I recently shared some thoughts from Visible Learning and wanted to also pass on some of my favorite quotes from Visible Learning for Teachers. Not a lot of commentary here, just some highlights from the book.

On the need for diagnostic feedback that tells us what the students know and believe

“David Ausubel claimed: ‘…if I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: ‘The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly’” (p. 41).

“Shayer (2003) suggests two basic principles for teachers. First, teachers need to think of their role as one of creating interventions that will increase the proportion of children attaining a higher thinking level, such that the students can use and practise these thinking skills during the course of a typical lesson – that is, teachers must attend first to how the students are thinking. If you cannot assess the range of mental levels of the children in your class, and simultaneously what is the level of cognitive demand of each of the lesson activity, how can you plan and then execute – in response to the minute by minute responses of the pupils – tactics which result in all engaging fruitfully?” (p. 43)

“Among the most powerful of all interventions is feedback or formative evaluation – providing information to the teacher as to where he or she is going, how he or she is going there, and where he or she needs to go next. The key factor is for teachers to have mind frames in which they seek such feedback about their influences on students and thus change, enhance, or continue their teaching methods. Such a mind frame – that is, seeking evidence relating to the three feedback questions (‘Where am I going?’; ‘How am I going there?’; ‘Where to next?’) – is among the most powerful influences on student achievement that we know” (p. 182).

What faculty need to agree on across specific courses

  1. “‘What is it that we want our students to know and be able to do as a result of this unit?’ (Essential learning)
  2. ‘How will they demonstrate that they have acquired the essential knowledge and skills? Have we agreed on the criteria that we will use in judging the quality of student work, and can we apply the criteria consistently?’ (Success indicators)
  3. ‘How will we intervene for students who struggle and enrich the learning for students who are proficient?’
  4. ‘How can we use the evidence of student learning to improve our individual and collective professional practice?’” (p. 70)

On the importance of caring

“When we are asked to name the teachers that had marked positive effects on us, the modal number is usually two to three, and the reasons typically start with comments about caring, or that they ‘believed in me’. The major reason is that these teachers cared that you knew their subject and shared their passion – and aimed always to ‘turn you on’ to their passion. Students know when teachers care and are committed enough, and have sufficient skills, to turn them on to enjoying the challenges and excitement of their subject (whether it be sport, music, history, maths, or technology).

“A positive, caring, respectful climate in the classroom is a prior condition to learning. Without students’ sense that there is a reasonable degree of ‘control’, sense of safety to learn, and sense of respect and fairness that learning is going to take place, there is little chance that much positive is going to occur. This does not mean having rows of adoring students, sitting quietly, listening attentively, and then working cooperatively together to resolve the dilemmas and join in interesting activities; it does mean that students feel safe to show what they do not know, and have confidence that the interactions among other students and with the teacher will be fair and in many ways predictable (especially when they ask for help)” (p. 78)



The Black Swan and Nonsense

My cousin recently recommended that I read The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I thought that it was a very interesting book, although I felt that it could have been shorter Taleb wrote a more concise essay that covers much of the same ground). Here are some of my key takeaways from the book:

A “Black Swan” is an event that is very rare, has extreme impact and with hindsight (but not foresight) was predictable (p. xviii). Taleb writes:

Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next. (Don’t cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher). How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.

The central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly the large deviations: Why do we, scientists or nonscientists, hotshots or regular Joes, tend to see the pennies instead of the dollars? Why do we keep focusing on the minutiae, not the possible significant large events, in spite of the obvious evidence of their huge influence? And, if you follow my argument, why does reading the newspaper actually decrease your knowledge of the world?

It is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks. It is not so hard to identify the role of Black Swans, from your armchair (or bar stool). Go through the following exercise. Look into your own existence. Count the significant events, the technological changes, and the inventions that have taken place in our environment since you were born and compare them to what was expected before their advent. How many of them came on a schedule? Look into your own personal life, to your choice of profession, say, or meeting your mate, your exile from your country of origin, the betrayals you faced, your sudden enrichment or impoverishment. How often did these things occur according to plan? (p. xviii-xix).

