Tuesday, January 24, 2023 - Three years after the start of the pandemic, professors still report a disconcerting level of disconnection among students even as campuses return to “normal.” Michael and Jeff talk with MIT's former head of digital learning initiatives about what the science tells us on how to reach and teach students. This episode made possible with sponsorship from Course Hero.
It's a cliché at this point, Jeff, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. It's been a grueling and exhausting few years. And while there's a palpable sense of relief on college campuses, as pandemic restrictions have been lifted, things really are starting to feel back to normal. Many things have not jumped back to what was normal pre-pandemic.
No question, Michael. And not only hasn't enrollment in colleges rebounded, it actually continues to decline. And while we've seen firsthand that students are thrilled to be back on campuses, we've also seen that engagement inside and outside the classroom continues to be a challenge for many.
Today, Sanjay Sarma, of MIT and author of Grasp: The Science of Transforming How We Learn, joins us to help us shed some light on reengaging students post-pandemic on this episode of Future U.
Have you ever had to say to your students, "It's in the syllabus"? In our new ebook, Dr. Stephanie Speicher shares how you can humanize your syllabus to better connect with and engage your students.
Download it today at Course Hero, where faculty share resources to improve student outcomes. Find it at coursehero.com/futureu. That's course hero.com/future and the letter U.
I'm Michael Horn.
And I'm Jeff Selingo. Michael, when we think about reengaging learners, it's a tricky problem. There are a lot of factors that help explain why so many students just haven't reengaged with the schools they left, enrolled in the first place, or just drifting through their classes without energy and enthusiasm.
To say nothing of the fact that engaging students in classroom learning was hard before the pandemic as well, or that even as many students do return to campus, they're looking for more flexible learning experiences that challenge even the best of faculty and institutions.
And Jeff, we've of course touched on many of these factors throughout our shows. But today I'm excited because we get to dive deep into one of the core functions of the university: teaching and learning. I'll also confess the science of learning is one of my favorite areas to dig in and learn about more broadly, get to be a little bit of a nerd in that area.
And so I'm excited to dig into both how existing colleges and universities could better stimulate engagement among the learners on their campuses and in their online learning experiences, as well as to think through what a more engaging learning design would look like, period.
And to help us with all that, we're welcoming Sanjay Sarma to Future U. He's the head of Open Learning and MIT and a professor of mechanical engineering there. He's also the author of a new white paper titled, An Affordable New Educational Institution, as well as the book, Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn.
Sanjay, it's good to see you. Welcome to Future U.
Jeff, Michael, such a pleasure.
So Sanjay, we want to get into a lot of the issues that you raised in your terrific book, Grasp, and your new white paper and call for a new higher educational institution. But first, I actually want to dive into your background because I've known you for many years now.
But until I read your book, I actually had no idea that your path into higher ed wasn't at all linear. And in fact, included a couple scary encounters along the way, both in India when you were in your dorm room studying and then on an oil rig. So could you tell us about your story and path to MIT, and ultimately, coming to focus so much on scaling great learning experiences?
Michael, I got into IIT, which was a difficult thing to do in those days. And it's much more difficult now. And once I got in, I was the class clown and I had a lot of fun. I loved projects. I sort of paid attention in lectures, but didn't really. But most importantly, I lost the plot. I didn't understand why I was learning what I was learning.
And lot of scary experiences, including academic, including simians, monkeys and so on, which I think you're referring to. Then I went to work on an oil rig just to do something completely different. And there, I began to have these epiphanies, "Oh, my God, I understand why fluid flow is important. Oh, my God, I understand why shock is a thing in fluid mechanics, is important. I understand why controls are important, what an integrator is."
And I realized that if I'd only known, my four long years at IIT would've been so much more valuable. And I also realized not only did I know, no one thought to tell me. And in fact, the people telling me, probably didn't know either. So that's how I got into the space.
So let's dig a little bit into the book, Sanjay, in Grasp before we talk about the new white paper. And a lot of listeners to the show will be leaders and faculty at traditional institutions, trying to figure out how to better engage their learners.
