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Don’t Learn in a Vacuum: Why Thinking is Crucial to Growing

Written by Rachel Koblic on Nov 2, 2020

Related content: Learning Design, Digital Education

Have you ever tried to learn something completely on your own, without any help from anyone other than yourself? I did. Around the beginning of the pandemic, I decided it was as good a time as any to get that banjo I’ve always dreamed of and teach myself to play. Seven months later and that banjo is sitting in the corner of my room gathering dust—and I’m only able to play a couple of bars of the classic “Cripple Creek.”

Without any source of feedback or support, I found it very difficult to figure out what I should be doing to improve my musical skills and had no community with whom to celebrate my progress. I would clumsily pick around for about 15 minutes without direction and then just give up, too mentally maxed out to reflect on how to do better.

At 2U, we know it’s not enough to simply feel and do—one must also think about what they are feeling and doing. We know that students learn best when receiving feedback, learning with others, and reflecting on the process of learning—rather than just doing something in a vacuum. That’s why we work with our partners to incorporate opportunities for feedback—whether from the instructor, peers, or the learner themselves—into a course’s design to provide students with new pathways to grow and improve.

The Think of Learning

If you’ve been following my series on 2U’s Learning Experience Framework (LXF), then you’ve already been introduced to two of the three learner-focused dimensions we pay attention to in the process of course design and development: Feel and Do. By now, you should know that feelings matter—they get learners to show up, engage, and persist in learning—and that doing, or active, applied practice, helps students learn deeply and be able to use their skills in the real world. Think is the final piece of the puzzle, and it refers to the fact that learners benefit from input throughout the process of learning to help them course-correct as needed, hone their skills, and solidify new knowledge.

The world is full of feedback that helps you learn naturally every day. As children, our parents give us feedback to help us learn to walk, talk, and live in the world. As adults, we have personal trainers, coaches, music teachers, and bosses who give us feedback to improve our performances in different facets of our lives. We’re constantly adjusting and refining our knowledge and perspectives on the world around us in conversation with our friends, families, and even strangers on the internet. And we make changes to our behaviors when we step back and think about how things are going and aren’t satisfied with the results.

It should be no different in education. That’s why Think is the third critical dimension that completes our framework, containing three principles about the importance of formative feedback, social learning, and metacognition in learning.

Principle #1: Formative Feedback

Unless you live under a rock, feedback probably feels like a “no duh” principle. Everyone knows feedback is important. But feedback is only considered to be formative if it helps us understand our progress and what we can do to improve on our next attempt at mastering intended learning objectives. It is input during the process of learning that helps us do better the next time around.

In the case of my banjo playing, formative feedback could have come in the form of a teacher commenting on my finger positioning or rhythm, or it could have been playing along with peers and hearing where I make mistakes in relation to the rest of the band.

The benefits of feedback are incalculable. Feedback can help us track and monitor our progress and improve confidence and self-esteem—feeding motivation and the principles of the Feel dimension (more on that here). And without feedback, motivation can take a serious nosedive (as it did for me).

Feedback can come from a variety of different sources. It can come from comments in a graded paper or exam from a professor, or it can be communicated in real-time in a live session. But it can also come from ungraded, automatically validated questions embedded in asynchronous coursework.

One course that comes to mind when I think about the principles of Think is Professor Julie Birdsong’s Applied Leadership in Engineering Management for Vanderbilt University’s Master’s of Engineering Management program, designed in consultation with 2U’s Learning Design & Development experts. Applied Leadership does an exemplary job of providing students with multiple opportunities for feedback. Along with providing clear learning objectives and assessments and activities aligned to those objectives, Professor Birdsong peppers questions throughout the asynchronous coursework—some that supply automatic feedback, others where students must review their peer’s submissions and come ready to provide feedback in a live session. Her assessment strategy breaks down the major project of the course into a series of small steps that allow the student to receive and incorporate feedback before submitting the final version at the end of the course.