In other words, the things that we expect and plan for tend not to have a large impact, because the impact has already been mitigated against. In contrast, unexpected events have a huge impact. I was not planning to meet my wife on December 4, 1998, and there are many other personal examples where an unplanned for event led to significant results.

A key suggestion then in the business world is that in order to make a quantum leap forward in some aspect of business, we need to have some type of unexpected, unanticipated idea that people are not currently thinking about (because if they were currently thinking about it, it would have already happened).

A recurring idea in the book is that we have a strong tendency to tell a narrative story to explain the unexplainable. Creating these narratives simplifies our world, which “pushes us to think that the world is less random than it actually is” (p. 69). One of the many ways that Taleb discusses this is by explaining the “the triplet of opacity. They are:

  • the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;
  • the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical real­ ity); and
  • the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people” (p.8).

Taleb frequently rails against the “ludic fallacy” which is “basing studies of chance on the narrow world of games and dice” (p.309). The bell curve is a frequent application of the ludic fallacy to randomness.

In other words, we do not see the randomness in the world, instead creating causality where it does not exist. We also tend to unjustifiably place a premium value on the words of experts who actually do not know any more than the average taxi driver.

One of my favorite examples of the book concerns the turkey and 1,001 days of history. A turkey is fed every day for a 1,000 days—each day confirms statistically that the human race cares about its happiness. But on day 1,001 the turkey gets an unpleasant surprise. “Consider that the feeling of safety reached its maximum when the risk was at the highest!” (p. 41).

Taleb points to real examples where this has happened such as the safety of mortgages (before the crash in 2008) or this quote from E.J. Smith, captain of the Titanic: “When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident… or any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.” That quote was uttered in 1907, the Titanic crashed in 1912.

All of this is rather grim news. Our future is likely to be highly impacted by events that we cannot foresee or protect against. So what can we do? Potential remedies include recognizing that you’re actually not certain about an occurrence and be open to additional possibilities. How can you do this?

One way is to look for falsifying instances, occasions in which a certain theory did not hold true. He cites an experiment done by P.C. Wason.

Wason presented subjects with the three-number sequence of 2, 4, 6 and asked them to try to guess the rule generating it. Their method of guessing was to produce other three-number sequences, to which the experimenter would response “yes” or “no” depending on whether the new sequences were consistent with the rule. Once confident with their answers, the subjects would formulate the rule.

The correct rule was “numbers in ascending order,” nothing more. Very few subjects discovered it because in order to do so they had to offer a series in descending order (that they experimenter would say “no” to). Wason noticed that the subjects had a rule in mind, but gave him examples aimed at confirming it instead of trying to supply series that were inconsistent with their hypothesis. Subjects tenaciously kept trying to confirm the rules that they had made up (p. 58).

In other words people look for confirming evidence that their plans are correct, when looking for disconfirming evidence that their plans might not be right would be more effective.

Another strategy for clearer thinking is to consider the silent evidence. That is observe carefully what is not being said and who is not saying it. Taleb writes:

Numerous studies of millionaires aimed at figuring out the skills required for hotshotness follow the following methodology. They take a population of hotshots, those with big titles and big jobs, and study their attributes. They look at what those big guns have in common: courage, risk taking, optimism, and so on, and infer that these traits, most notably risk taking, help you to become successful. You would also probably get the same impression if you read CEOs’ ghostwritten autobiographies or attended their presentations to fawning MBA students.

Now take a look at the cemetery. It is quite difficult to do so because people who fail do not seem to write memoirs, and, if they did, those business publishers I know would not even consider giving them the courtesy of a returned phone call (as to returned e-mail, fuhgedit). Readers would not pay $26.95 for a story of failure, even if you convinced them that it had more useful tricks than a story of success. The entire notion of biography is grounded in the arbitrary ascription of a causal relation between specified traits and subsequent events. Now consider the cemetery. The graveyard of failed persons will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, et cetera. Just like the population of millionaires. There may be some differences in skills, but what truly separates the two is for the most part a single factor: luck (p. 106-107).

In other words, these attributes seem to be the key to success, but many people who did not obtain wild success also had these same attributes. As you have already guessed Taleb believes the success came from luck, not from attributes.

