Tag: teaching

Situated Learning

[I wrote this review of situated learning, also known as situated cognition, in 2009 for the internal communications discussion board we use in the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. I go back to it often enough, mostly to find the reference for the amazing paper by James Paul Gee, that I’m reposting here.]

We’ve all seen it, and probably done it, too. An instructor has a really interesting problem to tackle in a course, a problem that synthesizes many concepts. So the instructor carefully presents each concept, one after another, building anticipation and excitement for the big day when everything comes together. And when the big day arrives, a month into the term, the students don’t seem to get it. “But we just spent a month getting ready for this! Why aren’t you excited? Can’t you remember concepts A, B, C, D, E, F and G?”

Uh, no. The problem is, concepts A thru G were presented without any context. They are disembodied or decontextualized knowledge.  There’s no scaffolding, no motivation to grab the students’ attention. The promise of excitement a month from now isn’t enough. As this is a scenario I’m facing, I needed some research to support my argument for change. At Carl’s suggestions, with great help from Wendy Adams (CU Boulder), I put together a brief summary of what we know about the failures of decontextualized knowledge, or better yet, the profound benefits of situated cognition.

For thousands of years, novices have become experts through apprenticeship: the master trains the novice, not just with reading assignments and homework, but by teaching the craft in situ. The novice accumulates the craft’s concepts as needed. The novice learns simultaneously, both the knowledge and how to use it. As Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) write,

by ignoring the situated nature of cognition, education defeats its own goal of providing usable, robust knowledge.

This paper is an excellent discussion. The authors describe two benefits to situated cognition:

  1. “Learning from dictionaries, like any method that tries to teach abstract concepts independently of authentic situations, overlooks the way understanding is developed through continued, situated use.” This echoes Chapter 3: Learning and Transfer of How People Learn. Teaching in context (and then in slightly different situations) increases the “flexibility” of students’ knowledge, aiding transfer.
  2. “[Students] need to be exposed to the use of a domain’s conceptual tools in authentic activity – to teachers acting as practitioners and using these tools in wrestling with problems of the world.” This one surprised me because it didn’t even occur to me and it’s probably more important than the first. Students in a situated learning environment get “enculturated” (Brown et al., 1989) into the practice of how to study the field, not just the field’s concepts.

Okay, great. But how do you do it? How do you “enculturate” your students? What kinds of activities or curricula work?

Mayer and Wittrock, in Chapter 13: Problem Solving of the Handbook of Educational Psychology (Winne and Alexander, 2006) describe a wide range of methods for teaching problem solving, many of which have a flavour of teaching and learning in context.

Donovan and Bransford in How Students Learn (2005), a follow-up to How People Learn, collect together a number of case studies about teaching and learning science.

Sabella and Redish (2007) give some advice for physics instruction, but the messages are much more general:

[C]onceptual knowledge is only one part of what students need to know in order to solve physics problems. They also need to know how and when to use that knowledge.

Finally, if you read only one more paper after Brown et al., read this fantastic how-to article by James Paul Gee. He studies literacy and he’s a (the?) video gaming guru. This article, “Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines” (2005) lists 13 principles that education should have. Each principle is matched to a video game where that skill or activity is best exemplified (they’re all long, role-playing games like Halo and Tomb Raider where you must accumulate skills to win). And for us, he kindly translates the principles into what educators need to do to incorporate these principles into our teaching, like

skills are best learned as strategies for carrying out meaningful functions that one wants and needs to carry out.

In conclusion, situated cognition (or situated learning) has benefits far beyond helping students hang concepts onto the scaffold in the right places. It introduces them to how experts in the field practice their craft.


J.S. Brown, A. Collins, and P. Duguid, “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning,” Educational Researcher 18, 32 (1989).

J.D. Bransford, A.L. Brown, R.R. Cocking (Eds.) How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2000).

R.E. Mayer and M.C. Wittrock, in Handbook of Educational Psychology (2nd ed.), edited by P.H. Winne and P.A. Alexander (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006), 287.

M.S. Donovan and J.D. Bransford (Eds.) How students learn: Science in the classroom. (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2005).

M. Sabella and E.F. Redish, “Knowledge activation and organization in physics problem-solving,” Am. J. Phys. 75, 1017 (2007).

J.P. Gee, “Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines,” E-Learning 2, 5 (2005).

Workshop on Effective Peer Instruction in Biology

I’m really excited to be running another peer instruction workshop with my colleague Cynthia Heiner. This time, we’re tailoring the content of the clicker questions to biology, thanks to the input (and organization) of our CWSEI colleague, Bridgette Clarkston (@funnyfishes on Twitter). I’ll try to get the presentation into Slideshare. In the meantime, I made of poster [PDF] for the the 2012 CWSEI End-of-Year event that illustrates the clicker choreography we recommend.

