and all that extra detail doesn't help, and in fact it may take away from the value of the simulation. Especially for someone who's new, because the mind is going to focus on what you give. If you add music, if you add a changing visual field, your mind can't help but deal with that. Let's say we're simulating how to deal with an angry customer. I just made that up, okay? Because it's so common. Let's say we have a simulation and it's got all these different customer faces and they're all making faces at us. It's going to be very difficult for us to learn the actual steps to follow, because there's so much going on in that scene.

In the future, when you have more expertise and you've consolidated what you know, then we can start adding facial expressions and things like that. In many cases, and Cathy Moore talks about this, too, that in many cases a really good written scenario with answers are good enough. That's something you can build much faster than an HTML5 simulation with faces coming in and out and noises and things like that. So I talked about fidelity, and fidelity is: how real does it really need to be? I actually talk about that at length in the book, because we often don't input the right amount and types of fidelity, and people don't learn unless we think through what kind of fidelity is needed. Is that the thing you were talking about, you were thinking?

Robin:
Yes. That is the thing I was hinting at, Patti. You've actually done a really fantastic summary of something where you go really in depth in the book as well. Minds have a great ability to be able to imagine, and those simple text-based can sometimes be so rich -

Patti:
Absolutely. I mean, you can - the thing is this. If people have to react to what they see, then at some point you're going to add the thing they need to react to, to the simulation. I was just writing some slides and I was talking about this. I didn't use the word fidelity because we didn't have time to explain it, but if you're teaching people how to hook up, you're teaching technicians how to hook up a cable television to a specific VCR, or a digital VCR - this tells you how old I am that I still know what the word VCR means. What the simulation started with is a picture of the back of the person's video recorder. It said, "Pick the right cable and plug it in," and it had six types of cables.

So this is place where micro-learning might help you pre-know the types of cables, the terminology, and those sorts of things. They're not really heavily contextual. But when you start having to see the back of somebody's specific video recorder and it says, "Okay, step one. Pick the cable that you're going to use and plug it in." At that point, you need to have visual fidelity, but you don't need to be able to see the person's room or what that woman looks like who's in the room with you. You just need to be able to see what it is that you are using to make decisions.

Robin:
That's reducing down the cognitive load by actually focusing in on just what's really needed.

Patti:
Right. Especially as people are new, and adding complexity as they consolidate the knowledge of: if you're going to do this you need an HDMI cable, and if you're going to this you're using a USB cable. Once you have all that, and that's all consolidated in long term memory, then you can start adding details and additional context that might make that situation more complex.

Robin:
We talk at Sprout Labs about a spiral, where things spiral up in complexity. Start with something simple.

Patti:
I like that, I'd like to know more about that.

Robin:
Yes. Based on some of the work of the complex learning people out of the Netherlands.

Now you're working on a new book, Patti. What's that about?

Patti:
This is actually kind of funny. I did a small survey to see which books people wanted me to write next, and I have a list of them. The one that came out on top is making e-learning more learnable. You were just talking about cognitive load, and for people who are not familiar with that term I use the term 'mental effort'. So what this book will be about is how to reduce unnecessary mental effort in e-learning. For instance, a really obvious example is interface. How can we reduce the load on our minds by making the interface more simple? What kind of writing? There's research on writing for digital devices. There's research that says when people are using digital devices that simplifying isn't enough; we have to simplify even further because they read faster and they don't stop. So if we're doing e-learning, and for performance support on mobile, we have to write even more simply. I was talking to you earlier about how do we learn from video, and how do we learn from animation? What do we do to make video and animation easier to learn from? All of those are things that, as I'm reading, that we regularly ignore.

Robin:
I think this is a book that really needs to be written, Patti. It's really exciting and it's an exciting time for it to be happening as e-learning is maturing a little bit more.

Patti:
Agreed. If I'd written this ten years ago, it just would have been too much.

Robin:
Yes, probably it would have been too big a leap for where the industry was at that stage.

Patti:
It was hard enough back then for people to figure out how to even put their content online.

Robin:
Patti, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a really great conversation. I might have you back again sometime in the future as well. There's just so much to talk about.

Patti:
I love it, thank you, and thanks for being so much fun to talk to.


comments powered by Disqus