Michelle Miller shows how learning science research can improve online education

In her book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, Michelle Miller provides a framework for selecting and using digital technology in higher education. Drawing on her experience as a professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University, she incorporates classic research as well as recent findings on how our minds take in and use information. Miller will provide the latest insights from her work in a keynote address at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Distance Teaching & Learning Conference on August 9-11.

Miller wants attendees at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference to come away with a renewed sense of urgency about motivating students.
Miller wants attendees at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference to come away with a renewed sense of urgency about motivating students.

The conference has helped educators stay on top of emerging technologies for more than 30 years. It attracts college faculty, campus leaders, researchers, instructional designers, K-12 teachers, corporate and military trainers, and vendors of new technologies and services, who network with colleagues and learn evidence-based strategies from experts in the field.

In “Getting into the Minds of Learners to Guide Teaching with Technology,” Miller will explain how cognitive, brain, and learning sciences offer great potential for improving online learning. Attention, memory, and thinking skills all play pivotal roles in learning, and the research literature offers a rich set of ideas for how to take advantage of these processes in teaching with technology.

These approaches often require more effort from students, however, and those lacking in self-regulated learning abilities will miss out on many of their benefits. Miller’s keynote will address this problem, showing how educators can reach all students. She’ll present a framework for bringing cognitive and motivational research together through online learning designs that make the most of what we know about how the mind works.

Miller previews her speech in the following interview, explaining how educators can help students become better learners.

What will you emphasize during your keynote speech at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference?

Miller: I’ll focus on intersections between the discipline I come from, cognitive psychology, and student motivation. Getting students to put in effort and take charge of learning are hot-button issues with faculty, and I think these seemingly disparate areas actually cross over with cognition in some intriguing and important ways.

The Distance Teaching & Learning Conference allows college faculty, instructional designers, K-12 teachers, corporate and military trainers to learn evidence-based strategies from experts in the field.
The Distance Teaching & Learning Conference allows college faculty, instructional designers, K-12 teachers, and corporate and military trainers to learn evidence-based strategies from experts in the field.

I’ll start by framing the reasons why this is such an important issue, especially for those of us teaching online and blended courses. Then I plan to present examples of how we can get students to do more of the substantive learning activities we know are most effective.

Next, I’ll describe some specific knowledge and skills that I think we can help students build. These are things that we might not conventionally try to teach but that will make our students better learners. We can help students learn to study effectively and efficiently, and also help them learn how to resist procrastination and distraction.

I’m hoping to leave attendees with a new sense of urgency, but also agency. I want them to believe that motivating students, eliciting effort, and building their ability to learn are all critical parts of what we do, and that they are things we can do something about. I want them to also have a new appreciation for how the cognitive side of the mind—memory, attention, things like that—actually work together with the motivational side. And of course, I want to leave people with ideas they will be eager to try out the next time they teach.

How do you hope conference attendees will translate what you talk about into practical action following the conference?

Some may take my design suggestions or assignment examples and use them as is, and that’s a wonderful outcome if it happens. But at least as important, to me, is when people take some core idea and elaborate on it, or best of all, invent a completely new idea, one that fits their own students and discipline or solves a problem they have struggled with.

Miller: 'Motivating students, eliciting effort, and building their ability to learn are all critical parts of what we do.'
Miller: ‘Motivating students, eliciting effort, and building their ability to learn are all critical parts of what we do.’

I also hope to reach the campus leaders who work with faculty in many capacities: instructional designers, course design specialists, faculty professional development staff. These individuals have major influence over the culture of their institutions and the practices that get put into place across multiple courses. So I’m hoping they get inspired by what I have to say and can pass that inspiration along to faculty at their home institutions.

Especially when we are talking about student effort and motivation, the conversation can easily dead-end into just complaining about students or rehashing all the things that don’t work. I want to take some of the energy around these topics and redirect it into productive, creative problem-solving. If I can help campus leaders accomplish that, that to me is a major success.

