I traveled to meet with a university professor well-known for his research in e-learning. His publications were respected, and he’d written many how-to papers that were serving as a guide to instructional designers. We’ll call him Dr. Knows Stuff. My visit went something like this:
Me: Dr. Stuff, your theories and publications are fascinating. Is there a chance I can see some of the e-learning courses you’ve developed? Maybe even as they’re in use with students?
Dr. Stuff: Absolutely. Let’s go to the lab. I’m sure there are some students in there working now.
There were about 25 computers in the lab and only three were in use.
Dr. Stuff: Well, not so many students now. Do you want to sit down at a station and work through a course yourself?
Me: Hey, sure!
Dr. Stuff signed me in to get me started and left. That was perfect! I started reading the screen but was doing my best to furtively observe the students. They were quiet when I arrived, but not long after it seemed they forgot I was there and started muttering to themselves. Soon they were talking to each other. In frustration.
After a bit, they turned to me and asked if I could help. Of course, I had no idea what the problem was, but I was certainly curious to learn what the problem was. I looked at their screen and couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to do. We tried everything we could think of, and then some obscure action (we weren’t even sure what we did) registered and yielded a message that we’d given the wrong answer. We hadn’t given any answer!
We ended up talking for quite a while, and I learned that most students really hated both the e-learning and the accompanying face-to-face classes. As diplomatically as possible, I asked Dr. Stuff about all this.
Dr. Stuff: (First words out of his mouth): Students are so ungrateful these days. Honestly! I put so much work into creating this course on their behalf and all they do is complain, complain, complain.
Whoa! Really? Students should appreciate how much effort we put into the course and overlook shortcomings because of it? I don’t think so.
Students are the proper judges of our work. Students properly expect perfect functionality, but more than that, they expect the time they invest will return benefits, not confusion and frustration. They should find their learning experiences to be energizing, pleasant, fun, and clearly beneficial. Demanding our students Correct That Attitude! because, after all, we worked so hard on developing the courseware is only going to make their attitude become more negative.
This experience reminded me so much of the fable with which Robert Mager (1968, p v) opens his book, Developing Attitude Toward Learning.
Once upon a time in a little drop of water, King Amoeba decided he wanted to teach his subjects how to have a better life. So he traveled far and wide throughout the Kingdom of Dropland to tell his people how to be better than they were. But nobody listened.
"Psst," said his advisor. "First you have to get their attention. Here. Rub on this magic garlic potion and you will get everyone's attention."
So the king did as he was told and went out to teach his people how to be better than they were. But nobody listened. They swam away...and held their noses.
"Psst," said his advisor. "You have to be sure they can hear you. Here. Shout into this megaphone and then every-one will listen."
So the king did as he was told, and went out to spread his wisdom. But nobody listened. They swam away...and held their noses...and covered their ears.
"Psst," said his advisor. "The people are too stupid to realize what wisdom you have to offer. You have to make them listen for their own good."
So the king made everyone gather in the Great Solarium while he told them how to be better than they were. But when the Great Doors were opened, everybody swam away so hard and so fast that before they knew it they had swum right out of Dropland. And henceforth and forevermore they were referred to at Outdroppers.
And the moral of this fable is that...things surrounded by unpleasantness are seldom surrounded by people.
Do attitudes really matter?
Of course, they do. I’m thinking after all these years of working to find systematic ways to make learning experiences effective and engaging, we would benefit from recognizing attitude, just like motivation, as a variable in play and something we can affect. We don’t need to settle with just what students arrive with. While we can clearly dampen motivation and attitudes and do so easily, we can also bolster both motivation and attitudes. Is it worth it?
In various studies Mager undertook on the effect attitude has on learning outcomes, it became clear that attitude is a significant factor not only in what is learned but also in learning retention. Which, in turn, affects self-efficacy—an important factor influencing learning and performance as we discussed in the previous blog.
In one revealing study, students who had a negative attitude toward a studied subject could remember details of how their learning experiences led them to dislike the subject but could remember very little if any content. In contrast, students who had a positive attitude couldn’t remember just how they came to like the subject, but they could remember many details of the content (pp 33-37).
Jump forward about 50 years. A study in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University found a positive attitude contributes as much to math achievement as IQ. In fact, there was some evidence that, at some levels, attitude may be more important than IQ for learning. Researchers concluded a positive attitude results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain’s problem-solving capacities (Chen, 2018). Regardless of IQ, a positive attitude helps improve memory and lessens interference from anxiety.
Let's add up what we've learned:
So far, we’ve learned:
From Unknown Learner Characteristics to Competence, Confidence, and Joy.
There is plenty of evidence these psychological factors play a strong hand in learning. They unfortunately seem too varied, rooted in the experiences of individual learners, and intractable. Beyond the reach of anything, we can reasonably and practically do in designing learning experiences. But are they really?
I’m leading up to some ideas that flip that copout on its head. And it’s not just speculation. I’m going to share examples of e-learning that implemented practical techniques to make the learner's journey a dramatically enhanced experience by recognizing and elevating the learner's state of mind. These are projects done with real-world budgets and limitations, taking me to the conviction that ignoring these operational characteristics of learners has been making our jobs more difficult than they would otherwise be.
I hope you’ll stay tuned.
Read Part 4
Read Part 5
Mager, R. F. (1968). Developing Attitude Toward Learning (The Mager Library: collection of Robert Mager's handbooks). Belmont, CA: Pitman Learning.
Chen, L., Bae, S., Battista, C., Qin, S., Chen, T., Evans, T. M., & Menon, V. (2018). Positive Attitude Toward Math Supports Early Academic Success: Behavioral Evidence and Neurocognitive Mechanisms [Abstract]. Psychological Science, 29(3), 390-402.