This has obviously been a longtime problem, but it certainly got worse during the pandemic. We're reading about it all the time because it doesn't seem to have rebounded by any means if we're living in a post-pandemic world, whatever we want to call what we're living in right now.
So let's start, perhaps, at a high level because in the book, you wrote that learning shouldn't be difficult. What do you mean by that? Because it seems to perhaps contradict what some other cognitive scientists have written about over the years.
Basically, what we say is there are desirable difficulties. Actually, we didn't say that. Robert Bjork... Sorry, Professor Bjork at UCLA said it. And there are desirable difficulties. It turns out that when you learn, if you can focus the difficulties on the cognitive side, it's actually useful. But we load, we burden education with all sorts of undesirable difficulties.
So that's point number one. By making it unpalatable, no context, not giving students the time to apply their learning, to refresh their learning, cognitive science principles et cetera. And we're stuck. We're stuck in a loop. It's like Groundhog Day because we give lectures, and then we grade students and then we say, "Oh, they didn't pay attention to the lectures." We're stuck in that loop.
In fact, as we know, and in fact, the analogy I'll use is that of parents, which is every parent knows that when their child rolls their eyes in the back of the car, in the backseat, you can feel it, right? You can feel it in the back of your head. You know to back off. And the learning instinct is much closer to that than the lecturing dogma that we've imposed because it's convenient to us.
And so we have, over time, become less about transforming the individual. Every parent is a transformer of their child, and more about sorting the individuals or winnowing, as we say, picking the winners and the losers. Because the ones that are more compatible with the system that's convenient for us. And that's a terrible tragedy.
So we've got to rethink how we get into the business of transforming the individual, which means engaging individually, which means displacing the lecture because that's where we waste a lot of time.
So how do we practically do that? The desirable difficulties, as you call them, how do we spark that curiosity in students and really prime them for learning and engagement? So let's do away with a lecture. It seems like we have been talking about that for a long time. But what other concrete steps can institutional leaders even take, all the way down to individual faculty members?
So that's actually a fairly difficult question to answer only because it's a lot. But also, as you know, institutional change is difficult. But I'll start with the individual faculty member. If you can put stuff on video, the classical flipped classroom... By the way, just putting your lecture on video, and then showing up at the classroom and twiddling your thumbs doesn't solve the problem.
What you need is a very specific set of activities where the student goes through the aha moment of discovering the context, thinking through two or three ways to do it. But figuring out why the right way around. For example, to solve an equation, actually makes sense. Having the students struggle with it a little bit, giving them problems right off the bat.
It turns out that actually solving problems, which may seem more painful, desirable difficulty, is actually more effective. Letting them forget. And then when they're about to forget, reminding them the spacing effect, space retrieval, that's another desirable difficulty.
Because it turns out your memory isn't gone; the pathway to that memory is the one that atrophies first. So refreshing that pathway. It turns out that there is something in learning called the illusion of learning, which is students, when they think they've learned, they haven't actually learned.
The techniques that work, oddly, students feel like they've learnt less, but actually they've learnt more. It's like my child, our kids, "Eat your veggies. It's better for you." So there's a social contract with a student. All that has to change. And for that, the system has to create the time and the space for faculty to do that.
The time and space, I think, is interesting. And this idea of the techniques where people might think they've learned less, but they've actually learned more. One of these techniques you talked about is spacing. Of course, the notion that learning is more effective and long-lasting if we space out the practice.
But of course, we have institutions of higher ed that we have, and they're all built around the credit hour, as Michael and I have talked so often on this show about. We have courses, we have semesters. And there's so much pressure now around retention and throughput and getting students through as quickly as possible because it's so damn expensive. And we have to get them out as quickly as possible.
So are there things that faculty can do to build this idea of spacing into existing classes or those existing structures? What are the things you've learned where you could change even your own practice if you're a faculty member?
So there's another goblin hiding in there that is a test. I mean, the high-stakes exam. The test is a proxy of real learning. By the way, all the bad habits actually are better for test-taking. That's the real truth. A lot of these long-lasting things, they don't actually help you as much. Cramming is better [inaudible 00:10:51] I'm just telling you, unfortunately.