Taleb applies these basic principles to government as well:

Katrina, the devastating hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005, got plenty of politicizing politicians on television. These legislators, moved by the images of devastation and the pictures of angry victims made homeless, made promises of “rebuilding.” It was so noble on their part to do something humanitarian, to rise above our abject selfishness.

Did they promise to do so with their own money? No. It was with public money. Consider that such funds will be taken away from somewhere else, as in the saying “You take from Peter to give to Paul.” That somewhere else will be less mediatized. It may be privately funded cancer research, or the next efforts to curb diabetes. Few seem to pay attention to the victims of cancer lying lonely in a state of untelevised depression. Not only do these cancer patients not vote (they will be dead by the next ballot), but they do not manifest themselves to our emotional system. More of them die every day than were killed by Hurricane Katrina; they are the ones who need us the most – not just our financial help, but our attention and kindness. And they may be the ones from whom the money will be taken – indirectly, perhaps even directly. Money (public or private) taken away from research might be responsible for killing them – in a crime that may remain silent.

…We can see what governments do, and therefore sing their praises-but we do not see the alternative. But there is an alternative; it is less obvious and remains unseen (110-111).

Taleb suggests that we need to keep our minds open to a variety of possibilities. He writes:

Show two groups of people a blurry image of a fire hydrant, blurry enough for them not to recognize what it is. For one group, increase the resolution slowly, in ten steps. For the second, do it faster, in five steps. Stop at a point where both groups have been presented an identical image and ask each of them to identify what they see. The members of the group that saw fewer intermediate steps are likely to recognize the hydrant much faster. Moral? The more information you give someone, the more hypotheses they will formulate along the way, and the worse off they will be. They see more random noise and mistake it for information.

The problem is that our ideas are sticky: once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds—so those who delay developing their theories are better off. When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.

Taleb brings up the work of Tetlock to point out again that experts often are no better predictors than the average well-informed person.

To mitigate against the invariably incorrect predictions that people will encounter he suggests being cautious of the variability factor, meaning, don’t take any projections too seriously. Further explore the range of possibilities in the forecast and the probabilities of each.

In some ways this book is depressing. If so much of the world is randomness, are all my plans pointless? Well, mostly yes, it seems Taleb would say, but he does give a few ideas in his chapter called “What do you do if you cannot predict?”

Accept that being human involves some amount of epistemic arrogance in running your affairs. Do not be ashamed of that. Do not try to always withhold judgment—opinions are the stuff of life. Do not try to avoid predicting—yes, after this diatribe about prediction I am not urging you to stop being a fool. Just be a fool in the right places.

What you should avoid is unnecessary dependence on large-scale harmful predictions—those and only those. Avoid the big subjects that may hurt your future: be fooled in small matters, not in the large. Do not listen to economic forecasters or to predictors in social science (they are mere entertainers), but do make your own forecast for the picnic. By all means, demand certainty for the next picnic; but avoid government social-security forecasts for the year 2040.

The reader might feel queasy reading about these general failures to see the future and wonder what to do. But if you shed the idea of full predictability, there are plenty of things to do provided you remain conscious of their limits. Knowing that you cannot predict does not mean that you cannot benefit from unpredictability.

The bottom line: be prepared! Narrow-minded prediction has an analgesic or therapeutic effect. Be aware of the numbing effect of magic numbers. Be prepared for all relevant eventualities (p.203).

Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think. Remember that positive Black Swans have a necessary first step: you need to be exposed to them. Many people do not realize that they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may never see such a window open up again. I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees. Collect as many free nonlottery tickets (those with open-ended payoffs) as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters—you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity. The idea of settling in a rural area on grounds that one has good communications “in the age of the Internet” tunnels out of such sources of positive uncertainty. Diplomats understand that very well: casual chance discussions at cocktail parties usually lead to big breakthroughs—not dry correspondence or telephone conversations. Go to parties! If you’re a scientist, you will chance upon a remark that might spark new research (p.208-209).

Another interesting application of large events that we cannot predict concern volatility in the stock market. Taleb points out that “by removing the ten biggest one-day moves from the U.S. stock market over the past fifty years, we see a huge difference in returns” (the S&P going from essentially 0 to 1000 instead of 2500), (p. 276).

