Why We Learn

Thoughts on educational psychology, instructional design, and the integration of technology in educational settings.

Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning


Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis, written by Deborah L. Butler and Philip H. Winne in 1995, is a popular piece of academic literature. Google Scholar indicates that it has been cited by 1183 works. Its importance is likely a result of that way in which it views the nearly universally reported benefits of feedback through the prism of self-regulation. Essentially, the authors suggest a shift akin to the evolution from behaviorism to cognitivist ideas. Whereas the former focused exclusively on input and output, the latter posits that an idiosyncratic interpretation of stimuli must be considered. In this case, feedback serves as the stimuli to which the individual responds.

Feedback can be classified in a variety of ways; by timing (immediate or delayed), type (corrective, suggestive, elaborative), and by origin (external or internal). The authors also describe “cognitive feedback’’, relating perceived cues to use learning strategies and potential achievement. Five products of feedback are presented.

  1. Confirm conceptual understanding
  2. Add to conceptual understanding
  3. Overwrite misunderstanding
  4. “Tune’’ understanding
  5. Restructure schemata (when entire conceptualization is wrong)

One of the primary points that the authors make is that all feedback is filtered through a wide array of preexisting learner qualities, e.g., domain specific history, goal orientation, epistemological beliefs, and efficacy. It is these qualities that lead to the afore mentioned “idiosyncratic interpretations’’ of feedback. So, while these may be the potential results of feedback, the way in which external feedback is filtered by the learner determines the magnitude (or existence) of the intended effect.

At the center of Butler and Winne’s argument is the idea of calibration, which refers to the monitoring of one’s ability to predict their own understanding. It is the degree to which feedback disconfirms one’s certitude in their ability to make such predictions that results in deep processing of feedback. More generally, this work suggests that one is more apt to work to resolve deficiencies in their ability to know themselves then to know an answer. In fact, the authors suggest that “calibration’’ is what’s monitored, rather than knowledge. According to Butler and Winne, the best feedback,

informs students about their monitoring of learning needs (achievement relative to goals in prior phases of engagement) and guides them in how to achieve learning objectives (cognitive engagement by applying tactics and strategies (p. 273).

So, feedback should be focused on helping students become calibrated, while simultaneously providing cues as to what types of learning strategies are likely to be most beneficial for specific learning tasks or domains. This differs from corrective feedback and questioning often employed when a student responds to a query incorrectly.

What This Means for Teachers

Feedback is effective. One need only review John Hattie’s table of effect sizes for support of its use in the classroom. However, this research points to the more complex nature of the interpretation of feedback by learners. Learners bring a set of preexisting beliefs and a history of experiences related to topics of study to the classroom. These inform they way in which students set and pursue goals. The combination of student history and goal orientations results in a unique interpretation of feedback. More importantly, internal feedback — also related to this personal history — in many ways supersedes external feedback’s ability to shape student performance.

Certainly, internal feedback alters external feedback’s effect. Awareness of this reality, and the idea that the primary goal of feedback should be to improve students’ internal “calibration’’ are the primary takeaways for the classroom instructor. Understanding each student’s history in the domain of study provides the foundation, while reflective writing tasks and short surveys might provide useful information as well. As with most tasks related to the interaction of humans, the interpretation of feedback is complex, and difficult (or at least time consuming) to do at the group level.

Comprehensive Exams Begin Today

I’ve just received four questions that I must address as the primary component of comprehensive exams at Kent State University. I have eight weeks to answer these completely, after which they will be evaluated. If I’m successful, I will then be asked to defend my responses in person.

Research Methods in Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology

One of the things that may distinguish one discipline from another is the research that is done. The research may differ in the content, in the questions asked, and in the methods used. Instructional Technology and Educational Psychology are closely related disciplines in many ways, but they are also different. Choose a topic that is likely of interest to each field. Now design two studies, one that looks at the topic from an Educational Psychology perspective and one that does so from an Instructional Technology perspective. Explain how and why the two studies are different. What do these differences imply for the two disciplines?