Principle #2: Social Learning

Humans are social creatures, so learning with others actually helps us learn better. And not just because it helps build community and a sense of belonging that boosts motivation and engagement. It’s also because learning with others exposes us to different perspectives and opinions that prompt us to examine, revise, and deepen our own understanding of the world.

In interacting with others, we are forced to organize and communicate our knowledge in a way that then allows us to compare it to the knowledge of others. This helps us question and refine what we know and spot any potential misconceptions or shore up faulty logic. Together, we can pool our knowledge to generate and test new understandings. Two heads are better than one, after all!

Learning the banjo with just one other person or a group of folks online would have helped me stick with and improve at playing. When I struggled to find the right picks for my fingers and figure out how to use them correctly, a community could have helped me home in on the answers.

Online live sessions are a great forum for social learning, but it’s also possible to foster social learning asynchronously. Professor Birdsong does an excellent job of both. Live sessions are highly interactive, with many opportunities for students to discuss and get to know each other and work through case studies in groups (you’ll find no lecture here). The course also features a semester-long group project where students work together to diagnose leadership challenges that affect a business and propose solutions. They have tasks to complete regularly and must find time and ways to collaborate outside of the live session to get it done.

Principle #3: Metacognition

Often described as “thinking about thinking,” metacognition kind of feels like a secret weapon. It’s deceptively simple and is often embedded in those activities that we always want to skip because it doesn’t feel like real learning. But...IT WORKS! And it will supercharge your learning.

I like to think about metacognition as feedback for you from you. It’s the type of thing that requires us to pause and reflect and take an internal inventory before moving on. How are things going? How are you feeling? What have you learned? What will you do differently next time? These are all questions that get to the core of metacognition.

Metacognition allows us to identify changes we want to make to our behaviors to do better next time. It enables us to celebrate our achievements and progress, to organize our thoughts, and to figure out where we need to improve.

For those of you who have read my entire LXF series, think about what I am doing with these articles. I have been reflecting on and unpacking my process of learning how to grow tomatoes and how to play the banjo. This is metacognition, people! You can be sure that the next time I learn a new skill in the garden or come back to learning an instrument, I will take a different approach to employ all of these things that I know to be helpful in learning, all because I’ve taken the time to reflect on it.

This is what we want students in 2U-powered programs to do, too. Experts are highly metacognitive, and as designers and educators we can help learners be metacognitive, too. And it’s worth it because metacognition is key to being a successful lifelong learner—something that’s more important now than ever.

Professor Birdsong builds metacognition into Applied Leadership with weekly journaling assignments where students can reflect on what they’ve learned and how they are progressing through the course. They are not long, but they count toward a small part of the student’s grade to encourage them to actually do it. This practice can also help surface any misconceptions the student might have to the instructor, who can help correct them with feedback. And it provides a barometer on how students are feeling so that the instructor can provide additional support as needed to help boost motivation and engagement. It's a simple activity, but very effective.

Think: The Final Dimension

Ultimately, Think forms the reflexive feedback loop that feeds back into Feel and Do. It is a critical closing of the loop that helps drive increased engagement and improvement in practice. It completes our framework.

But while frameworks are great for helping us make sense of the world and provide a concise description of how things work in order to be able to communicate in a shared language with those around us, it is important to realize that they simplify what is ultimately a very complex reality and a very complex process: learning. Feel, Do, and Think seem to describe a relatively linear process, but the reality is that learning is what happens at the intersection of all three, which overlap and interact in indescribable ways.

At 2U, the LXF and its principles are part of our DNA. We are trained to expertly weave them through our university partners’ learning experiences to create a rich and multifaceted fabric that ultimately leads to the best possible outcomes for their students. But it’s not the be-all-end-all to the learning design and development process—it’s our blueprint to delivering a great learning experience online.

To learn more about the LXF, read Rachel’s article introducing the framework and her deep dives into two of the LXF’s learner-focused dimensions: Feel and Do.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.