There are many other summaries of The Black Swan, one of my favorites is here.


Somewhat related to The Black Swan is another book I recently read, Nonsense, by Jamie Holmes.  The basic premise of this book is that we live in a world with lots of ambiguity – and humans by nature don’t like ambiguity. So we need to learn how to effectively manage our dislike ambiguity because it isn’t going away. In other words, as in The Black Swan, we want to create causality or come to quick narrative conclusions about why the world is the way it is.

He reports on several interesting scientific studies. For example, in examining the question, “Could even small amounts of extra stress affect our willingness to dwell in uncertainty?” he cites a study where participants who were making decisions in the presence of annoying sounds were more likely to make decisions faster and with less rationality than their peers without the annoying sound. In another study, those who were asked to evaluate a candidate for a prospective job. Some subjects heard positive things about the candidate and then negative, while others heard the negative information first and then the positive. When subjects had time to “think about their appraisals, they rated candidates at about a five, regardless of whether the flattering facts emerged earlier or later. But when subjects had to make a decision quickly, job applicants with strong first impressions were rated at a 7 on average, while candidates with faults conveyed early on were rated at a 3…in both cases, it wasn’t merely that subjects formed their impressions faster, but they also ignored the later, contradictory information” (p. 75). Other studies showed that under time pressure, “group members who voiced opposition to a given consensus were more quickly marginalized and ignored. Another study found that when a stressful noise was present, group members were again less tolerant of any information that conflicted with their beliefs” (p. 78).

Holmes points out that humans tend to want closure – they want to quickly come to conclusions and move forward – but this is difficult in ambiguous situations. He shares an instrument that people can take to determine the extent to which they need quick closure (those who know me well will accurately guess that was above average in terms of having a greater need for closure). People like me need to know that their minds’ “natural aggressiveness in papering over anomalies, resolving discrepancies, and achieving the ‘miracle of simplification’ is set a bit higher” (p. 88).

The rush to closure manifests itself in a variety of settings. In medicine, Homes points out that “the most common diagnostic error in medicine is premature closure –when a physician stops seeking a diagnosis after finding one that explains most of or even all the key findings, without asking…what else could this be” (p. 120). He shares a series of scary experiments and anecdotes that show that in medicine misdiagnoses can occur all too easily.

So what do we do? I wish that more of the book had been addressed to this issue. While there are a few nuggets (e.g., Holmes states, “Managing our dangerous but natural urge to demolish ambiguous evidence or deny ambivalent intentions isn’t easy. But it is possible. A good first step is to acknowledge that ambivalence is a far more common state of mind than most people assume” (p. 108)). I believe some of Taleb’s ideas (e.g., look for falsifying evidence, consider the silent evidence, etc.) can help us in this endeavor.

One example of this in the book was a study where “researchers asked participants to pretend that they were members of a race-car team. Facing the risk of engine failure due to a gasket malfunction, the subjects had to decide whether to go ahead with an upcoming race. They were told that the gasket had failed during a certain number of races, but (as the experiment as conducted online) they had to click on a link for ‘additional information, if needed,’ to learn how many timesi the gasket hadn’t failed. Clicking the link would let them in on a truly dire statistic: there was a 99.99 percent chance of gasket failure…Seventy nine percent of the subjects made the mistake of electing to go ahead and race, generally because participants failed to seek out the additional information” (p. 171).

Holmes also recommends getting creative. For example, consider a riddle this this one: “. A windowless room contains three identical light fixtures, each containing an identical light bulb or light globe. Each light is connected to one of three switches outside of the room. Each bulb is switched off at present. You are outside the room, and the door is closed. You have one, and only one, opportunity to flip any of the external switches. After this, you can go into the room and look at the lights, but you may not touch the switches again. How can you tell which switch goes to which light?” (p. 190). If one only thinks of visually seeing the lights go off and on, it is an intractable problem. But if I think about the fact that lightbulbs, when turned on, give off heat, that may give me the help that I need. Looking at a different angle makes all the difference.

So in summary, what did I gain from these two books?

