How to learn more effectively

There’s been a lot of interest in recent neuro-scientific research, particularly research related to different aspects of learning and memory. As educators, we’re always trying to find better ways to help our students learn (and ourselves as well). While popular science articles have highlighted many of the significant changes in our understanding of how the brain works, reading some of the details of research and ongoing debates about our interpretation of fMRI data left me wanting to learn more.

A colleague of mine, Beth Cougler Blom, suggested I take part in a Coursera MOOC “Learning How to Learn” last year (she had just completed an earlier offering). She found the University of California (San Diego) course enlightening and mentioned several insights she’d gleaned. So I signed up and was introduced to Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering, Oakland University, and Dr. Terence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

So what “stood out for me” that might be useful to share with other educators?

  1.  Behaviorist theories of learning are still important and applicable, particularly when interpreted in light of neuro-science research and application in various studies grounded in higher education environments.
  2. We learn best (deeper, broader) and retain more when use the study / work techniques redefined through recent investigations. Surprisingly, practising recall without prompts was still one of the powerful tools we can apply to improve our learning. No more relying on my Google-brain when tackling new subjects. And recall trumped mind/concept-mapping for some types of learning (see references)
  3. We need to take care of our physical well-being to ensure that our brain functions well – aerobic activity is an increasingly important factor, along with getting sufficient sleep. Note:  I’ll never forget the mental image of my brain cells shrinking as I sleep so all the effluent can be drained away and my cells can be ready and clean for the next day. And, fMRI brain imaging showed multiple new synapses can form after learning and sleep.
  4. We can “rewire” our brains. Research has shown (and Dr. Oakley is a living example) that the brain retains it’s flexibility (neuro-plasticity) and we can continue to generate new brain cells and neural connections.

What could you do to improve your student’s learning right now?

You can jump right to Dr. Oakley’s 10 Rules of Good Studying (extracted from her 2014 book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra). The 10 rules are far easier to read than to apply – I’m still trying to integrate them in my reading and note-taking although I’ve noticed some improvement fairly quickly.

Some of the interesting ideas I learned from the Learning How to Learn MOOC:

  1.  Practicing something for 10,000 hours is not the best way to master your subject. Mixing up your techniques for practice, spacing your practices, and challenging yourself to recall without supports (or to try teaching what you’re learning to someone else) combine to form a more efficient way of learning.
  2. Eating your lima beans before your baked apple pie with ice cream – is still a good strategy.
  3. The power of linking learning to visual images or memories is powerful across cultures. I’ve worked with indigenous instructors who used metaphors and stories as is traditional in their cultures. Surprisingly, metaphoric zombies (invoked by Dr. Oakley) do stick in my brain to help me remember.
  4. Self management techniques like Cirillos’ “pomodoro Technique” can be very effective when they link goal setting, focused-rest-focused cycles of work, small rewards and setting up the best conditions for learning you can.
  5. Not really new but re-affirmed – passion and persistence underly most success in learning (and life?)


Example? Her recent, thought-provoking and clearly written article for Nautilus – a science magazine aimed at non-scientists –


Cirillo, Francesco, The Pomodoro Technique Retrieved from

Karpicke, Jeffrey D. and Janell R. Blunt. (11 February 2011) Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping  Science New Series, Vol. 331, No. 6018, pp. 772-775  Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science   

Hamilton, John. (October 17, 2013). “Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep.” NPR All Things Considered.

Oakley, Barbara (October 2, 2014). How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math, Nautilus, Issue 017, Retrieved from

Pan, Steven C. “The Interleaving Effect: Mixing It Up Boosts Learning,” Scientific American, August 4, 2015.

You better watch out…12Apps is coming to town

12Apps of Christmas graphic

I made a wish last year, just before Christmas (see the end of my Dec 20th, 2015 blog post, and it looks like it’s coming true!

BC is going to throw it’s own 12Apps of Christmas event (#12AppsBC)- yay!!!

Thanks to my ETUG (and BCcampus) colleagues, Leva Lee and Clint Lalonde,  and the rapidly assembling teams of “techies and teachers” from various higher-ed institutions, it looks as though BC is going to host a 12 Apps of Christmas event modelled on the Creative Commons licensed event developed by Regents University of London‘s Chris Rowell. And if you like the look of the event WordPress site, we had graphic design assistance from Robyn Humphreys (BCcampus). We’re gaining momentum and working out the things we still need to get done to make sure we can keep it fun but useful. Our UK colleagues have “set the bar high!”

Part of what made the 2015 UK-based events (six of them and I followed four!) so fun was the light-hearted approach and clean, straightforward design. Two of the institutions posted daily jokes or puns (I’ve added that to my list as it’s a feature that often made me smile.) I found the consistent structure developed by Regents University London made it easy to get involved in each day’s app and challenge activity. Some of the institutions played with the design but only to add a strong pedagogical focus or a particular insight (e.g., looking at how the app could be used to engage learners with different learning preferences).