Cognitive Load Theory in Designing Instruction

The basics of cognitive load theory seem well-established at this point, and it appears that instruction that fails to minimize extraneous cognitive load is likely to be less effective than instruction that takes this theory into account. First, explain the theory and its application clearly and succinctly. Then go beyond it. Specifically, it is unlikely to that cognitive load is the only factor that determines what and how much people learn from instruction, multimedia, and other elements. Describe another key factor that you believe, from your reading of the literature, has important effects on learning. Now consider how those two factors may interact in instructional settings. Describe a study that would illuminate these interactions and provide practical guidance in the design of instruction. You may narrow this down to a specific type of instruction, setting, population, or other factors.

The Application of Motivation Theory to Education

Discuss the current trends in contemporary motivation theory in the context of education. Compare and contrast motivation theories, such as need for achievement, attribution theory, achievement goal theory and theories of self-regulated learning. Make certain that your discussion focuses on theoretical developments that have stemmed from correcting earlier theoretical misconstructions. In your response be sure to cite research, which discusses each theoretical perspective’s take on achievement outcomes. Present some directions for the future related to the development of motivation theories and educational practices.

Instructional Design for Maximizing the Effectiveness of Technology

Many of us think that instructional design is one of the key foundations of instructional technology in general. In the current explosion of interest in and use of technology in education and training at all levels, it often appears that the focus is almost exclusively on the technology, with relatively little attention paid to instructional design and especially to the systematic processes of ID usually used within the field. There may be many reasons for that. Discuss the barriers that exist to applying instructional design procedures to improving the effectiveness of technology in schools, universities, or companies. Describe in some detail an approach to instructional design that would help teachers and others maximize the effectiveness of technology use in education. You may choose the setting, grade level, and other contextual factors that you concentrate on here. The approach may be one that is already in the ID literature or one that you have developed (with reference to the ID and related literatures).

Leadership Values : A Self-Assessment

The following is an exercise aimed at informing oneself of their values with regards to school administration.

Identifying My Core Values of Leadership

I was to first generate a list of values that I believe “guide my behavior”. That list, constructed over breakfast a couple of days ago, is below.

  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Openness
  • Commitment
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Compassion
  • Fairness
  • Strength
  • Scholarship

Next, I was to read through a list of values and their definitions, and subsequently select my “top five values” from this list. The idea here (I think) is to force you into prioritizing. There was a total of 46 values, and while there was some redundancy built into the list, focusing on such a large number is unrealistic. My strategy (though I’m not sure I was supposed to pursue this task strategically) was to look for the most inclusive values. I then assigned the remaining values as subordinate members of the five groups identified by these “top-level” qualities. A visual representation of my work can be viewed below. Clicking on the image will load the original (PDF) file in a new window.


For the most part, the values that I originally listed showed up on the new list. Certainly, there were some items enumerated here that I had not considered originally. I’ve filled in the nodes corresponding to those items that I initially itemized. (A full-sized, unfilled in version of the chart can be obtained here.) Those qualities that did not have a counterpart are identified by the term (Added). I took some liberties, as I judged “Life-Long-Learning” and “Scholarship” to be one and the same. Similarly, “Initiative & Sense of Urgency” was deemed so close to “Commitment” that creating a new node seems unnecessary.

Identified Values Impact on My Behavior

Below I attempt to describe my values and beliefs about the people, ideas, and philosophies associated with school leadership.

