Post written by guest authors Alexandra Webb, Lillian Smyth and Kat Esteves, ANU Medical School.
Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ (1632) visually demonstrates 3 important considerations when designing your educational environment to ensure it is conducive to student learning.
1. It matters how your learning environment is arranged.
We can see here that the instructor has aligned the cadaver such that the students can compare it to the textbook illustrations at the front of the class with ease. We know from the literature that spatial predictability guides attention and can facilitate learning (Benitez & Smith, 2012), so this is good practice.
2. Active learning does not require an interactive task.
While the surgeons are not depicted doing anything, there is more to active learning than activity (Smith and Cardaciotto, 2011). It appears the instructor is encouraging active recall of the materials from prior theory lessons, which enhances learning compared to passive review (Rowland, 2014)
3. Errors can enhance learning.
While the forearm is, in fact, depicted incorrectly in places (IJpma et al., 2006), the evidence indicates an approach that embraces errors, rather than admonishing them, leads to a more conducive learning environment.
Let’s discuss these 3 principles a little further and explore how we can apply them to our own educational environments.
Principle 1: Using a spatially predictable environment to guide attention
Studies suggest that people respond faster and more efficiently when they know where in space something is going to occur (Beck et al., 2014; Do Carmo Blanco & Allen, 2018). Therefore, it is believed that providing students with information presented in predictable patterns (e.g. pictures, text, important messages) improves learning. This can be achieved by providing clear and explicit formatting of digital resources such as presentations, learning management system sites, websites and any other digital resources so that titles, images, text, important messages etc. are clearly and consistently organised. Providing information and resources in predictable locations enables students to focus their neural resources on learning rather than identifying and processing a new environment.
This may also apply to the organisation of physical learning environments such as the arrangement of furniture, technologies and resources within a classroom such that consistent and predictable arrangement reduces the demands on student attention and facilitates more focused learning.
Principle 2: An active rather than passive learning environment
Research suggests that whilst students feel as if they learn more during traditional lectures that involve passive listening, they actually learn more when participating in active learning approaches (Michael, 2006). Learning is hard work and students can misinterpret the effort involved in active learning as being a sign of inadequate learning compared to a passive learning experience which requires less effort (Owens et al., 2020).
There are numerous strategies that can be used in the classroom to create an active learning environment and at the same time stimulate active recall (coming up on Day 4). Here are just a few examples:
- Minute papers – Designed to take a minute to check students’ understanding of key concepts/topics or stimulate students to contemplate a topic prior to discussion.
- Mind-mapping – an activity designed to challenge students to visually represent and organise complex content
- Team-based learning – Students prepare before class and then spend the majority of class time solving problems together, via a readiness assurance process of readings, tests, mini-lectures, and then application exercises
What active learning strategies have you designed to employ in your course(s)? Have you had to modify your active learning strategies in the transition from face-to-face to remote learning during the Covid pandemic? If so, how have you achieved this?
Resources to explore more active learning strategies
ANU Coffee Courses:
- Enhancing your lecture: strategies for student engagement
- Deep and interactive learning in lectures
- Flipping the Classroom
Principle 3: An environment that embraces errors to improve learning
We have all received advice such as ‘learn from your mistakes’. Whilst none of us like to make mistakes, research informs us that a basic principle of learning is to use feedback from mistakes to improve future performance. Deliberately practicing the things we find difficult and make mistakes at, as opposed to practising the things we find easy, helps us to gain ‘meta-awareness’ of our skills and advance from novice to expert. The more a student struggles, and sometimes fails, when learning the more likely they will be to recall, transfer and apply that knowledge or skill in future learning. So it is important to create educational environments that provide opportunities for students to make mistakes and learn from them in a supported atmosphere. For example, quizzes and problem-solving activities using audience response systems create a safe space for students to participate, make errors and learn from them whilst remaining anonymous.
Consider the language you use to communicate to students your expectations about making mistakes. Compare the language used by two different teachers (reproduced from page 3 Culture of Error by Doug Lemov):
“I’m so glad you made that mistake,” Bob said to the class, calling them together to reteach. “It’s going to help me to help you.” Message: the mistake is normal, valuable in a way, and a source of insight. Bob is not bothered by the mistakes but communicates that he expects them and that when they happen, he wants to know about them.
“Guys, I should not be seeing people with –2x and +2x in the same equation. You know by now to combine like terms.” In that case, students will quickly learn that if they are making mistakes, they are likely to be a source of disappointment to their teacher. As a result, students are likely to respond by trying to conceal their errors. That doesn’t mean they combine like terms any better, just that when they struggle, the teacher won’t find out about it.
Vectors from TukTukDesign, downloaded from Pixabay.
The ANU Coffee Course Feedback for Learning provides guidance on providing effective feedback.
In your experience as a teacher and/or learner, are there any strategies you have found useful for creating an effective learning environment?
Benitez, V. L., & Smith, L. B. (2012). Predictable locations aid early object name learning. Cognition, 125(3), 339-352.
Smith, C.V., & Cardaciotto, L. (2011). Is Active Learning Like Broccoli? Student Perceptions of Active Learning in Large Lecture Classes. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, v11 n1 p53-61.
Rowland, C. A. (2014). The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: A meta-analytic review of the testing effect. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1432–1463.
IJpma F.F., van de Graaf R.C., Nicolai J.P., Meek M.F. (2006). The anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt (1632): a comparison of the painting with a dissected left forearm of a Dutch male cadaver. J Hand Surg Am. 2006;31(6):882-891.
Beck, M. R., Hong, S. L., van Lamsweerde, A. E., & Ericson, J. M. (2014). The effects of incidentally learned temporal and spatial predictability on response times and visual fixations during target detection and discrimination. PLoS One, 9(4), e94539.
Do Carmo Blanco, N., & Allen, J. J. (2018). Guidance of spatial attention during associative learning: Contributions of predictability and intention to learn. Psychophysiology, 55(8), e13077.
Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works?. Advances in physiology education. 30(4), 159-167
Owens, D. C., Sadler, T. D., Barlow, A. T., & Smith-Walters, C. (2020). Student motivation from and resistance to active learning rooted in essential science practices. Research in Science Education, 50(1), 253-277.