As Clint mentioned in his recent post about the event,, there are literally thousands of apps targeted at education, and we all (educational technologists, faculty, administrators, students) need to become more conversant with ways to sort out the ones that have the greatest value for learning. Of course, evaluating apps seems like a Sisyphean task (IMHO) but exploring their potential uses in teaching and learning seems like a good beginning.

Although I recognize that not every educator will want to use apps in their teaching (for lots of reasons) I think part of the value of participating in an event like 12Apps of Christmas is to get more comfortable with creating – experimenting with the “maker movement”, hands-on, DIY kind of thinking that helps engage learners and strengthen learning.  I know I tend to “overthink” apps, looking for examples of how others used it, reviewing the terms of use, checking for tutorial videos or annotated, illustrated explanations of all the features, before I get to creating anything. The playfulness of the 12Apps event approach encourages everyone to just do something. It would be nice to build some of that freedom to try (and fail, and try again) into the way we design and deliver parts of our courses or the options we offer students to engage in learning. Of course we have to be mindful of the ephemeral nature of some apps and the potential privacy issues (under BC’s FIPPA), but should that  stop us from extracting maximum value for minimum investment?

Our BC-based 12Apps of Christmas endeavour will be a little different than the UK events I participated in last year as we’ve asked that each day’s app be free to experiment with, available on both iOS and Android operating systems, and to have some potential usefulness in education – and that can be anything from communication to content creation. We’re planning on focusing on fun, reflecting on learning and pedagogical possibilities, and getting inspired by participants’ creations, comments, ideas, suggestions.

Hoping that many of you will join in and try the challenge activities each day. Stay tuned for more about #12AppsBC in the coming weeks!



Exploring feedback for FLO

What exactly do we mean by “constructive” feedback? Do we actually model the behaviours we ask students to demonstrate? Do we provide clear explanations of what we expect? Do we provide constructive feedback when the students’ feedback is weak, superficial, slapdash? Do we scaffold our learners so they can consciously build and flex their critical thinking and collaborative or team-work skills?

My reflections on constructive feedback were inspired by a random Twitter post fimage 4 steps constructive commentsrom Howard Rheingold who shared a Diigo collection of links related to online facilitation. When I took a quick look a DS106 post on Constructive Comments caught my eye and, while scanning the article, I found an image tweet from @deedegs (Danielle Degelman 25 Nov 2014) Her visual list of the “3Cs and a Q” made me think about how I present, scaffold, model, promote constructive comments in my online facilitation.

As the Facilitating Learning Online workshop has evolved, I’ve had the pleasure of co-facilitating with several dedicated, passionate faciliators who strive to explain, demonstrate and facilitate the importance of constructive feedback or comments. When I began facilitating FLO, the workshop had built in weekly opportunities for peer-to-peer group feedback (i.e., each week a team of participants would facilitate a learning activities for the other members of the workshop). At the end of each weekly “mini-session” or “short learning activity”, the facilitators would encourage feedbackparticipants (to share constructive feedback on their experiences with the team of facilitators). We explored a number of different starter posts in a shared discussion forum to clarify what we were looking for in terms of “constructive”. The participant feedback, and any responses from the facilitation team members is open to the class.

During 2016, at the suggestion of FLO Facilitator, Beth Cougler Blom, we explored different ways of structuring the weekly learning activity team feedback. We asked the participants to share their feedback using these questions / prompts :

  1. _____________ (fill in the blank) really helped/supported my learning.
    My learning might have been better if ______________ (fill in the blank).
  2. I like….  (what you liked about the facilitation and why)
    I wish…  (something that you wish the facilitators would have done/encouraged)
    What if… (something that describes another alternative or option rather than what the facilitators did)
  3. What did the faciitators do that you really liked?
    What did the facilitators do that were challenging for you?
    What other kinds of facilitation strategies could the facilitators have tried, either as alternatives or add-ons?

And when I review our structures and approach in light of Danielle’s 4-step feedback, I think I might reframe it this way:

  1.  Appreciate  (identify something you valued or appreciated in the learning experience)
  2.  React (What did you think of the experience? What did you learn? Be specific but not judgemental – use “I” sentences.
  3. Suggest (What might you suggest be done differently – why? How would this change improve the experience from your perspective?)
  4. Connect (Can you relate something that was said or read or viewed with other discussions or activities? Have you any relevant personal/professional experiences that may be useful to share?)
  5. Questions (What questions do you still have – about the topic or about the strategies or choices the facilitation team made)

During the upcoming BCcampus FLO workshop that I’m co-facilitating with Leonne Beebe, I hope to explore different ways to emphasize the importance and critical thinking that is involved in providing truly “constructive” feedback – both through the use of different feedback structures, and by asking good questions to stimulate our participants to embed this approach in their learning and practice.

