Illusion of Expertise?

I’m helping to facilitate a Campus Learning Community (CLC) focused on the book How Humans Learn by Joshua Eyler (2018). The book aims to examine the “science and stories” behind learning. The book is broken up into five broad concepts that impact student learning at the collegiate level: curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity and failure. In each of these five areas, Eyler discusses the evidence base behind the concept and the pedagogical applications at play. While I’m only midway through the book, it’s been an entertaining and educational read so far.

Our CLC met for the first time last week. In this first session, our group discussed the curiosity concept and how we as teachers work to foster curiosity with our students. We discussed how children are naturally curious (one of Eyler’s main premises) and the impacts that the environment (media, education, parenting, etc.) can have on our students’ curiosity. One of the CLC participants argued that a lot of students come to his class with “self-perceived expertise” and this undermines their curiosity. They feel like they already know the content so why bother attending class or reading the book or studying for tests. The challenging part, he explained, was that so much of what they believed they knew was actually wrong from a scientific perspective. But the students’ beliefs in their own expertise kept them from learning. It undermined their curiosity.

I left the meeting wondering where these feelings of misplaced expertise may originate. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m an avid podcast listener. I found a possible explanation in last week’s episode of Hidden Brain which was titled Close Enough: The Lure of Living through Others. The episode examines several stories about people who live through YouTube videos. While the whole podcast is interesting, I think the middle section most applies to our discussion here.

Midway through the episode, the host (Shankar Vedantam) shares research that examined the impact that watching instructional videos had on people’s beliefs of their abilities. In the research, psychologists have participants watch instructional videos on how to perform a skill (doing a dance move, throwing a dart or playing an online game). Some participants watched the video once while others watched the video twenty times. Participants who watched the videos multiple times felt they were skilled at the task despite never actually doing the task. Simply watching the videos, the authors write, fostered “an illusion of skill acquisition” (Kardas & O’Brien, 2018).

In our era of YouTube, flipped classrooms and social media influencers, our students are interacting with instructional videos more than ever before. Extrapolating from the Kardas & O’Brien study, maybe these instructional videos are to blame (at least in part) for the students’ illusion of expertise. And maybe that’s at heart for the diminished curiosity that my colleagues observe. I say “maybe” a lot here because it’s hard to take a study that was performed in an isolated setting and apply it to some (possibly) unrelated condition. But I’ll throw one more “maybe” in here for good measures. According to the research study, there may be a solution to this “illusion of expertise.”

In the last experiment the researchers ran, participants watched instructional videos where the learned how to juggle bowling pins and asked to assess their level of proficiency with juggling. After the self-assessment, the participants were then divided into three groups. One group was asked to reflect on the process of juggling bowling pins. The second group was given technical information about the bowling pin (its height, weight, etc.). The last group was asked to physically hold three bowling pins for one minute. The participants were then asked to re-assess their juggling proficiency.  The group that held the bowling pins were the only group that rated themselves significantly different in the second assessment. The researchers attributed this reduction to the “feeling of doing.” The authors write, “experiencing a ‘taste’ of performing attenuates the illusion.”

From my perspective, that’s the actionable part for us as teachers. We need to create safe opportunities for students to challenge their “illusions of expertise.” We need to put them into situations where they obtain the “feeling of doing” to help them recognize their true abilities. It is from this dissonance that curiosity can hopefully grow.


Like Wildfire?

This past week, I was reminded of the old adage: “A lie goes around the world, before the truth can get its boots on.” But this post isn’t about lies and truth, it’s about how the academic community responds to research that supports their world view. And how they respond to research that doesn’t. Let me explain.

A few years ago, researchers were actively studying the impacts of student laptop use in classroom settings. Across the studies, the evidence appeared to be clear. Educators need to ban laptops from our classrooms for the good of our students. In a study published in a 2013 issue of Computers & Education, researchers found that laptops distracted students from lectures and negatively impacted student performance. In another study that appeared in 2014 in Psychological Science, researchers reported that the “pen was mightier than the laptop” and that students who took notes with paper and pencil performed better on cognitive tasks than students who took notes with their laptops.

These studies were widely shared on the Chronicle of Higher Education and on Inside Higher Education which resulted in tons of shares and retweets across social media. My colleagues’ Facebook feeds were filled with shares when the research was initially published. The news spread like wildfire. For every educator who had a policy that banned laptops or cellphones from their classroom, the studies provided an evidence-based foundation for their decision. And they seemed happy to share that with their friends and colleagues. At the time, I wrote two posts (this one and this one) attempting to frame the research in a broader perspective. My efforts were largely dismissed. It was hard to argue against the research…

Let’s jump ahead a few years. Last week, new research emerged that seemed to refute some of the previously published work. In a study that was published in Educational Psychology Review, researchers tried to replicate the note-taking research and were unable to find similar results. Summarizing their work, the researchers write, “based on the present outcomes and other available evidence, concluding which method is superior for improving the functions of note-taking seems premature” (Morehead, Dunlosky & Rawson, 2019). While the previous study offered conclusive support for handwritten notes, the replication study did not.

