[image credit: Wired Magazine Apr 2018, How the March for Science Became a Movement]
In a February 2021 Forbes article, edX CEO and MIT professor Anant Agarwal shares "5 hacks for online learning success in the workplace."
- Partner: create communities and find a study buddy
- Practice: make learning stick by practicing problems as you go
- Pace: learn at the speed that works for you
- Pencil: take notes even though everything is available online
- Participate: engage in discussion forums, asking and answering questions to learn from your peers
With MIT Vice President for Open Learning and professor of Mechanical Engineering Sanjay Sarma's new book, "Grasp: The Science of Transforming How We Learn," hot off the press, MITili thought that it would mine Grasp, co-written with science writer Luke Yoquinto, as well as other sources, to shed light on why Agarwal's "hacks" work as well as they do.
1. Partner: create communities and find a study buddy
Sarma shares the work of Harvard physicist Eric Mazur experimenting with peer instruction. Peer instruction leads to learning gains for several reasons, most notably that peers new to a concept not only offer accountability to each other, but also are better able to understand what they don’t understand relative to an expert instructor for whom a lack of understanding is likely years in the past.
Compared with listening to an instructor’s lesson, partners learning together offer another benefit: active learning that activates “retrieval.” Grasp recounts the work of UCLA’s Elizabeth and Robert Bjork on how forgetting and then retrieving knowledge from long-term memory strengthens the cementing of that knowledge. When students explain a concept to each other, they strengthen what they know and correct what they don’t.
2. Practice: make learning stick by practicing problems as you go
Here, Agarwal’s hack also draws on retrieval learning. The repeated practice to which he refers is addressed by Sarma in two areas: the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and the implication of that curve, spaced learning. Hermann Ebbinghaus showed that as time passes following the learning of something new, a person will forget what was learned. The decay can be fast--a mere 24 hours is enough time for half of the new learning to be forgotten.
Spaced learning is the answer to the forgetting curve. Countless research studies have shown that relearning content on a periodic basis--perhaps daily at first, then with longer gaps--leads to long-term retention.
3. Pace: learn at the speed that works for you
Sarma recounts Lev Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (ZPD), which speaks to why an appropriate speed of learning is important. In short, the ZPD theory finds that learning works best when it’s hard, but not too hard. If learning is either too easy or too hard, nothing is gained. Similarly, if learning is too slow, it’s too easy--if it’s too fast, it’s too hard.
4. Pencil: take notes even though everything is available online
Grasp doesn’t address the tactical question of note-taking, but numerous research studies do. While the results of those studies are mixed, the preponderance of evidence sides in favor of better learning when note-taking is done by hand. One important example supporting note-taking by hand is the 2014 work of Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer.
5. Participate: engage in discussion forums, asking and answering questions to learn from your peers
Discussion forums are ubiquitous in online learning. Numerous research studies support Agarwal’s assertion of discussion forum value. The presence of a discussion forum isn’t sufficient, however, nor is the requirement that students post to and respond in such a forum. As the separate 2010 work of Mary Christopher and colleagues and of Ellise Dallimore and colleagues points out, discussion quality and learning outcomes require appropriate, open-ended questions and active instructor participation and feedback.
In sum, learning doesn’t just happen. Rather, it requires an engaged learner coupled with effectively delivered instruction grounded in sound science of learning findings. Professor Anant Agarwal’s concise article and professor Sanjay Sarma’s book-length treatment of the science of learning build on generations of research, serve as the launching point for the next iterations of that research, and provide actionable steps for learners and instructors alike.