All these longer, more robust, durable learning things actually don't make you as good at the test, but actually serve you better in life. But we don't test for life. So I think what I would do is at the very, very minimum, do flash-forward flashback. Actually, two of my colleagues at MIT did that.
So you keep recalling stuff you learnt three weeks ago, six weeks ago. Obviously, you run out of time when you reach the end of the course. But at least, to the extent you can, you recall. And if we had our druthers, we were given a low-stakes exam, not a high-stakes exam, six months after the course just to see how much they retain. But that might give us some bad news, which we might not like. But actually, the act of giving that test will improve the student's recollection.
Super interesting. So Sanjay, many educators, myself included, have seen the upheaval caused by the pandemic, has this opportunity to affect broader changes. And you've written this new paper with a bunch of colleagues called an Affordable New Educational Institution or HEI, as you call it. And we'll link to it in the show notes so that people can check it out.
But you wrote in it that, "In general, this white paper is not intended as a rethinking of higher education. The opportunities and issues facing higher education are complex, multi-layered and nuanced. Rather, this is a design exercised with a sharp focus on how a stand-alone, de novo institution can deliver effective, affordable undergraduate education. And in so doing, we hope to capture some of the better features of higher education as it is delivered today, while also identifying and perhaps relaxing some of the assumptions and constraints under which existing institutions operate."
So that's the end of the quote. But in many ways the call that follows in the paper is a demonstration of how to break the so-called iron triangle of quality, affordability and access. I think you use the term innovation instead in the paper. But it's essentially the same idea. And so I'm just curious, as you wrote the paper, what did you learn? What should our audience take away from it? And is there anything that they can maybe use in it to innovate in their own schools?
I think that in many respects, there are structural changes we talk about. For example, going to a trimester system, baking in co-ops, rethinking the curriculum rather than 35 courses, generalizing majors and minors and reconstructing the whole curriculum as a bunch of majors and minors with their own credentials attached.
So we have a bunch of stuff. But really, two key things related to even Grasp, the book. One, is because we say don't teach, for example, machine learning in higher ed by itself. Teach the math, the history, the sociology, the ethics, the computation together. You get more opportunities to create relevance, to integrate knowledge across fields and more opportunities to apply the tricks that we talked about, such as space learning, retrieval et cetera. So I think one thing that Ira could do is pair up courses.
If you're teaching a course... I'm a engineer, so I'll use engineering examples. Math and physics, right? Pair them up, for God's sake. They are not different worlds. They are supposed to play together. And how often does the math professor talk to the physics professor and say, "Listen, I'm teaching electromagnetics. You just taught definition of calculus and the gradient. And this is how they come together and the potential function"?
At the very least, I would say that has to be something we do. The other thing I'll say is that we give a short shrift to the humanities. The history of how, for example, work energy equivalence. Count Rumford, who, by the way, is from Massachusetts and became a count. And he fled the country because he actually sided with the British, not with the Minutemen. That's such wonderful history.
And yes, he played a fundamental part because they were milling cannons, and they found that when they put work in, it turned to heat. And that's how the work, heat equivalent was established. The humanities is a connective tissue that we just ignored. Actually, it's like we ask people to come to a Michelin restaurant and we say, "Here's some pepper, here's some sugar, here's some wheat. Trust us. If you cooked it all, it'd make a great meal. But this is how we'll serve it to you."
So it struck me at reading the report, Sanjay, that in many ways, you all have put together the greatest hits of innovation in higher education into a coherent institutional structure. You call for less complexity, clearer purpose around teaching over research, different faculty model, use of technology to drive more active learning, mastery-based learning.
You have in there, stackable certifications that lead to a degree, learning sequences instead of courses to allow for what you were just talking about, more of that interdisciplinary learning and team teaching. You talk about new scheduling and altering the use of the academic calendar. You talk about co-ops, greater affordability, lower cost.
It's basically all in there, which I loved reading. But you all note it in the paper as well. And there's this thing that you're tantalizing the reader with or teasing them almost that each of you, as the authors, have in fact helped launch new institutions of higher education in the past.