  1. I have a tendency to want to create a narrative for why things are the way that they are. This narrative may or may not be right, but I will tend to ascribe more certainty that it is right than is probably justified.
  1. I can work to overcome this tendency by reminding myself of its existence. I can also look at situations in new ways, asking for disconfirming or silent evidence. I can also seek out additional information, particularly from those who might have a different point of view than I have.
  1. I should generally not put stock in long-range predictions because there are many looming Black Swans that will radically reshape how the world works.
  1. I should spend less time trying to make something happen and be more open to serendipitous opportunities and capitalize on those when then take place.

Visible Learning Take Aways

One of my favorite books about teaching is Visible LearningA Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Acheivement, by John Hattie. In this book he synthesizes over 800 meta-analyses of education interventions with the idea of looking for key, proven pedagogical strategies that educators (and parents) can implement. One of his more important arguments is that almost all interventions have some effect size; therefore, our focus should be on high-effect-size interventions (or easy-to-implement interventions). A summary of all the interventions he studied is here, and a summary of his excellent subsequent book Visible Learning for Teachers is here.

My primary interest in returning to Hattie’s book for the third time (yes, I have read it three times!) was to think about how OER could leveraged to better help accomplish some of the interventions Hattie found to be most effective. In other words, assuming that all learning materials were free of charge, would the “open” in OER make a difference in implementing any of these high-impact interventions?

In this post I’m going to list the interventions that I considered to be the best contenders for interventions that could be readily applied in a college environment (several of the interventions focus on issues relating to elementary school). Because I have six kids, I also read with the lens of a parent and will throw in some of those ideas at the end. In a future post, I’ll explore how OER could make a difference in some of these areas, at the present I’m just focused on listing and explaining some of the key interventions. I would welcome your thoughts on how OER could make a difference in these areas.

Ideas for Teachers to Consider

Help Students Set High Goals

“A major finding…is that achievement is enhanced to the degree that students and teachers set challenging goals…There is a direct linear relationship between the degree of goal difficulty and performance…and the overall effect size is a large (d =.67)…The performances of students who have the most challenging goals are over 250% higher than the performances of subjects with the easiest goals” (p. 164).

“Difficult goals are much better than ‘do your best’ or no assigned goals…Instead, teachers and learners should be setting challenging goals. Goals can have a self-energizing effect if they are appropriately challenging for the students as they can motivate students to exert effort in line with the difficulty or demands of the goal” (p.164).

Create a course with challenging expectations. Where possible, give students the opportunity to set goals that will help them stretch. Give them a vision of what can be accomplished and motivate them to do so.

Strengthen Student Relationships

Teacher-student relationships has a large effect size (d =.72). “Building relations with students implies agency, efficacy, respect by the teacher for what the child brings from class…and allowing the experiences of the child to be recognized in the classroom. Further, developing relationships requires skill by the teacher – such as the skills of listening, empathy, caring, and having positive regard for others” (p. 118).

Have High Expectations

“In the education system, it is now widely accepted that teachers do form expectations about student ability and skills and that expectations affect student achievement (Dusek and Joseph, 1985). The question is not ‘Do teachers have expectations?’ but ‘Do they have false and misleading expectations that lead to decrements in learning or learning gains-and for which students?” (p. 121)…Teachers must stop over-emphasizing ability and start emphasizing progress…stop seeking evidence to confirm prior expectations but seek evidence to surprise themselves, find ways to raise the achievement of all…and be evidence-informed about the talents and growth of all students by…being accountable for all” (p. 124).

“Having low expectations of the students’ success is a self-fulfilling prophecy…how to invoke high standards seems critical and this may require more in-school discussion of appropriate benchmarks…” (p. 127). Overall effect size (d =.43).

Give and Receive Feedback

“When teachers seek, or at least are open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged – then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful” (p. 173). “About 70 percent of teachers claim they provided…detailed feedback often or always, but only 45 percent of students agreed with their teachers’ claims. Further, Nuthall (2005) found that most feedback that students obtained in any day in classrooms was from other students and most of the feedback was incorrect” (p. 174)…. “The emphasis should be on what students can do, and then on students knowing what they are aiming to do, having multiple strategies for learning to do, and knowing when they have done it” (p. 199). (d =.73).