Effective Peer Instruction in Biology
Using Clickers

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Presenters Peter Newbury and Cynthia Heiner
CWSEI Science Teaching and Learning Fellows
Time 9:00 – 9:30 am: Coffee and donuts
9:30 am – 12:30 pm: Workshop
12:30 – 1:00 pm: Lunch (provided), chance to mingle and ask questions
Location Biological Sciences Bldg, room 4223 (next to Zoology Main Office)
Workshop This workshop will emphasize best practices for introducing and running peer instruction with clickers. Everyone will have a chance to practice conducting a peer instruction episode, from presenting a question to reacting to the audience’s votes. We’ll talk about whether or not to award clicker marks and point you to resources for learning the technical side of using i>clickers: hardware, software and sync’ing with Vista. We’ll also briefly discuss what makes and effective clicker question and, if time allows, discuss tips for creating effective questions.
Audience This workshop will focus on teaching biology and is open to everyone interested in science education including (but not limited to) faculty, staff, post-docs, graduate students and upper-level undergraduate students.
Please register by Friday, May 11th by contacting Bridgette Clarkston. Please indicate if you’d like to attend the lunch and if you have any dietary restrictions.

Self-enhancement and imposter syndrome: neither is good for your teaching

I read a terrific paper this week by Jennifer McCrickerd (Drake University) called, “Understanding and Reducing Faculty Reluctance to Improve Teaching.” In it, the author lists 6 reasons why some post-secondary (#highered) instructors are not interested in improving the way they teach:

  1. instructors’ self-identification as members of a discipline (sociologists, biologists, etc.) instead of as members of the teaching profession;
  2. emphasis early in instructors’ careers (graduate school, when working to attain jobs and then tenure) on research and publishing;
  3. instructors’ resistance to being told what to do;
  4. instructors’ unwillingness to sacrifice content delivery for better teaching;
  5. instructors’ momentum and no perception that current practices need to change;
  6. risk to sense of self involve with change by change by instructors

These are succinct descriptions of the anecdotes and grumblings I hear all the time, from instructors who have transformed to student-centered instruction, from instructors who see no need to switch away from traditional lectures and from my colleagues and peers in the teaching and learning community whose enable and support change.

What makes McCrickerd’s paper so good, in my opinion, is she connects the motivation behind these 6 reasons  to research in psychology. In particular, to Dweck’s work [1] on fixed- and mutable-mindsets (with fixed-mindset, you can either teach or you can’t, just like some people can do math and some can’t) and to Fischer’s work [2] on dynamic skill theory (which posits, “skill acquisition always includes drops in proficiency before progress in proficiency returns”).

I won’t go into all the details because McCrickerd’s paper is very nice — you should read it yourself. But there’s one facet that I want to examine because of how it relates to a blog post I recently read, “How I cured my imposter syndrome,” by Jacquelyn Gill (@jacquelyngill on Twitter). She writes,

I felt like I’d somehow fooled everyone into thinking I was qualified to get into graduate school, and couldn’t shake the anxiety that someone would ultimately figure out the error. When something good would happen– a grant, or an award– I subconsciously chalked it up to luck, rather than merit.

With that resonating resonating in my head (yes, resonating: I often feel imposter syndrome), I read that McCrickerd traces some instructors’ reluctance to “self-enhancement” which she describes as follows:

Most Westerners tend, when assessing our own abilities, character or behavior, to judge ourselves to be above average in ability. In particular, we view ourselves as crucial to the success of our accomplishments but when not successful, we attribute the lack of success to things other than our actual abilities.

The streams crossed and I scratched out a little table in the margins of the paper:

McCrickerd points out it is only through dissatisfaction that we change our behavior. An instructor with an overly-enhanced self sees no reason to change when something bad happens in class. “Not my fault they didn’t learn…”

And who else does a lot of teaching? Teaching assistants, that’s who. Graduate students with a raging case of imposter syndrome. When something goes wrong in their classes, “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t even be here in the first place…”

Yeah, that’s a real motivator.

So, what do we do about it.Again, McCrickerd has some excellent ideas:

[I]nstructors need to be understood to be learners with good psychological reasons for their choices and if different choices are going to be encouraged, these reasons must be addressed.

The delicate job of those tasked with helping to improve teaching and learning is to engage these reluctant instructors so they begin to look at learning objectively, then to demonstrate there are more effective ways to teach, to closely support their first attempts (which are likely to result in decrease in proficiency) and to continue to support incremental steps forward. It’s not always easy to start the process but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my job, it’s the importance of making a connection and then earning the trust of the instructor.

Now, go read the McCrickerd paper. It’s really good.



[1] Dweck, C. 2000. Self-theories: Their roles in motivation, personality and development. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis Group.

This Scientific American article by Dweck is a nice introduction to fixed and mutable minds-sets

[2] Fischer, K., Z. Yan, & J. Stewart. 2003. Adult cognitive development: Dynamics in the developmental web. In Handbook of developmental psychology, ed. J. Valsiner & K. Connelly, 491-516. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. [pdf from gse.harvard.edu]

 Image “The Show Off. Part 2” by Sister72 on flicker (CC)