  • Leadership: I value leaders who have a vision, who are calculated yet take risks if need be, and who fight/stand up for this vision if challenged. I believe that this type of leadership is hard, tough psychologically (it wears on you), and nearly impossible to recover once one has moved towards a more political position.
  • Students: I value students energy, their creativity, their compassion, and their stubbornness. I believe that students are right about school in more ways than we’d like to admit; I believe that many spend too much of their time on their own or in poor situations, and that considering these realities when engaging them in any way often determines the way in which they choose to respond.
  • Staff members: I value staff member’s dedication to their students, their willingness to take work home (grading/planning), and their openness to new ideas. I believe that it is very easy to loose one’s passion (I know that I did at times), and that becoming less passionate about teaching can be self-reinforcing. I believe that the commitment of educators, as in any other profession, varies a great deal. And, this reality is problematic (for school leaders in particular) due to the large degree to which our future is based on their performance.
  • Community building: Community building is important in that communities serve so many functions within an organization. They cultivate a feeling of togetherness; they allow individuals to feed of each other’s energy and to learn from each other. Community fights to remove the lines and divisions that so often and so easily materialize within organizations, helping return the focus to the individual and each person’s humanity, rather than their title or role.
  • Curriculum, instruction & assessment: I value the interrelatedness of these pillars of teaching and learning, as I do their product instructional design. Their value cannot be overstated. But, without a teacher’s belief in themselves, their students, and a commitment demonstrated by the dedication of time required to cause real change, they grow brittle and weak, unable to bear their hefty responsibilities.
  • Learning: I value the way in which learning opportunities arise out of the unlikeliness of circumstance, and conversely, the degree of concentration that learning often requires. I believe that learning can be implicit or explicit, that good teachers notice and act on learning opportunities as they arise, and that the best teachers learn with their students.
  • Professional Development: I value the way in which traditional professional development allows staff to congregate and work towards a common goal. I value it’s ability to generate a sense of togetherness and a staff-wide understanding of large goals / initiatives. However, I believe that large, whole-staff professional development events, by their very nature, fail to reach a significant number of staff members. And, for this reason, I believe that individualized approaches to professional development should be pursued.
  • Supervision: I value the supervisor’s ability to provide a vision and inspire an organization to meet the goals necessary to fulfill their potential. I believe that the qualities that make a good supervisor are not so different from those that make a good teacher; one must be caring, compassionate, honest, fair, and hard working. Most of all, good teachers and supervisors must be willing and able to critically assesses a multitude of variables, and subsequently act in ways that are empathetic and self-assured.
  • Communication: I value thoughtful questions, and the ability of non-verbal cues to make all the difference when two human beings converse. I believe in what Rogoff called “intersubjectivity”, or shared meaning, though sometimes I fail to live up to these lofty expectations when involved in a heated exchange. I believe that that the most difficult things are those that need to be communicated most clearly and with the most care, and that regardless of our efforts and/or intentions, there will always be times when we must apologize because we have misspoke.
  • Change: I value the ability of change to allow individuals to reinvent themselves and to encourage personal growth. I believe that change is the only constant, and that those who fight the “inertia” of change maintain a uniformly one-dimensional view of the world.

Personal Vision Statement

My school’s mission statement is worded in the following way.

Provide knowledge, skill development and experiences necessary for a lifetime of personal and professional growth.

From my perspective, there is a very real difference between a “mission” statement and a “vision” statement. A mission statement describes what we want to do. A vision statement is more about who we should be. My personal vision statement might be constructed as follows.

Public education’s future rests on its ability to harness the natural energy of the young, and the degree to which educators can cultivate a culture of collaborative participation based on openness, mutual respect, and citizenship.

It’s a bit wordy, I know.

The point is that we have to allow our students to participate/contribute in/to the online world. They know, even if it is only at the level of the subconscious, that something is wrong when school blocks out so much of the world. It’s really as simple as this: Would you rather write something for your teacher to read, or something for the entire world?

Comments and/or critiques are welcomed.

Mott & Wiley, 2009 – About that last paragraph…

January 3, 2010

I spent 3 months tutoring a middle school student during my senior year of high school, and ever since I’ve believed that the one-on-one, face-to-face environment is uniquely suited for instruction. These feelings have been reinforced, my interest piqued once more, as I have read about cognitive apprenticeship and Rogoff’s Apprenticeship in Thinking. Vygotsky, in his work Thought and Language is fairly direct in his criticism of society’s disregard for what students might be able to accomplish with others

…even the most profoundest thinkers never questioned the assumption; they never entertained the notion that what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some way more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone (p. 85).

He then instructs the reader as to the qualities of what he deems “good instruction”.

Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions (p. 188).

Here he alludes to his well known Zone of Proximal Development, and the fact that students need to be pushed just beyond what they are able to do on their own. Daniel Willingham makes a similar point early in his new book Why Don’t Students Like School.