And that MIT has been a big player in launching new colleges and universities, historically. So I'm curious, what should we expect to come out of this? What's your hope for what happens now that you have written the paper? Are you all going to be launching something?
So there's certainly interest from donors, both in the US and abroad to do something new. And this was actually a project we took on because of that interest. And what we want to do is though, we want to be very deliberate. We didn't write a big editorial on this, we didn't do a TED Talk on this. We have this conference coming up, and which you'll be in, Michael. Very much look forward to that.
And then once that's over, we want this to be an open source or a document where people can comment in the marginalia. But yes, I think that this thing may well become something new. It's not an MIT effort; it's just an effort out there in the public domain that the authors are excited about. But we welcome everyone else to participate. But this is not specifically an MIT effort.
Gotcha. Well, we're going to keep an eye on what you and your co-authors, maybe the individual roles that you play in whatever comes out of this. But last question, which is I'm curious as you look out at the landscape about the barriers to launching a new institution like this and what you see, and what it would take to overcome them?
I'll say, in many ways, I confess that when I read it, it felt to me like you maybe were describing 80% of Minerva University, plus 20% of some other things that maybe they should have done when they started. But I imagine you want more de novo institutions in general. And so what's it going to take to get there? And what are the barriers you see that we have to strike down to get to that?
I followed Minerva very closely, followed Olin College. In fact, the former president of Olin College is an advisor. And SUTD, which, as you know, I helped establish in Singapore. I think that each of them got about 60%, 50%, 70% of it. But it's like building an arch, you need everything to fit together for the whole story to work.
Otherwise, you give up on something. You give up on pedagogy, you give up on cost, give up on scalability et cetera. And the other thing I'll say is that the barriers are actually lower internationally, believed or not. America is caught up in its own history. And by making this de nova, we are also separating ourselves from the legacy of our own histories. So it's new.
But another barrier is accreditation. How do you get this accredited? So there's a lot of block and tackling. And frankly, a document like this was a lot of work. But the action that follows is going to be the majority of the innovation. It's the majority of the execution. Comes down to execution. So by no means am I claiming it's an easy route forward.
But I do think there's an opportunity to actually pick up on one aspect that we talk about particularly, which is if you look at IB, the International Baccalaureate, you have the IB program. I think there's an opportunity to create a undergraduate education version of that where colleges sign up to it and there's combined effort, there's combined quality control and there's great savings and efficiencies with a new model that you can pull out of it.
And we'll be right back on Future U. Do you want your course content to be engaging, or do you want it to be pedagogically sound? You probably want both, right? But knowing how to leverage all the teaching tools at your disposal can feel like a never-ending learning curve, especially when it comes to technology.
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Welcome back to Future U, off a conversation with Sanjay Sarma of MIT. That is one for me, Jeff, it just never gets old. I love thinking about what we're learning about how individuals learn, and how we could design better institutions and better learning experiences in our existing institutions to make learning better. And hear about the spacing effect, intentional forgetting and then retrieval, using assessments to drive learning as opposed to something separate from the learning process that creates cramming, desirable difficulties. All of that gets me excited.
But Jeff, you said something that I want to come back to. And you said, "Sanjay, yes, let's do away with the lecture." But we've been talking about that for ages now. A few years ago, Josh, Kim and Eddie Maloney made the case in their book that institutions are moving forward to eliminate the lecture, and it's just not recognized as much as it should be.
I'm curious because you talk and you visit with a lot of institutions. And the way I've seen it is, of course this is happening at the margins. But do you see it happening in a big way? Or is eliminating the lecture, the conversation we still need to have in higher ed, before we get into some of the more advanced techniques and tactics that Sanjay spoke to us about?
Well, Michael, on the whole, the lecture hasn't disappeared. But one thing the massive disruption of the pandemic did do, I think, was force professors to reassess how they design their courses. And that's a good thing, even if it doesn't mean they didn't do away with the lecture, per se.