With the wildfire social media sharing of the previous studies, I was expecting similar response after the publication of the replication study. Sure, Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about it, but the work hasn’t caused the same furor that the previous articles did. While a few colleagues have emailed me the new study, I haven’t seen any major conversations on Facebook. I also haven’t seen anyone comment that they need to revisit their technology banning policies. While the previous studies ran quickly around the world, this one is still working “to get its boots on.”

Again, I’m not saying that any of the research discussed here is being truthful or dishonest. I just think the adage applies to this situation. If education is going to be a field that draws on an existing evidence base, we can’t just promote the research that reflects our perspectives of teaching and learning and dismiss (or ignore) those that don’t. Instead, I envision a future where ground-breaking educational research spreads like wildfire whether it fits in one’s worldview or does not.

What fosters engagement online?

If you’ve taught online, you may have heard of Moore’s interaction framework. First published in the American Journal of Distance Education in 1989, Michael Moore conceptualized that effective distance education is supported through the management and thoughtful cultivation of different interaction pathways. These pathways include:

  • Learner-to-learner interaction
  • Learner-to-instructor interaction
  • Learner-to-content interaction

Interestingly, despite being authored well before learning management systems and robust synchronous tools like Zoom, Skype and Collaborate Ultra, Moore’s framework is still used as conceptual and pedagogical framework to support research and online teaching.

Take an article written by Martin & Bolliger in a recent issue of the Online Learning Journal. The researchers surveyed 155 students in online courses to see which types of engagement strategies they felt were most effective at supporting the different types of interactions. After analyzing the data, the researchers report the top ten engagement strategies based on student perceptions. While you can read the full article here, I wanted to share the top five for each category.

Learner-to-learner interaction:
1. Students introduce themselves using an icebreaker discussion.
2. Students work collaboratively using online communication tools to complete case studies, projects, reports, etc.
3. Students interact with peers through student presentations (asynchronously or synchronously).
4. Students have choices in the selection of readings (articles, books) that drive discussion group formation.
5. Students peer-review classmates’ work.

Learner-to-instructor interaction:
1. The instructor sends/posts regular announcements or email reminders.
2. The instructor posts grading rubrics for all assignments.
3. The instructor creates a forum for students to contact the instructor with questions about the course.
4. The instructor posts a “due date checklist” at the end of each instructional unit.
5. The instructor refers to students by name in discussion forums.

Learner-to-content interaction:
1. Students work on realistic scenarios to apply content (e.g., case studies, reports, research papers, presentations, client projects).
2. Discussions are structured with guiding questions and/or prompts to deepen their understanding of the content.
3. Students interact with content in more than one format (e.g., text, video, audio,
interactive games, or simulations).
4. Students use optional online resources to explore topics in more depth.
5. Students research an approved topic and present their findings in a delivery method of their choice (e.g., discussions forum, chat, web conference, multimedia presentation).

Interestingly, when the researchers looked at which types of interactions the students felt were the most important, the respondents rated “learner-to-instructor interactions” as being more important than “learner-to-content” and “learner-to-learner.” In the conclusion, the authors write:

“It is important to note that engagement strategies that support interactions with instructors were valued more than strategies that aimed at interactions with learning material and other learners. Instructor presence is very important to online learners. They want to know that someone “on the other end” is paying attention. Online learners want instructors who support, listen to, and communicate with them. As some of the participants mentioned, they appreciate frequent updates from their instructors and want to have an instructor who is not only responsive but supportive. Not surprisingly, students who participated in this study expected instructors to assist them in their learning and create meaningful leaning experiences, as evidenced by their assigning relatively high ratings for items pertaining to grading rubrics, checklists, forums, and student orientations” (Martin & Bolliger, 2018, p. 219).

This quote really resonates with me. Not only because it is evidence-based but because it is highlights the significant roles we play as facilitators of students’ learning online. When I’m leading professional development for online teachers on campus, I explain that teaching online is like planning a party. Good party planners know that there’s two important facets to a successful party: preparing before the party and hosting during the party. Good hosts do tons of preparation before the party so when their guests arrive, they can focus on interacting with them. That’s how online learning works, too. Good online teaching relies on good design and good facilitation. I worry that sometimes we focus too heavily on the design elements of online learning and downplay the importance that teachers play in student success. In their surveys of online students, Martin & Bolliger clearly demonstrate how important we really are. If you’re wondering what fosters student engagement online, the answer is clear.