So, when you think about how you encourage your learners to provide “constructive” comments or feedback – what are the essential elements you emphasize?


Immersed, challenged, stretched by LS workshop…

It's just so great when your high expectations are fulfilled! I was intrigued by the Liberating Structures activity (micro-structure) that Leva Lee and Tracy Kelly tried out during ETUG's Fall Workshop (25-10 Crowd-sourcing) and even more curious after I read the explanation:

"Liberating Structures are a collection of powerful facilitation strategies that can be used in our classrooms, everyday meetings, strategic planning sessions, workshops, presentations, etc.  They are seriously fun methods to engage  and work together."

I just returned from an energizing and challenging 2.5 days in the beautiful new Robert H Lee Alumni Centre at UBC, participating in the Liberating Structures workshop that BCcampus Professional Learning and UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology organized. I'm glad I signed up.

During the 2.5 days, we talked, shared, networked (ate delicious food!) and did the "deep dive", immersing ourselves in testing different variations of many of the 33 micro-structures that are defined and described on the Liberating Structures website

And I'm going to begin my "15% Solution" by doing what I can with the resources I have right now and walking myself (and you 😉 through a "W3 debrief". (Note:  W3 = What, So What, Now What?)


What stood out for me? What did I notice?

Day 1, immersive learning, high energy, shared reflections, bravery required.
Keith McCandless and his "Dream Team" of assistants took turns presenting "invitations" to an activity – monitoring and managing the time, clarifying confusions. I noticed that activities were kept brief BUT we took time to listen to insights about what worked and what didn't from participants, augmented by brief deepening questions from one of the LS facilitators. I never saw anyone sitting out any of the activities; never saw glazed eyes or tapping fingers or feet. I heard lots of chatter, laughter and yet quiet, intense listening when an invitation was presented to yet another micro-structure. For 100 or more participants – that's pretty amazing.

Day 2, barriers down, clusters of participants sharing scribbled notes or just talking and listening. While still active, this day was a bit of a "dog-and-pony" show. Keith and his Dream Team assistant, Fletcher spent a lot of time clarifying which structure they used and why in different situations. We experienced the planning and linking of micro-structures to achieve different purposes. It became really clear that LS micro-structures were about letting go of control while still guiding direction; about repeatedly examining "purpose" and thinking about "why" and outcomes. While there were times when the metallic chimes that moved us between activities were annoying, we got through an amazing number of wide-ranging discussions and activities in a day – and never missed a break when it was necessary. By end of day, energy level dropped, tired faces, but lots of writing and sharing still happening.

Day 3 – focus on personal or group challenges, lots of breakout groups forming around self-identified areas of interest but people were starting to scatter their attention as their focus turned to leaving. One last engaging structure – a circle within a circle – can't remember what it was called but it was great. Snapped back the energy (just tamped down) and got people smiling and interacting before the final summary and good-byes

So What??

What was important?

Tight timing, well-managed – chiming mini-cymbals – annoying but attention catching – used persistently kept the group moving towards outcomes, moving between activities/reflections/questions/etc. Appreciated the respect for time more and more during the workshop.

Repetitive mini-cycles – interesting to experience the effects through different microstructures – having to revisit a statement, an outline, and idea, several times – by myself, with another participant, with a small group and within the large group debriefings – made my own purposes and next steps much clearer and, often more possible.

Inclusion was powerful – activities are structured to integrate this and it was reinforced by the actions of the LS facilitators. I'd think that all the participants felt included and, if they didn't speak out during group debriefings, it was because they didn't want to – not that there wasn't an open invitation and support to speak out.  Lots of opportunities to feel "heard" during various activities – either one-to-one or small group. Interesting how much it helped to have others share their insights and add them to the explanations of the facilitators.

Flexibility – modularization and demonstration of possible connections into various strings or "mosaics", use of a detailed storyboarding example, lots of fishbowl opportunities meant that you could really see how you might use the microstructures in every situation – from the personal to the professional.

The Power of Invitations! – crafting these became a real challenge. Great to have examples presented by different members of Dream Team and presented by different participants in our group activities. Framing the invitations well results in greater participation, clarity of purpose, positive approaches to the task at hand, inclusiveness, etc.

Honesty, bravery, openness in sharing – the generosity of spirit and bravery that most participants exhibited, supported and encouraged by the LS facilitators, was inspiring and part of the positive energy in the room. So much easier to come to meaningful outcomes when no-one seemed to be pursuing hidden agendas.

So What??

What will I do next?

