Prensky on Pedagogy


The talk of assessment of student learning outcomes has well established the important connection between student learning outcomes and coursework. It is essential that coursework prepare students for and ultimately give them an opportunity to demonstrate and master.

What has been overlooked has been the connection to outcomes and objectives—that is, how we teach what we want students the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors in a particular course or module.

Tucked away in Marc Prensky’s 2001 book, Digital Game-based Learning, is an excellent overview of the diverse means by which students should be taught. 

For Prensky: 

  • We learn facts through questions, memorization, association, and drill.
  • We learn skills (physical or mental) through imitation, feedback, continuous practice, and increasing challenge.
  • We learn judgment through hearing stories, asking questions, making choices, and getting feedback and coaching.
  • We learn behaviors through imitation, feedback, and practice.
  • We learn processes through explanation and practice.
  • We learn about existing theories through logical explanation and questioning.
  • We learn to create and test theories through experimentation and questioning.
  • We learn reasoning through puzzles and examples.
  • We learn procedures through imitation and practice.
  • We learn creativity through playing.
  • We learn language through imitation, practice, and immersion.
  • We learning programming and other systems through principles and graduated tasks.
  • We learn observation through examples, doing, and feedback.
  • We learn speeches or performance roles by memorization, practice, and coaching.
  • We learn the behavior of dynamic systems by observation and experimentation.
  • We learn grammar through—how do we learn grammar?

The first thing to notice is how often practice occurs. It suggests that, whatever you are teaching, you might want to consider having students spend more time practicing what you are teaching. 

Learning effective research and information literacy skills, for example, is not something that can occur over the course of one research paper or maybe even in one semester. Students need the opportunity to go through the process many times before they will acquire the habit of academic research.

As Prensky admits, his list is not designed to be exhaustive or authoritative, but it does go a long way to illustrating the connection between the what and the how of teaching. 

Seven Questions Students Should Be Asking about Writing Assignments

The most common questions professors get about assignments have to do with the number of pages or sources and formatting. More seasoned students might want to know if they can “give their opinion” or if they can “use the word ‘I.’” 

(For the record, students should always be able to offer their opinion, if by opinion they understand it to mean reasoned analysis. And yes, they should be able to use the word “I,” unless the result is language that is too wordy or too conversational, which it almost always is.)

But here are the questions students should really be asking:

1. What’s the verb?
Bloom’s taxonomy of learning is a handy reference point. Is the assignment designed to evaluate understanding or is it a higher-order skill, related to analysis, comparison, or application? Short assignments probably expect only one of these aims, while longer ones might require a combination.

When students understand the purpose of the paper is analysis, for example, they will realize that large chunks that are nothing but descriptive should be cut or trimmed. Knowing what to write often begins with knowing what to leave out.

2. What’s the form?
The five-paragraph essay refuses to die, even though it exists almost solely in classrooms. (I don't recall ever seeing one in the wild.) It might be a convenient tool to help students understand the basic purpose of academic writing, but it should not be an end unto itself. Why we expend so much energy getting students to master a form that they will never be asked to replicate (even if they become academics!) is beyond me.

Students need to know if they are free to break free from its shackles. If not, asking might make instructors who insist on using this format consider other approaches to improving student writing. 

3. Can I write on something else?
There are many reasons why a professor would want to assign a common topic. Sometimes it's not to limit student choice, but to help students know what to write about. That said, if a student has an interest that is consistent with the objectives of the assignment, students should inquire about the possibility of writing on that, instead. It shows curiosity, initiative, and self-direction, which should be encouraged as much as possible.

4. Can we work on this in class?
Far too much time in class is wasted on things that could be done before class—having a professor walk through a textbook chapter, being the most egregious and perhaps the most common. It would be far better for students to do the prep before class and work through the more difficult material or activities when they can easily receive help. This is called “flipping the classroom,” and there is a some preliminary research showing it to be effective. 

Even if an instructor is uncomfortable, unwilling, or unable to flip an entire course, merely spending one class period on a writing workshop will help students immensely. Students will learn a lot about the professor’s expectations from getting immediate and direct feedback, and professors will learn a lot about what students need by watching them work.

5. Can I meet with you to talk about my paper? 
Professors have strong opinions about drafts. Some require them, to avoid having to assign grades and give feedback on a pile of dreadful papers. Others avoid them like the plague, not wanting to grade everything twice. But even professors who refuse to look at drafts will almost always offer an office consultation. This is even more valuable—to get direction on a thesis, evidence, or the organization of ideas. Advice on introductions and conclusions are also essential to writing a good paper (and getting a good grade).