Create Opportunities for Spaced Practice

“It is the frequency of different opportunities rather than merely spending ‘more’ time on task that makes the difference to learning” (p. 185). “Nuthall (2005) claimed that students often needed three to four exposures to the learning – usually over several days – before there was a reasonable probability they would learn. This is consistent with the power of spaced rather than massed practice….Students in spaced practice conditions performed higher than those in massed practice conditions (d =.46). Others found higher effect sizes, with an overall effect size (d =.71).

Direct Instruction

“Direct Instruction has a bad name for the wrong reasons, especially when it is confused with didactic teaching, as the underlying principles of Direct Instruction place it among the most successful outcomes (d = .59). Direct Instruction involves seven major steps:

  1. Before the lesson is prepared, the teacher should have a clear idea of what the learning intentions What, specifically, should the student be able to do, understand, care about as a result of the teaching?
  2. The teacher needs to know what success criteria of performance are to be expected and when and what students will be held accountable for from the lesson/activity. The students need to be informed about the standards of performance.
  3. There is a need to build commitment and engagement in the learning task. In the terminology of Direct Instruction, this is sometimes called a “hook” to grab the student’s attention. The aim is to put students into a receptive frame of mind; to focus student attention on the lesson; to share the learning intentions.
  4. There are guides to how the teacher should present the lesson–including notions such as input, modeling, and checking for understanding. Input refers to providing information needed for students to gain the knowledge or skill though lecture, film, tape, video, pictures, and so on. Modeling is where the teacher shows students examples of what is expected as an end product of their work. The critical aspects are explained through labeling, categorizing, and comparing to exemplars of what is desired. Checking for understanding involves monitoring whether students have “got it” before proceeding. It is essential that students practice doing it right, so the teacher must know that students understand before they start to practice. If there is any doubt that the class has not understood, the concept or skill should be re-taught before practice begins.
  5. There is the notion of guided practice. This involves an opportunity for each student to demonstrate his or her grasp of new learning by working though an activity or exercise under the teacher’s direct supervision. The teacher moves around the room to determine the level of mastery and to provide feedback and individual remediation as needed.
  6. There is the closure part of the lesson. Closure involves those actions or statements by a teacher that are designed to bring a lesson presentation to an appropriate conclusion: the part wherein students are helped to bring things together in their own minds, to make sense out of what has just been taught. “Any questions? No. OK, let’s move on” is not closure. Closure is used to cue students to the fact that they have arrived at an important point in the lesson or the end of a lesson, to help organize student learning, to help form a coherent picture, to consolidate, eliminate confusion and frustration, and so on, and to reinforce the major points to be learned. Thus closure involves reviewing and clarifying the key points of a lesson, trying them together into a coherent whole, and ensuring they will be applied by the student by ensuring they have become part of the student’s conceptual network.
  7. There is independent practice. Once students have mastered the content or skill, it is time to provide for reinforcement practice. It is provided on a repeating schedule so that the learning is not forgotten. It may be homework or group or individual work in class. It is important to note that this practice can provide for decontextualization: enough different contexts so that the skill or concept may be applied to any relevant situation and not only the context in which it was originally learned. For example, if the lesson is about inference from reading a passage about dinosaurs, the practice should be about inference from reading about another topic such as whales. The advocates of Direct Instruction argue that the failure to do this seventh step is responsible for most student failure to be able to apply something learned.

In a nutshell: The teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modeling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have told by tying it all together with closure (see Cooper, 2006)” (p. 205-206).

One of the common criticisms is that Direct Instruction works with very low-level or specific skills, and with lower ability and the youngest students. These are not the findings from the meta-analyses. The effects of Direct Insturction are similar for regular (d = 0.99), and special education and lower ability students (d = 0.86)… similar for the more low-level word-attacks (d=0.64) and also for high-level comprehension (d=0.54), and similar for elementary and high school students (Adams & Engelmann, 1996). Similarly, a 1997 integrative analysis of intervention programs for special education students found direct instruction to be the only one of seven interventions showing strong evidence of effectiveness (Forness, Kavale, Blum & Lloyd, 1997). To demonstrate that the effects from direct instruction are not specifically teacher effects, Fischer and Tarver (Fischer & Tarver, 1997) delivered mathematics lessons via videodisc; the effects were close to d = 1.00.