Working on problems that are of the right level of difficulty is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant (Kindle Edition, 310).

Recently, I’ve made the point that monitoring this sort of thing in a classroom of 20-30 students requires that we classify instruction as complex in nature. My reverence for the tutoring paradigm is so great that I’ve focused my inquiries on ways of using technology to generate time for teachers and students to meet face-to-face. Today I read Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network, an article in the first edition of the open journal in education written by Jon Mott and David Wiley. They suggest that social networks might be able to replicate Bloom’s 2-Sigma Effect, which demonstrates that tutored individuals outperform their peers by +2 standard deviations. They begin with a critique of course management systems, predicated on three assertions.

  • CMSs reinforce artificial time constraints
  • CMSs are teacher-centric, as instructors control both content and direction
  • CMSs isolate students from the outside (real) world

Instead of relying so heavily on CMSs, Mott et al. suggest that universities utilize open learning networks, described as the middle ground between PLEs and CMSs. In an OLN,

faculty, students and support staff would reap the benefits of enterprise, networked software for authentication, identity management, integration with SISs, etc. Additionally, they would be able to use a vast range of Web 2.0 apps, integrated into the OLN via web services and other sorts of integrations.

I find this to be a practical, if evolutionary, suggestion. The authors’ argument that students understand that their work within the CMS environment will not be added to or viewed after their course, and that this knowledge depresses the desire to contribute is believable. There is no question that CMSs act primarily as a conduit for the transmission of content, and that teachers make the majority of the instructional decisions. Their failure, however, to acknowledge the existence synchronous/asynchronous forms of communication, collaborative writing modules (wikis), and the ability to share/comment on files, is unfortunate. However, it is their second-to-last sentence that I find most surprising. (The entire paragraph is included for context.)

While the CMS tends to reinforce the knowledge-transfer model, long deemed the best and only way to teach large groups of students, the OLN poses as an intriguing alternative. Instead of limiting ourselves to knowledge transfer, we can leverage the affordances of the web to uncover content, to help students become more than just temporarily knowledgeable about a subject. We can do so by approximating — and perhaps even surpassing — the efficacy of one-to-one learning relationships. As the tradition-preserving CMS gives way to the OLN and the learning affordances it brings with it, Bloom’s challenge may finally be met.

In general, research tells us that tutoring is not homogeneous in application (some tutoring is better than others), that the act of tutoring is beneficial (one learns as they teach), and that tutoring is a skill (it can be learned and improved upon). Yet, here – one sentence from the end of their paper – Mott & Wiley suggest that implementing OLNs will “approximate – and perhaps even surpass – the efficacy of one-to-one learning relationships”? Isn’t this a rather bold statement?

Tutoring’s ability to produce positive results might be attributed to a variety of features. From a behavioral perspective, one might point to the benefits of being able to interpret both verbal (inflection, hesitation) and non-verbal cues as a session unfolds. A cognitivist might suggest that the intimacy of the environment requires that each participant is attentive, this facilitating thought processes (activation of long-term memory, combination of new information with activated LTM in working memory). The teacher might simply say that they are able to monitor the learner’s ability and knowledge more closely and accurately. Regardless of the perspective, tutoring remains unique; a simple and uncommonly effective instructional technique, rooted in the history of the apprenticeship, but generally impractical.

As I said initially, I agree with much of what the authors have to say. I don’t like CMSs, and my vision of what online learning should be is even more liberal than what they suggest. I don’t have a answer to the 2-Sigma question. (I don’t know if there is an answer.) That doesn’t mean that replacing CMSs with OLNs is unwise, or would not be beneficial. But, introducing such a bold, unsubstantiated prognostication two lines from the end of a scholarly work serves no purpose.

Comments and/or critiques are welcomed.