In talking to faculty members and those who run teaching and learning centers, and following a lot of those people on Twitter, at least for now, perhaps, rethinking the lecture isn't the most critical issue facing teaching and learning right now. Talk to any professor, and you'll hear that students aren't as motivated, they don't see a lot of meaning in their work, and they aren't always completing their work and they're just not as engaged.
And so perhaps the iterative step that faculty are taking right now to rethink their classroom approaches are just more important. Things such as giving students more access to course content. This started, of course, with flipped classrooms and the push toward hybrid and online learning has given students just more time to interact with course content. And that's a good thing. Another important thing that's been happening in the last couple of years is just being accepting of late assignments and so-called contract grading, where students see in the syllabus exactly what they need to do to get a specific grade.
And then they agree to complete the work based on the grade they seek. And third, programs that are meant to give students, as Sanjay told us, time and space to think. So slowing things down, which also allows students to deal with stress. Robert Talbert, who is a math professor at Grand Valley State University, and who I followed on Twitter for years for thoughts on teaching and learning, a couple of weeks ago, he tweeted something about how he switched up his classes so that there's one week of onboarding that's followed by 12 weeks of teaching content. And then the last two weeks are just catch-up in reassessment.
And so as he said the course is basically over at Thanksgiving. And so there's so many more innovative approaches to teaching and learning that we probably could do a whole show on, Michael. And heck, we probably could do a whole podcast on them. But what I think some of these things show is that there is so much innovation happening in the trenches by other Sanjay Sarmas that are out there. And that leads me, Michael, to go back to the first question that you asked Sanjay about his circuitous path to MIT. Because I think listeners might be entertained by those, perhaps, undesirable difficulties.
Yeah, sure. Jeff, I'll do my best to relay it because the stories in his book, Grasp, frankly, with the benefit of hindsight, they're hilarious on this point. But it makes it all the more implausible that someone like him ended up at MIT in the first place and helped create the modern RFID tags and standards for commerce around the world, to say nothing of the work he's done leading the Open Learning work at MIT.
All of which, for me, Jeff, makes me wonder about all the other people that we're "leaving on the cutting room floor," if you will. Because we haven't given them pathways in higher ed to fully develop their potential and make an impact on the world. But Sanjay tells two stories in his book that show you just how perilously close the world came to having missed out on his talents.
Now, the first is when he's enrolled as a student at IIT, the Indian Institute of Technology. And for those who don't know, it's one of, if not the most, prestigious institution in India. And he talked about how he became a class clown there. So he flunks this class on controls, which is required for his engineering degree. And that means he has to enroll in summer school. And that means it's monsoon season and there's no air conditioning in his dorms.
So it's really hot. And he has his bed by the French doors, and he leaves the doors open at night. And when he wakes up, a monkey, a vicious ape is staring at him right in the face in his bed with its fangs bared at him. Now, he escapes unscarred, as the monkey decides to bound off to look for more food in other dorm rooms, it seems.
But he uses it as this analogy of just how adrift he was in learning at IIT and how disenchanted and pointless the content all felt to him. Now, you then flash forward and they connect. After he graduates, he actually does not go on to grad school; he goes to work on an oil rig of all places. And it's when he climbs up the ladder of the rigs and he's standing on the platform, he starts to create the actual associations or connections between the things he was supposed to learn, all the way back as a student in IIT, and why they're now useful to the work he's actually doing.
And all of a sudden, in other words, all those abstract concepts that he didn't understand, they started to become concrete. And he not only recalled them, he actually started to understand them. And then he writes, "By the time I stepped off that platform, my brain felt hungry. Actually, to be technical, when I stepped off, it was an icy step on the platform's exterior, and I twisted my knee badly. And then it was back to the mainland for me."
And then he writes, "I recall that long helicopter ride vividly for two reasons: one, immediately upon donning my protective dry suit and strapping in, I regretted drinking water beforehand. And two, it was on the flight that I realized that I had to go back to school to pursue an academic career. I needed to learn more and faster."
And the big question you're left with in the book is why is this person, who is so brilliant, number one, struggling at IIT, to begin with, as a student? And number two, why isn't his schooling making the connections to the real world so he can visualize and understand the importance of the equations and concepts that he's learning? But also, so that he has these big questions that create the importance for the learning of the knowledge and concepts in the first place, Jeff.