My 15% solution was to apply a microstructure to this blog post. But I have upcoming challenges to address – potential of broadening my network of potential clients and getting involved in interesting initiatives – perhaps by helping organizations or institutions look at how to use LS micro-structures to engage learners or focus their instructional/learning design initatives?

– preparing a presentation for two upcoming events and ensuring that I blow apart the "presentation by expert" expectation to distribute control and broaden involvement with a judiciously selected "string" of microstructures – starting with a storyboard to guide and gain "buy-in" frrom my co-presenters!

Longer terms – apply some of the micro-structures to revisiting the design of some of the online learning activities we've designed for FLO workshops (Facilitating Learning Online). How can we translate the power of LS micro-structures to the onlne synchronous and asynchronous experience! (and share it with others 😉

Lots to do! I'll report back!  Sylvia

‘appy holiday fun…

It's been a12apps UBrightonn 'appy time (yuck-yuck 😉 and I've learned a lot over the last couple of weeks – and had fun doing it! Thanks to the energetic, thoughtful teams at the Dublin Institute of Technology (#12appsDIT), Regents University London (#RUL12AoC), and University of Brighton (#12brightapps) for the engaging activities, clear instructions, and great ideas around how to use mobile apps to personalize and energize learning and make teaching more interesting.12apps RegentsU London

Although I didn't participate as much as I would have liked, I've discovered a few apps I hadn't heard of (or tried) and I'm inspired to try a similar approach in an open community of practice (SCOPE we've just set up around online facilitation. So great to see that the 12 apps of Christmas materials are open licensed. Although our Facilitating Learning Online workshops are only open to registrants, the materials are always open licensed. Our new CoP will be open licensed as well (although the BCcampus open license allows for commercial uses, unlike the UK version)BlogImage425

I did some further reading about the 12 apps of Christmas workshop and found that six UK institutions participated (see The six 12 apps of Christmas spreadsheet – While Brighton and Regents used the same basic structure (established by Regent'sU in 2014?) The Dublin Institute of Technology got more creative. Each institution selected 12 apps (lots of variety although there was soe overlap) and provided short tasks (to encourage you to explore the potential uses of each app) as well as hosting discussions (on web boards and through Twitter) on potential pedagogical issues and uses. The value for me was primarily due to their focus on the educational value of each app but I also found the variety of tasks, explanations and approaches to each day very inspiring.

The basic structure of 12 apps of Christma (for any of you thinking of following suit next Christmas season) is:

Part 1:
  • What is it?
  • What can it do?
  • Download link and instructions
  • 10 Minute Task
  • And Finally… (some Christmas humour ??!)
Part 2:
  • Discussion Board and/or Twitter with starter questions (directed at ways to use this in education):
e.g., Try to think up ways that iMovie (or Video Maker Pro Free) could work for you in your classrooms and lecture theatres? How would you use it? Recording student-presentations? Oral-Exams? Short video demonstrations that you can use to “Flip” your classroom?
Part 3:
  • Further Task(s)
  • Useful resources

Some highlights from the three that I followed this year:

I thought Regent's University did a good job of providing a clear, comprehensive and consistent presentation each day and I found they had the best selection of Useful Resources. I've got hours of additional exploration and some potentially really useful ideas from these sections. My favourite Regent's app was WhatsApp – lots more exploring to do with that app!

e.g., Useful Resources (Instagram)

I appreciated the effort that University of Brighton's team put into offering separate tasks and apps for participants from outside their institution (and outside of the UK). Thanks to all of you for being so inclusive. I also appreciated the many embedded, annotated illustrations and the thorough explanations of the tasks for each app. My favourite UofBrighton app was ExplainEverything.

It was pretty much a tie between Regent's and Brighton as to who posted the sickest (funniest?) jokes. I've been regaling friends and colleagues with them (inflicting?) since this started. Thanks for the smiles (and chuckles) you generated – laughter may be the best medicine but it also keeps learners engaged (at least this learner).

I found the Dublin Institute of Technology's unwrapping apps icons the most visually appealing and their zoho unwrapapp_iconsite was very easy to use and navigate. They broke with the structured approach I described above and focused on personalized learning – using the VARK framework to explore the day's app from the perspective of a Visual Learner, an Auditory Learner, a Read/Write Learner and a Kinesthetic Learner.

Although I'm not a big fan of learning styles, in this case the framework provided a structured way to explore different ways of presenting learning – very successfully!  I loved Frances Boylan's Soundcloud clips and have shared them with several instructors – hopefully we'll all be more creative in the future. Auditory Learners

Also loved DIT's selection of apps – some overlap with other institutions but their creativity in exploring different types of learning (using the VARK framework) meant that they certainly provided a really good introduction and overview of the power of personalizing learning!

A great 12 days of learning – thanks to everyone who participated. Maybe we'll try a Canadian version next year!