The Cynefin Framework and (the Complexity of) Classroom Instruction

Classroom instruction is complex but do we treat it as such? Is “sensing” a priority of teacher education? How would an instructor who waits for “patterns to emerge” be viewed by their supervisor? As laid back? Aloof? And does outcome-based education (unintentionally) result in educators treating complex situations as complicated, or worse yet, simple in nature? These questions find their origins in the work of David Snowden and Mary Boone, as they apply the principles of Snowden’s Cynefin Framework to leadership in the 2007 Harvard Business Review article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.

Rather than summarize Snowden & Boone’s application textually, I’ve generated a graphical representation. Clicking on this smaller image will produce the full-sized document.


Initially, my interest in this article was peaked by a blog posting of David Clark in his series of writings aimed at describing how the tenets of Agile software development can be applied as a system of instructional design. The HBR article had the added advantage of using this framework as a lens from which to view leadership, a topic of focus for me now as I begin supervising staff at my school. However, its application to the classroom teacher is intriguing.

Aren’t teachers really classroom leaders, or leaders within a complex educational / instructional setting? David Williamson Shaffer, in his 2004 TCR article Pedagogical Praxis: The Professions as Models for Postindustrial Education states the following.

We know a great deal about some of the epistemological and pedagogical underpinnings of compelling learning environments. However, orchestrating these elements into a coherent whole remains a challenge (p. 1417).

Shaffer suggests that professions have unique epistemologies, or “ways of knowing”, and thus have the potential to be used as models for instruction. Daniel Willingham, in his new book Why Don’t Students Like School?, alludes to the complexity of the educational setting as well as he explains the disconnect between controlled experimental studies and the classroom.

But mental processes are not isolated in the classroom. They all operate simultaneously, and they often interact in difficult-to-predict ways (Kindle edition, Location 126).

Marzano et al., in their work Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement discuss nine categories of instructional strategies.

  • Identifying Similarities and Differences
  • Summarizing and Note Taking
  • Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
  • Homework and Practice
  • Nonlinguistic Representations
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
  • Generating and Testing Hypotheses
  • Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers

Throughout this work, the presented strategies are also (necessarily) related to content and instructional situation. Doesn’t this make instructional choices more complex? If we agree with Willingham, who differs from Marzana et al. in this regard, there’s another layer of complexity that must be superimposed onto the extant relationships between content and strategy, topic specific ability. He contends that we must present problems to learners that fall within a specific range, not too tough (which causes despair), or too easy (no satisfaction, nor release of dopamine), but just right. (Goldilocks analogies are welcome.)

Thus, we will seek out opportunities to think, but we are selective in doing so; we choose problems that pose some challenge but that seem likely to be solvable, because these are the problems that lead to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction (Kindle edition, Location 400).

At this point, I’ve identified several variables that must be considered by a teacher as they teach.

  • What needs to be taught
  • What has been taught
  • What is to be taught in the future
  • Individual abilities of students with regards to content
  • Individual abilities / preferences of students related to instructional strategies
  • Situation / relation between content and potential strategies (what “fits” best)

But there is another, most important factor, life outside of the classroom. What happens beyond the classroom walls, in other classes, and more significantly outside of school, affects each learner. The combination of these variables supports the idea that classrooms should be classified as “complex” with the Cynefin Framework. If we review the traits of “Complex” systems, it is clear that often times there is “no right answer” in terms of instructional choices, that classrooms are “systems in constant flux”, and that the “ability to understand” (from the teacher’s perspective) comes after class has been dismissed.

The ability to work within this complex system (the classroom) is typically part of the teacher observation process. For example, Domain 3e in Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching is entitled Demonstrating Flexibility and Responsiveness, and includes the elements Lesson adjustment, Response to students, and Persistence. However, outcomes are the focus of this work, not the manner in which those outcomes are reached. Admittedly, factors such as rapport and teacher-student interactions are also part of these assessments, and these might be considered constituents of “probing”. However, the emergence / identification of patterns is not addressed in any meaningful way.

Is there a need, then, to construct a formalized framework / structure for “probing” and “sensing (for emergent patterns)” specific to the classroom? Is this something teachers need to know how to do? Would familiarity with the tenets of the Cynefin framework lead to more effective instruction through appropriate responses to the different categories of complexity manifest within that setting?

Comments and/or critiques are welcomed.