Tracey Teaches Us Instructional Design

Tracey Teaches Us Instructional Design

By: Think Tank Team

A month ago, many of us were blessed by getting a special workshop on instructional design from Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, a leader in bringing neuroscience and psychology to education. She teaches one of the core courses in the Mind, Brain, and Education field, Harvard’s The Neuroscience of Learning (which at least six of our authors have taken). But she is better known for her writing in this area, with thoughtful books like these. Click on the covers to see more.

So, we had this wonderful workshop, Pedagogies and Tools that Work (online and offline), viewable here, that generated a wave of positive comments from the participants. And what great timing! Here we are doing an issue on design, and to our delight, she has a video on instructional design she said we could show you! So here we are.

Summarizing everything she said would take…well… almost as much space as her books, so we have asked a few members of our Think Tank Team to report on some of the points they liked, as seen through individual lenses. We hope these comments will propel you towards watching this wonderful video yourself.

The Points we Highlight:

Learning involves more than just knowledge. (at 4:00 in the video) Tracey invoked an idea from education that goes back to 1993, that learning lies in three domains—changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes. This goes beyond our usual focus on just knowledge. Knowledge is the easiest of the three to deliver through traditional educational models, since they were designed to do this. Unfortunately, it is rapidly becoming the most redundant of the three: anybody with a smartphone and opposable thumb can get knowledge, but skill-learning and attitude-change? Our out-moded educational models need re-designing, hence Tracey’s course.

Backwards design. (6:00) As with many modern course designers, Tracey advocates designing courses and the lessons in them backwards. Start with the goals. What do you want learners to know (knowledge), be able to do (skills), or to have contemplated (attitudes) by the end of the course? Now, which of those do you want them to have covered by half-way through the course? A quarter of the way through? And so on, until you have filled in goals for each part of the course. Then do the same for each lesson, starting at the end and working backwards. This kind of “backwards engineering” involves ensuring that all prerequisite knowledge is in place before trying to learn each advanced step. This approach seemed to us to be more practical when teaching content rather than language. Content, like the topics in Tracey’s course on The Neuroscience of Learning, consists of easily specified and quantified pieces of information, whereas language teaching is often more about practice than it is about information. Tracey, though points out that language teaching also involves a lot of content, such as vocabulary, grammatical structures, and syntactical rules.

Flipping the class to use it for synthesis and exploration. (12:55) For Tracey, flipping the class means, basically, having learners: Watch a pre-class video, share reflections on the topic in the discussion boards, and take a low-stakes quiz on the content knowledge before the synchronous class. That allows her to use her 2-hour classes to go deeper into some points, especially those the students show interest in, or have questions about. She also sets up breakout room discussions on particular issues, and, maybe most importantly, pulls comments from the students’ reaction papers to have them discuss in class. Spending time doing the latter is genius. It honors the learners by giving them a hand in deciding what needs to be learned, and gives the teacher a better view of how to usefully spend class time. It is not just content that is flipped; it is the process of lesson planning as well.

Cameras on and the chat open to build knowledge. (22:35) Seeing learning as a social act, Tracey, like many of us, requires students to keep cameras on. She also challenges the traditional view that passing notes in class should be a “no-no,” and that by all means, it should be a “yes.” In online classes, encouraging the students to use the chat to discuss ideas in the lecture, to share links to related sources, to ask and answer questions, and even just to express reactions, is a powerful way for participants to increase their learning.  Make sure the learners know that they should be freely and publicly talking to each other in the chat, although they can also use it to pose questions or comments to the teacher. If you do this, assign a student to monitor the chat and pass on comments and questions.

Reflection both strengthens and expands learning. (32:05) The concept of reflective learning has been around a long time, at least as far back as John Dewey in the 1930s, but is not much used. We should, because reflection enables continuous learning. Thinking about the most important things we learned, at the end of a lesson, not only helps synthesize and seal them in memory, it also helps us personalize them and find new pathways to travel down. In my case (Curtis), I’ve known the power of this technique for twenty years, after having read Brookfield, but, despite my best intentions to have students reflect, in both my own classes and in my textbooks, but my attempts were not very successful. Not Tracey. She has worked a 3-2-1 activity into her classes that is easy to do and amazingly effective. At the end of a class session, students take a few minutes to write 3 things they want to remember, 2 they want to share with others and 1 that will change their practices. Tracey has informed us that there are some other reflective prompts available on the Harvard Project Zero page, here.

What? You failed the quiz that tested what you learned from the pre-class homework assignment? Good! Take it again! (17:15) And again, and again. Tracey raises an interesting point about quizzes. Whereas traditionally they have been used to ensure compliance, we should also think of them as learning tools. And there is something not quite right about punishing someone because they did not learn what we wanted them to. Of course, mastery of the content is important, but isn’t that more likely to happen if you give learners the opportunity to take the quiz as many times as they need in order to get a perfect score? Of course, it is.

I’ve (Stephen) always seen tests and quizzes as primarily a means of communicating to students what, of all the things covered in the course, the teacher thinks are the most important ideas. Letting students take the quiz again and again is an inspired way of reinforcing that message. On the other hand, a quiz also communicates to the teacher what the learners are having trouble with, so these quizzes become one more element in Tracey’s design that bolster the continuous re-design of her courses. Indeed, she takes things one step further and suggests having students make the test themselves.

And now, with online learning management apps, we can do it. Let’s repurpose quizzes from just being score generators to being learning tools as well.

Allocation of time for course prep. (43:20) In case you are thinking that all of this must take an awfully long time, you are right. Instead of the widespread assumption of one hour of prep for each one hour of lesson time, Tracey recommends at least 6 hours preparation should go into each hour of instruction the first time the course is taught. This seems like a pipe dream to many of us. After all there are only 168 hours in most weeks, and some of us have lives, too. However, the generous allotment of time to preparation allows Tracey to design each of her courses in response to the specific issues and interests of the students taking it. The rave reviews from course participants are evidence that the more hours we can put into designing and re-designing our courses, the more our students will get out of them.


A few additional words directly from Tracey:

“Instructional design takes advantage of the brain’s need for well-functioning attention systems and well-functioning memory systems to learn. This has been used in computer science for more than 30 years and is grounded in attention bias. The brain pays attention to script that is larger, or in bold colors, for example. The brain also uses its ability to predict to speed up learning. Prediction is enabled by good memory systems. When a class is designed well, students don’t have to guess where to find instructions, support material or how to upload assignments, they can easily intuit this from the clear instructional design and layout of the class. Great teachers leverage this knowledge to design their courses (face-to-face or online) to reduce the cognitive load (energy) needed to learn.”

A final thought, well, three

Some of Tracey’s ideas may be hard to use in your own classroom situations. You might have teaching reluctant learners who neglect homework, you might have a set syllabus that you are not allowed to alter, or you might be overloaded with class prep as it is, but we are sure you will find something in Tracey’s video that will help you design an awesome course. And she has posted more videos and teaching tools under “Learning Sciences Resources” on this site.

So, here is what we suggest: Watch the video. Then identify 3 ideas you want to remember, 2 that you’d like to know more about, and 1 you will actually try in your classes!

One comment

  1. I am satisfied to see self-testing where the Ss are encouraged to take the task numerous times until they have mastered it. Note that with Google Forms the T can include in quiz problem answer items a comment. In my comments for wrong answers, I give reasons why that quiz item is incorrect. This enhances the learning opportunity for missing an answer.

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