We do.


Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement Matters: Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment. Online Learning Journal, 22(1).

Taking a Lifetime

This weekend, I went to see the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, with my wife and daughter. The movie follows Ginsburg’s life as she starts law school at Harvard through her oral arguments for the Moritz v. Commissioner” case at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. For fans of the Supreme Court Justice, the movie is an inspiring and gripping story. I think my daughter held her breath through the last five minutes of the movie.

Early in the movie, one of Ginsburg’s Harvard classmates asks their professor if he had corrected their papers. In his most pretentious tone, the professor answers:

I have graded your papers, but it will take a lifetime for you to correct them.”

To be honest, when I heard the professor say this, I groaned. Literally.

The movie goes to great lengths to portrays the Harvard professors as uptight, stoic and condescending. While this may be an accurate portrayal of these individuals, I kept thinking, “What educator would say that?” I’m certain we’ve all had those high and mighty, self-absorbed individuals who felt the need to use the authority of their teaching role to convey how little their students knew. And that’s how this Harvard law professor is portrayed in the movie. He lords his experience and expertise over his students.

While the quote plays a minor part of the movie, it has resonated with me for the last few days. I’ve found myself repeating the words in my head and ruminating on the meaning.

Flash forward to a conversation I had with a group of preservice teachers yesterday. I was explaining to them how becoming a teacher involved reflective practice and how they should plan to work on their craft over many years. I jumped into a mini-speech on the value of Ten Thousand Hours and how the truly great teachers I knew were the ones who had spent a lifetime reworking lessons and revising their approaches.

Later in the day, I met with a doctoral student who had sent me a draft of one of the chapters of his dissertation.  Despite this being the third (or fourth) revision of this chapter, I still gave him lots of detailed feedback for improvement. While I tried to convey my feedback really positively, I could tell that he was getting frustrated with my assessment of his work. I explained that his writing was definitely improving but, like any skill, he’d need to continue to work on it to develop. Things take time, I explained.

As I reflected on my conversations with these students on my drive home last night, I was reminded of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie and the snarky remark from the Harvard professor. Was the feedback I gave to my students any different than that of the fictional professor? Sure, the packaging and presentation were starkly different (I hope that I’m not that condescending) but the sentiments were the same.

Learning is hard and it may take a lifetime until you get it right.

So, while I originally thought “What educator would say that?” I’m now thinking about it completely differently.

What educator would say that? The ones who want to realistically convey the commitment required to be a lifelong learner.

The Hollywood Handshake

Over the holiday break, my family and I binge-watched the Great British Baking Show on Netflix. If you haven’t seen the show, each week amateur bakers take part in a bake-off that test their skills as they create complex desserts, pastries and breads. After weeks of increasingly more difficult tasks and eliminations, the show crowns one champion as the Best Amateur Baker in the United Kingdom. After nine seasons, the show has grown in popularity and is one of the most watched shows on PBS and Netflix.

Across the different seasons, many of the hosts and judges have changed. One consistent member of the Great British Baking Show team, however, is celebrity chef, Paul Hollywood. Hollywood is the show’s no-nonsense judge. He can be painfully direct and is not quick with praise. He also doesn’t sugarcoat things. When a baker’s custard is thin, he’ll say that it’s “slack.” He’ll also refer to a pie as having a “soggy bottom” when they haven’t been baked long enough and will critique a baker’s ability to properly fold and proof their creations. Despite the competitors being amateur bakers, Hollywood holds them all to the highest of baking standards.

Mixed in with his icy stares and his pointed critiques, Hollywood is also incredibly focused on the competitors’ development. Hollywood doesn’t just criticize the bakers. He gives real feedback for growth. He’ll ask how an “off” dessert was made and offer alternative ingredients. He’ll say that a bread would benefit from longer baking or suggest that a different mixing method would yield better results. When he reviews a baker’s work, Hollywood clearly includes both progress and discrepancy feedback, which I blogged about a few years ago. As he examines a baker’s creation, he’ll identify exactly what has been done right but also give specific feedback on areas to improve and offer suggestions on how to do it. If you’re a beginning teacher, Hollywood’s assessment and feedback processes would be good ones to emulate.

Across all of the shows and the multiple seasons, the one feedback strategy that stands out is the Hollywood Handshake. I know it sounds a little corny but when a baker has met and exceeded his expectations, Hollywood will speechlessly shake his head and offer the baker a firm handshake. In the world of the Great British Baking Show, there is no higher honor. While the judges name a Star Baker each week, weeks will go by without a baker receiving a handshake. But then it happens. And I’ve watched bakers literally come to tears as Hollywood silently shakes their hand. It’s a sight to observe.