The messages of these meta-analyses on Direct Instruction underline the power of stating the learning intentions and success criteria, and then engaging students in moving towards these. The teacher needs to invite the students to learn, provide much deliberative practice and modeling, and provide appropriate feedback and multiple opportunities to learn. Students need opportunities for independent practice, and then there need to be opportunities to learn the skill or knowledge implicit in the learning intention in contexts other than those directly taught” (p. 207, emphasis mine).

Ideas for Parents to Consider

Have High Expectations

“Jeynes (2005) found that parental involvement was related to school grades (d = .74) and that the best predictor was expectations (d=.58), which was far greater than parental involvement at the school (d =.21). In a subsequent study using secondary students, Jeynes (2007) similarly found greater effects from parental expectations (d =.88) than from other parent factors such as checking homework (d = .32) …Across all home variables, parental aspirations and expectations for children’s educational achievement has the strongest relationship with achievement (d = .80). Thus, parents need to hold high aspirations and expectations for their children, and schools need to work in partnership with parents to make their expectations appropriately high and challenging, and then work in partnership with children and the home to realize, and even surpass these expectations.

Acceleration Over Enrichment

Hattie finds that accelerating students through the curriculum (e.g., skipping a grade) has a much stronger effect (d = .88) than enrichment instruction (d =.39).  Very little research shows negative effects from acceleration.

Peer Influences

“Friendships can play an important part in the classroom environment…the higher the quality of the friendships, the greater the magnification of the influence of the friend – and among adolescents this can lead to gaining a reputation as a learner, a social misfit…and so on; some of these reputations can be beneficial or harmful to an individuals’ academic achievement” (p. 105). d =.53.

The Bottom Line

“What learners do…matters. So often learners become passive recipients of teachers’ lessons, but as the meta-analyses throughout this book…demonstrate, the aim is to make students active in the learning process—through actions by teachers and others—until the students reach the stage where they become their own teachers, they can seek out optimal ways to learn new material and ideas…Students need to be involved in determining success criteria, setting higher expectations, and being open to experiences relating to differing ways of knowing and problem solving. This then leads to their development of beliefs and reputations as a learner, and engaging in self-assessing, self-evaluating, self-monitoring, self-learning, and in learning the surface, deeper,,and conceptual domains of worthwhile domains” (p. 37).


I have been posting my latest updates on OER research studies at the Open Education Group Website. Go check it out!

In a word, no. At least not in the most recent study published by the Open Education Group. This was one of the most rigorous studies done on OER efficacy to date, and was recently published in Education Researcher, one of the highest ranked academic journals in Education. In this study we measured the performance of high school students on end-of-year state standardized exams and compared the results of those who used OER versus those who used traditional textbooks. Using propensity score matching, we controlled for a number of variables, including ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, previous teacher performance, and so forth. Even when controlling for all of these variables, we found that those who used OER performed slightly better than those who did not.

I believe the implications of this study are significant. In the United States alone, taxpayers spend billions of dollars on textbooks in elementary and secondary schools, as well as in higher education. What additional learning units are we purchasing with this money? If we were to take the money spent on textbooks that could be replaced with OER and spent it in more pedagogically effective ways, what kinds of learning outcomes could we achieve?

For those interested in the full research, an Open Access version of the article is available.

textbook headline

We all know, as this headline shows, that college textbooks are expensive. There have been a variety of estimates regarding the total cost of textbooks, including this report by the Student Public Interest Research Group. I, along with other researchers in the Open Education Group, were curious to know how much students were spending on textbooks in colleges that have replaced traditional textbooks with OER. Our study was based on the work done at the following colleges: Cerritos College (Norwalk, CA, 22,000 students); Chadron State College (Chadron, Nebraska, 3,000 students); Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, New York, 10,000 students across four campuses); College of the Redwoods (Eureka, California, 10,000 students); Santa Ana College (Santa Ana, California, 18,000 students); Santiago Canyon College (Orange, California, 10,000 students); and Tompkins Cortland Community College (Dryden, New York, 3,500 students).