Relatedly, students should get in the habit of having their colleagues read their writing. That's what academics do. Self-evaluation is one of the hardest things a writer can do, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that students are not great at it. What's more, presenting writing as a social activity can go a long way to having students understanding writing as process, rather than product.

6. Will you give us feedback on revisions?
Professors sometimes give credit for revised work, in attempt to have students take their feedback seriously—as opposed to merely looking at the grade and going back to Snapchat or whatever fun thing they were doing. 

What students ought to really be doing is revising work—even without the credit. This is the opposite of extra credit—gasp! What better way to let the professor know that you are serious about improving as a student. And since the revised paper will not be part of a pile, the quality of the feedback the student is likely to receive will be much greater than it otherwise would have been.

7. Can we use contractions?
Let me close with one minor stylistic pet peeve: the prohibition against contractions. There lurks in many college classrooms a nasty prejudice that somehow formal writing is stilted writing, with contractions being the worse offense. Contractions are not a sign of poor writing, but not using them is a barrier to appreciating the natural beauty and flow of the written word.

If you’re not convinced, go watch the Coen Brothers 2010 remake of True Grit. It’s painful. No one talks like that, so no one should write like that. 

In one activity, I have my students select an article from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or The Economist and offer an observation about the writing style. (There are contractions aplenty.) After spending semester after semester reading b textbooks (where language and excitement goes to die), they are stunned by how alive the prose is. 

“Can we write like this?” one student asked. “Not yet,” I responded.

What is Critical Thinking?

Most college courses include “critical thinking” as a desired learning outcome. But what do we mean by the term? And why is it so importantfor coursework and for life?

“Critical” is derived from the Greek word krisis, which means “to separate.” When we think critically, we are pulling things apart to evaluate them, but we are also separating ourselves from our thinking (our interests and biases) to be better thinkers. 

Sometimes that is easier said than done.

Let’s take something easy to digest: sports. It’s easy to have a favorite team. Mostly, loyalties come from who your family favors and where you grow up. You can root, root, root for the home team, but if you are going to make a claim that any one team is better than another, you’re going to have to back it up with evidence. 

There is a big difference between saying (1) the Cubs are the best team in baseball and (2) the Cubs are the best team in baseball because they had the best regular season record and went on to win the World Series. (Yes, that really happened.) Critical thinking can be directed toward others, but we need to be the most critical about our own views.

Very quickly, however, invoking statistics (win-loss record, runs scored, etc.) becomes a discussion of the relative merit of one piece of evidence over another. The classic example of this is batting average, which was for far too long exaggerated. On-base-percentage (which also takes into account walks and being hit by pitches) is a much better measure of a hitter’s skill. 

In academic settings, critical thinking is more than just remembering or understanding content or offering an opinion. It's an essential skill that requires analyzing and evaluating theories and evidence; identifying biases and challenging assumptions; considering the consequences of hypothetical or counterfactual situations; developing new and probing questions; making informed decisions about complex problems; and applying knowledge to a new field or area and even creating new knowledge. 

A great example of critical thinking is Lorenzo’s Oil. The 1992 film documents the true story of Augustos and Michaela Odone as they attempt to find a cure for their son’s adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a fatal disease. The cure they discover, a combination of rapeseed oil and olive oil, is counter to the established medical wisdom of the time and resisted by most experts they consult. They eventually have seek help abroad to have their cure manufactured, and it ends up adding 20 years to Lorenzo’s life.

Critical thinking is almost always radical because it goes “to the root” of things, which is why it is so essential to problem solving. Karl Marx, rather cynically, alleged that people can only see a problem once a solution is available. A more optimistic, if idealistic, version comes from John Lennon (from “Watching the Wheels”), where he sings, “there's no problem, only solutions.” Marx and Lennon were both critical thinkers, but Lennon wrote better songs.

Critical thinking is not always creative, but thinking critically is essential to the creative process, if by creativity we mean seeing things in a new light. Steve Jobs was a great critical thinker. “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes,” he said to The Wall Street Journal in 1993. “It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” For him, trial and error were essential, but so too was not letting biases stop him from throwing an idea overboard.

Some people might be more naturally critical and independent thinkers, but everyone can improve their thinking. We especially need to be mindful about the undue deference we give to both experts and what is commonly held to be right or true. Social conformity and tradition are powerful obstacles to critical thinking.

Even though our aim is more than content knowledge, knowing something is the first and most important step to critical thinking. We need to get in the habit of reading extensively and carefully and then giving ourselves enough time to know what it all means.