As teachers, I think there’s a lot to unpack with Paul Hollywood’s method of feedback. Hold students to high expectations. Be consistent with your assessment techniques. Give students feedback for growth and identify specific areas where they can improve. More importantly, however, Paul Hollywood shows that we must be ready to celebrate when students have met our expectations and shouldn’t offer empty praise to those who don’t. The Hollywood Handshake is powerful because he only offers it to those who reach his standards. Everyone else gets feedback for growth. While both are great to receive, one makes the other more meaningful.

Meeting Online Students’ Needs

For the past week or so, I have been thinking about a 2012 article from the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching that a colleague shared with me. The article, written by Karen Milheim from the University of Walden, examined how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model applied to online courses and online students. For those of you unfamiliar with Maslow’s work, he theorized that humans have five different levels of needs that must be met for individuals to survive and grow. In his conceptualization, these needs are arranged hierarchically, with Level 1 needs being the most critical for survival. These levels of needs include:

Level 1: Physical – the need for food, water, health and rest
Level 2: Security – the need for shelter, safety and stability
Level 3: Social – the need for being loved, belonging, inclusion
Level 4: Ego – the need for self-esteem, power, recognition, prestige
Level 5: Self Actualization – the need for development and becoming what one is intended to be

While Maslow developed his “theory of human motivation” in the 1940s, the JOLT article offers a fresh perspective on this groundbreaking framework. To be honest, I love when authors do this. By taking something old and seeing how it applies to something new, Milheim’s article can help us as online instructors focus on whether we’re meeting students’ basic needs. While I work a lot in the K-12 and collegiate online teaching world, I worry that we focus too much on the technological aspects of online instruction. Sure, instructors need to know how to upload content and set up discussion forums, but teaching, regardless of its modality, is a human process. Milheim’s article does a great job of focusing on the human element of online teaching.

In this post, I’m not going to completely rehash the JOLT article. Instead, I thought I’d use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (and Milheim’s article) to frame a few self-reflection questions that online instructors should consider as they design and facilitate classes for their students.

Level 1: Are your students’ physical needs being met? How do you know? Are your online students aware of the services and supports that are being offered on campus?

Level 2: Have you outlined the norms of practice in your online class? Do you share clear rules of netiquette to support positive discourse? Have you developed a safe space where ideas can be shared and discussed respectfully?

Level 3: How do you intentionally build community in your online class? How? How do you support “a sense of belonging” with students?

Level 4: How do you recognize students when they’ve done great work? Do you help students self-assess their work? Do you provide feedback to help students improve their work?

Level 5: How do you foster student ownership in your online class? How do you help students pursue their own areas of interest and develop as individuals? Do your provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning?

Top 10 from 2018

As we start the new year, I wanted to take a moment to look back at 2018 on this blog. Across social media and news sites, you’ll see a lot of “Top Ten” lists. In that same spirit, I thought I’d review the most read blog posts from last year. While I started this blog as a way to work through my thoughts as an educator, researcher, professional developer, parent, and husband, I continue to be blown away by the number of people who actually read my posts. In 2018, over 10,000 people visited this site and read one (or more) of my posts. Add in the 1300 people who subscribe to this blog through email and social media and it’s a pretty humbling number. Thanks for visiting, reading, commenting and emailing. Here’s to 2019!

10. Online Learning: A Paradox – Written in October 2018, this post examined somewhat contradictory research on students’ success in online classrooms.

9.  Seeing through my students eyes – Shared almost a year ago in January 2018, this post discussed the revelations I achieved from having my students evaluate my online class as an assignment.

8. Be Critically Reflective – From September 2018, this post outlined the four lenses from Stephen Brookfield’s book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

7. Create Interactive Online Content – From last January, this post reviewed H5P and how it can be used to create interactive multimedia for classes.

6. A Bittersweet Endeavor – Written in late December 2018, this post examined the “gold and the dust” of teaching.

5. The Introverted Student Online – From January 2018, this post discussed some myths about introverts and how to reach them in online classes.

4. The Impacts of Open Educational Resources – Open Educational Resources are awesome! Not only are they freely available and adaptable, but they also can contribute to students’ academic success. This post from July 2018 outlined research from University of Georgia showing the educational impacts of OERs.

3. One Simple Way –  From May 2018, this post outlined the benefits from regularly collecting student evaluations.

2. Improving My Online Class with Checklists – Written in March 2018, I reviewed the pedagogical foundation for including checklists in online classes.

1. Shifting the Focus – From January 2018, this post discussed how teaching is an reciprocal process that involves interacting with students.