In most instances each of these colleges had some sections of the course that used OER and others that used traditional textbooks. So we went to each college’s online bookstore to and (for the sections using traditional textbooks) identified each teacher’s book list and created a list that enumerated the prices of their required textbooks. For example, to identify the textbook cost for students attending Professor R’s (non- OER) English class, we would go to the bookstore website for her school, find her booklist (see Figure 1), and sum the total costs of her books based on the prices on the bookstore website.

Figure 1

We examined textbooks in a variety of fields, including Math, English, Psychology, Business, Geography, Chemistry and Biology. The full results of our study were recently published in an article titled “Cost-Savings Achieved in Two Semesters Through the Adoption of Open Educational Resources.” This study, published by the International Review of Research on Open and Distance Learning, found that on average students spent $90.61 per textbook. Assuming students take ten classes per year, this means that meaning that a full-time student would spend over $900 on textbooks each year. Broad adoption of OER makes that cost zero for every student impacted. If these savings were realized by only 5% of the 20,994,113 students in the United States who enrolled in college during the 2011 fall semester, the total savings would be approximately one billion dollars per year. The cost savings can quickly add up!

Math is one of the many topics that I think lends itelf to OER. College Algebra hasn’t been revolutionized in the past few years, and so the idea of purchasing expensive textbooks for this course is, in my view, pretty suspect. Scottsdale Community College has created/remixed some incredible resources that are freely available for students. I was lucky enough to publish a study with some magnificent colleagues, chronicling money saved by students at SCC, and also what happened to the educational outcomes of students utilizing these open resources. See the article recently published in the International Review of Research on Open and Distance Learning.

Perceptions of OER

My good friend T.J. Bliss was the lead author on two recent studies focusing on how students and faculty perceived open educational resources. I think that listening to these voices is very important. Both articles are open access — visit First Monday or the Journal of Interactive Media in Education to learn more. Great work TJ!

As you probably know, FWK has announced that it will no longer provide a free version of its textbooks. This is clearly disappointing to the OER community (for example you can feel T.J.’s frustration). David Wiley’s response is here. David and I have published a couple of articles about FWK’s financial models (at IRRODL and First Monday). I had also worked with David and Neil on FWK’s  model of reuse, recently published another article with Carol Laman and had two others in the works (those two I’m afraid will never be published. For now at least there isn’t quite the excitement on a $19.95 access model).

All of this is to say I have had some experience writing about and thinking about FWK. I love the company, and I love their textbooks. If I teach Psychology 101 again will I use the FWK text? Probably — they are right; their $19.95 access plan is cheaper than anything else I could offer my students. But do I wish the free option were still there? Absolutely.

In my thinking and writing about FWK the key thing I missed was the importance of ROI. Eric Frank said last year that FWK has raised 30 million in venture capital. That’s a lot of money. Even if FWK was profitable (to throw out a random number, I don’t know their bottom line this number could be much higher or smaller) by 3 million dollars per year, it would take 10 years to recoup the cost of the investment, and even after that the ROI would be relatively small. I don’t blame those who have invested in FWK seeking a better return on investment.

It will be interesting to watch going forward to see if any tries to replicate the FWK model (perhaps using grant money instead of venture capital to seed the project).




This past summer I had a great experience using a version of Flat World Knowledge’s Psychology textbook while teaching in China. Working with that book led me to a collaboration with Carol Laman of Houston Community College (HCC). HCC’s Pyschology Department adopted the Flat World text and had some great success using it in their department. Carol and I wrote an article about it, which was just published in the journal Open Learning.

The bottom line is that during the fall semester, 2011, 690 students used this book.  Compared to students using a traditional text in the spring of 2011, students who used the free online textbook scored higher on departmental final exams, had higher GPAs in the class and higher retention rates.

Copyright restrictions prevent me from posting the full article (I understand the irony of publishing about OER in a non-open access journal), but the “preprint” (what I sent to them before the article had been peer reviewed) is here. They have given me 50 free eprints of the final version of the article, which are  available here, while supplies last…