Michael, I was a little bit behind on reading the book, compared to you. But I think those stories are so incredible. Because it shows people that are even as brilliant as he is, still want to make those connections as he did.
And I think that's critical to students and really something we've talked so much often about on this podcast in having a sense of purpose to their education, which he felt, of course.
So the last question before we wrap up here. What do you make of this new higher ed institution that Sanjay sketched out? And by the way, we're going to add that paper to the show notes. Where do you think it will go?
So I'm taken with the paper, Jeff. Even as I think we could jokingly say it really is a mashup of all the greatest hits of higher ed innovation that we've seen over the last several decades. Are there other innovations that you could conceive of and add to the list? Totally. But I think Sanjay and his co-authors have put them together.
And what's striking, perhaps, is they put them together in a really coherent structure. And as we think about, in my opinion, ideally, having a vibrant marketplace of new higher ed institutions created that focus on student outcomes: learning, career and all the rest. What I think they've done could and should inspire not just one, but hopefully many new institutions along this model.
I'd love to see philanthropists really get behind that. And my sense is that it won't be Sanjay who starts it based on what he's told us. But I could see him being a founding board member, maybe. And that would be a really big positive thing, I think, Jeff, for higher ed and for humanity.
All right. Before we go, we've got a new feature on Future U around questions from you, our listeners. We're going to our mailbox, brought to you by Course Hero, which has helped us source questions for Future U.
And this week, we're going to Elizabeth Hendricks from New Mexico State University. She's an assistant professor in the School of Nursing there who asked a very topical question for this week's episode with Sanjay.
Hi, this is Beth Hendricks. I'm a college assistant professor at New Mexico State University, and my question for you is how do we increase engagement when considering how cell phones have changed our students' attention span? Thank you so much.
Now, Michael, you actually wrote an article, discouraging blanket cell phone bans in K through 12. So what's your take on this?
Well, Jeff, first, I'll say I think it's a very serious issue. And I do think that classrooms and the faculty members themselves ought to have the ability to say no cell phones in class. But I also think that as with all technologies, certain classrooms may actually want to leverage the phones for good.
And so I think there's a twofold approach here. One, under the banner of, "If you can't beat them, join them." I am really, really intrigued with all the useful mobile learning apps that have come out for learners in higher ed in the workforce that take the principles of active learning and leverage them to create a very sticky and engaging experience.
So you look at Duolingo, for example, or the Quantic School of Business and Technology, which is an entirely new accredited higher ed institution built on a mobile platform. Or Learn to Win, which initially worked with college and pro sports teams to help players better learn the playbooks. But then increasingly, is working with the military and companies on training.
And full disclosure, I'm an advisor to both Learn to Win and Quantic. But I think we can leverage that type of active learning pedagogy, which is something else we have a lot of evidence about its effectiveness. For students to be answering questions constantly, literally every eight seconds, in the case of those apps, as they learn really how to do the hard work of learning.
So breaking things down and chunking them has a real value on one hand. On the other hand, I also think certain things require a lot more time and patience to either work through tricky questions or to say, "Jeff, we both write, we like large interrupted blocks of time where we can really wrestle with thoughts and structure and so forth." And so yes, there's rapid response in some part of your learning, but I think having students work on things for long periods of time is important.
And there, I think we can help give learners far more strategies on how to engage in deep work and build their capacity for it over the course of, say, a four-year program. But let's not assume that they have that capacity from the get-go, given their desire for instantaneous information.
But we have to build it over time in intentional ways. And this would be similar, I think, to the example of Florida International, which Sanjay actually cites in his book about how they created a whole curriculum for their law school students over six semesters to learn about how to learn better.
All right. Well, that will do it for today. Thank you to Sanjay Sarma for joining us, and thank you to Course Hero and Elizabeth Hendricks from New Mexico State University for that question. And thanks to all of you for your feedback, your engagement, and listening to the podcast. We'll talk to all of you next time on Future U.