Applying deliberate practice to online learning using a learning diary?

Today’s post is about using a learning diary to promote something like deliberate practice for (online) learning. Probably the biggest problem of my online teaching last year was not getting (soliciting?) enough feedback from my students. The only students who ended up ever really communicating with me were the few overachievers who had already had previous experience with the main learning goal of the class, i.e. SQL databases. At the very end of term, ergo after the semester and after I could make any changes, I received feedback from some students new to Digital Humanities that I had been going at a pace which was too fast for them. They were lacking certain information they needed from me to fully engage with the material. However, nobody told me as the class went along (and as you might imagine from knowing some of my teaching materials, I tend to provide very detailed info – so I assumed we were good in that department). This term I want to do better which is why I came prepared.

At the beginning of the term, we are still teaching on campus. Which is nice because I actually get to remember a face for many the students I have been teaching since last March. It also means that the problems I encountered during the summer term might not even apply (that is, if things stay on-site). I don’t think I’ve had feedback and pacing problems with “normal” teaching before. I have created all my detailed teaching materials because I realized students often need more material than somebody who already knows the material would think. But since the pandemic is likely to strike back – and probably sooner than expected or hoped for – I decided to put a new system in place. I’m offering my students to keep a learning diary for the classes they might struggle with. I’m not enforcing it, so if they think it’s stupid, they don’t need to do it.

Introducing deliberate practice

As some of my regular readers might be aware of, I’m fond of the idea of deliberate practice (and have been promising for a long time to finally do a book review of K. Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Penguin: London 2016). It means, in short, that in order to improve at anything at a fast rate, you need to practice deliberately. To do that…

  1. you need to know what skills you need to succeed,
  2. you need a way to measure your progress
  3. and you need to identify your weaknesses so you can tackle them directly.

So I thought: How can I get students to learn at least a bit more like deliberate practice without a lot of additional effort? My reasoning was that if they write a short learning diary, answering four questions after each lesson (and reviewing them prior to the next lession while thinking “What did I learn last week?”) should prime their brain for more effective learning. At least I hope so anyway. If they’re not into it, we won’t have a way of testing this hypothesis. Altough if you, dear reader, are trying to learn a skill and are willing to give this learning diary method a go, please so let me know how it goes for you.

Writing prompts for a learning diary

The questions to ask are the following (and why to ask them):

  1. What did I do well today? This is for cheering yourself on when things get hard and putting you in a growth mindset by focusing on your successes.
  2. What have I learned today? This is for recapping what you remember from the class (very briefly) so you know at a glance by looking at your diary what the previous week’s material was. This helps prep your brain before the next class.
  3. I still need to work on… This is for identifying something you need to focus on in order to achieve something like deliberate practice. If you aren’t aware of what you need to work on, there is no way you can learn effectively. If there’s really nothing in one week, that’s great. But most weeks, there probably is something you can do to improve (especially as keeping a learning diary makes the most sense for a subject that you’re likely to struggle with in one way or another).
  4. To do this, I need… This is a place for students to either identify the next actionable steps to get started practicing (like read up on the topic, find a Youtube tutorial, etc.) but also to fill out the anonymous feedback form I provide that’s always open – so that this time I will get the feedback as soon as intervention is needed and not just at the end of term.

Cheer yourself on to stay motivated

I also suggest you get yourself a cheer / rant / homework buddy: It’s always easier if you can talk to another student, ask them for help and see that you’re not the only one struggeling at times. This is more difficult in times of online learning but apps like Studo (which allows students to chat about classes amongst themselves) aren’t the same as having a buddy you trust. You won’t open up fully or might be afraid to be vulnerable by showing that you struggle.

In any case, my template has a field for cheering yourself on because I have just read the new Mel Robbins book (The High Five Habit) which encourages you to cheer yourself on as much as you cheer others on and to focus on your successes rather than putting yourself down. I’ve also had the experience during my recent surfing holiday that in a physical sport, you automatically cheer each other on and that’s a great way of getting though the sticky patches (reflections on teaching learned from surfing will follow shortly). It’s so much harder to keep going when the going gets tough when you don’t have anybody to cheer you on.

Explore what you struggle with to identify and eliminate your weakneses

Another important feature of the learning diary prompts is that you’re encouraged to explore what you struggle with. An important aspect of deliberate practice is that it involves challenge and being truly challenged is seldom fun. That’s why we’re not all experts at our hobbies. Effective learning is hard work. (You can read up on Anderson’s advice for how to pull it off and how to stay motivated in the book mentioned above or my upcoming book review). As we know from the growth mindset versus fixed mindset blogpost, if you see challenge and mistakes as a bad thing, you will never truly learn.

Don’t write too much – rather make it a habit to check on your progress more often

Of course, I made a template which students can fill out for each session (the template isn’t anything special, so I won’t share it publicly – you can make your own if you like!). I personally left only enough room for the students to write one sentence maximum but feel free to write more if you want (probably a good idea with an especially taxing class or when learning to program for the first time). But don’t overdo it because the more effort it is, the less likely you are to make it a habit and keep doing it after the first week. If you plan/want to write more, maybe you don’t actually need a template and a bullet journal style setup would work better for you.

That’s it for today – hopefully this helps someone!

Best,

the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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