How are online educators doing in applying current learning science research to the design of learning? What changes will higher ed need to make to best serve today’s students?

I think we have seen some real success stories, particularly in the application of principles from memory research. For example, many people have gotten the message about the need to actively and frequently test knowledge as part of learning, and this is reflected in how we set up courses and even in some of the educational technology products on the market today.

But there are areas where we can do a lot more. As much as some aspects of memory research have made it into our designs, there are others—such as interleaving, or more strategically timing when we present different kinds of content—that really haven’t.

I also think multimedia is an area that’s ripe for improvement. There is a rich research literature on exactly this topic, but I don’t see this reflected enough in materials that are widely available to teachers. We need better multimedia—things like narrated diagrams or really good animations – and we need more of it.

Educators will leave Miller's speech with ideas they can try out the next time they teach.
Educators will leave Miller’s speech with ideas they can try out the next time they teach.

Here, I think the responsibility doesn’t rest solely with higher education, but also with the educational technology companies that have really become part of the fabric of what we do. I believe there is a genuine desire to provide great tools, as well as interest in innovating, and to a certain extent the resources are there too. But we all still need to dream bigger and envision more ambitious applications of the research. Especially when it comes to top-quality media, this won’t come easy or cheap, which is perhaps why we don’t see enough of it.

And so I think we are due for another big leap forward in what educational technology looks like and what it does. That will happen as a result of better collaboration among technology providers, faculty, instructional designers, even administrators who make a lot of the crucial decisions about educational technology.

What research has affected you the most as you teach your own students with technology?

I’ve been deeply affected by research on the importance of knowing what to expect out of information you’re about to hear or read, and on having a framework set up to accommodate that new information. Your brain is fundamentally not set up to just absorb facts indiscriminately—it needs to have a question you’re trying to answer or goal you’re trying to accomplish. Or at the least you should have expectations about it, so you can interpret it and integrate it with what you already know about the world.

The research on how we take in and combine information from different modalities—text, visuals, auditory, and so on—has also influenced me. I don’t mean the idea of visual or auditory learning styles; like most cognitive psychologists, I am highly skeptical of the idea that students are somehow locked into one modality over others. But I do keep in mind the power of offering different sensory modalities and ways of experiencing information. It also helps me to think about the special characteristics of seeing versus hearing versus reading information as I structure my course materials.

What are some of the pitfalls of teaching with technology? What are some of the best ways to avoid them?

 One that always gets to me is when students superficially engage with the course. I don’t think it has to be this way, but some students do seem to approach online learning with a distinctly minimalist attitude. What is the least I can write, or do, in order to get by? This is by no means unique to online courses, but in face-to-face teaching you can at least more easily get a positive group contagion going, where students see others putting in effort and are nudged toward aiming higher themselves.

This is a tough issue to tackle, but continually reinforcing and referencing expectations can help. One way I do this in my own online teaching is making a daily morning announcement that talks in an upbeat way about what students ought to be working on that day, even if nothing is due. I also am a big fan of public sharing of work among students. For example, in a class I’m teaching right now, most assignments are done in Voicethread, where students watch each other’s presentations and are expected to comment. I think this can also help set higher standards and push students to put in more than the minimum.

I even question why, given the technology we have now, we ever have totally private work that is just shared between teacher and student. It’s something to think about, in any case.

What interests you most about speaking at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference?

I’m just in awe of the speakers and projects on the conference schedule, and can’t wait to hear from these leaders about their current thoughts and projects. I am also looking forward to the conversations that happen outside of the presentations, especially with faculty, administrators, and instructional designers who are at the forefront of innovation and change on their campuses. These discussions fuel a great deal of my work, both by sparking ideas for new projects and showing what faculty today are most concerned about.

Lastly, I’m hoping to interact with people from educational technology companies and check out what they are working on right now. Events like these are an opportunity to see the latest products and get a feel for trends, and I do think the interplay between academia, developers, and entrepreneurs is a fascinating story that’s unfolding all around us right now.