How does the adult brain learn and why understanding these nuances helps us teach and learn more effectively. Featuring an interview with Dr. Allison Friederichs, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at University of Denver's University College. Dr. Friederichs not only provides clarification around the complexities specific to adult learning but also shares a number of easy, actionable tips to enhance the learning experience.
So if we care, that learning is actually taking place and we really kind of have to understand that the adult brain is different and that tapping into that prior experience is really is really the key.Cindy Cragg:
That is Dr Allison Friederichs, our guest for the first episode of the ElevatED podcast. I thought it only made sense to kick the podcast off by getting some clarification around how the adult brain learns and why it is important for both educators and adult learners to understand these nuances. I tracked down Dr Friederichs, which was surprisingly difficult to do given the proximity of her office to mind. Welcome to elevate Ed. This is a space for conversations around elevating teaching practices and applied learning for nontraditional students from the mile high city of Denver, Colorado. This podcast is brought to you by the University of Denver's college for Professional and Continuing Education, University College where adult learners have been pursuing career focused credentials since 1938.Cindy:
I am thrilled to be launching the first episode of the elevated podcast with Dr Allison Friederichs. Dr Alison Fredericks is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Teaching professor here at University College. She's been teaching communication courses for 17 years and also is actively engaged in research and regularly speaks on topics related to how the adult brain learns and the implications of that knowledge on teaching and training. And that is what we are talking about today. So with that, can you just give us some context and a bit of an overview about how is the adult brain different than any other brain when it comes to learning lately?Dr. Allison:
So some of our listeners may be familiar with Malcolm Knowles. He's widely considered the father of Andragogy, which is the field of teaching adults. Essentially. There are six principles of Andragogy, but Andragogy as a theory can be summed up, I like to say in five essential words and that is adults learn differently than children. And the reason is because of the adult brain is different than a child's brain, of course. And, therefore, it learns differently. And that's not to say that the brain is structured differently. That's not necessarily the case, but the main differentiator is that adults have a wealth of experience to draw on when they're learning that children don't have. That wealth of experience or what we call prior experience or prior knowledge, sometimes that is the key for learning to take place for adults and for anyone who is teaching or training adults tapping into that prior experience is the key to ensuring that learning is actually taking place. Whenever I do teach or train on this topic, one of the first things that I usually ask my audience is how many of you in here actually care that your students learn something? Usually everyone raises their hand, right? And I get a wave of gentle laughter. Because, of course, most people are like, well, of course I care. That's why I'm doing this! So if we care that learning is actually taking place and we really kind of have to understand that the adult brain is different and that tapping into that prior experience is really, is really the key. There are some other distinguishers about adult learning that one could still connect to the brain. So for example, Knowles's tenants, if you will, has six principles which include things like adults really need to understand the reason for their learning something. Whereas, again, children don't necessarily need to understand why they're learning something. They just know, this is what I do. I go to school and I learned things from people who know more than me. But adults question that. Adults ask, but why do I need to know this?Cindy Cragg:
So is it accurate to say that all that context and those experiences almost muddies or complicates our learning process?Dr. Allison:
That's a great question. Does it muddy? I don't think that it muddies our ability to learn that is if I'm in the learning position, if I'm the student, it actually helps me learn if the person doing the teaching or training can effectively tap into that prior experience. That's the key. And that's really the magic bullet, if you will. When that happens then real magic occurs. So it can muddy the waters when the connection to prior experience isn't being made. So, for example, if you're teaching and you introduce a new concept related to marketing. What's something related to the courses that you teach?Cindy Cragg:
How about"optimization."Dr. Allison:
Okay. There you go. That's a great example cause I have no idea really what that is. At least not in the context of marketing. So, my mind immediately goes to what I do know about optimization based on all of my prior experience and prior learning. Now, that may or may not have anything to do with the way you are using the term optimization. And so it's incumbent upon you that person trying to teach me what this term means in your context to figure out what do I already know about this term? And then how can you connect your new knowledge to my existing knowledge. If you can't do that, then that's where things get muddied. And, they can be even more muddied by the fact that sometimes our prior experiences are so incredibly unique. So you may have one student for example, who you, who hears the term optimization and has had such a strange experience with that term. Like maybe they worked for a company that used the term in this really pejorative way, right? And so their mind immediately just goes to this negative, horrible experience and it's hard to get them out of that mindset and to think about that. And yet we must, in order for learning to take place, right? So as you say this, I'm thinking that the role of the teacher educator instructor just got exponentially more complicated. So we've just kind of ratcheted up what we are as educators responsible for doing, trying to suss out, you know, if we have 30 people in a room virtual or in real life and we're trying to teach this thing and we are also feeling like it's incumbent on us to suss out from each individual person how we can make that connection. Help us, help us understand how to do that. Absolutely. Yes. I think it is common for people to initially experienced a sense of trepidation around, Whoa, you're telling me that I have to figure out what every single one of my students thinks when I say the word optimization before I even explained what it means. Right, and that is in a way what I'm saying. However, I definitely can offer some tips for ways to do that with a group of students and make it more effective. Okay. Make it more likely that you will hit upon your learners prior experiences and connect your new knowledge to their knowledge. Before I do that, let me backtrack just a little bit to share. I don't think that I'm offering any new information. When I say that at least for people who typically teach or train adults or what we university college refer to as post-traditional learners. And I prefer the term post traditional because they're no longer non traditional. In fact, yes, adult learners are the majority learner in the United States now. So for me that's pretty, that's not non traditional. Right. So post traditional, anyone who teaches and trains post-traditional learners pretty much knows by now that standing in front of a group of students and whether it word it's online and recording a 20, 30, 40 minute lecture and just talking at them is not successful. I don't think that I'm necessarily blowing the doors off. And when I say that, no, I think it is safe to say that anyone listening as at least had the thought that maybe that way of teaching is not considered the most effective. You always heard it from someone besides even if they are not able to yet embrace it. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. One, uh, piece of information I can offer just if there are any folks who are still hanging onto that idea. We do know from lots of research that lecturing actually forces a person's brain to stay at lower levels of cognitive development. It essentially flatlines the brain. So we know from looking at brain based research that lecturing to students does not engage them and if they're not engaged, they're not learning. So that's a great thing to remember that if they look like they're checking out, it's because their brain actually is checking out. Those non-verbals are telling you the whole everything you need to know. So what, what do we do about this? How can we then connect with our learners prior experience as well? There are lots of ways and I'm going to start with the simplest one and it is very simply to ask them. We know that there are ways to engage synchronously online or you can do this asynchronously as well. Simply ask them, when I say the term optimization, to use our earlier example, what comes up for you? What's the first thing you think about? Tell me what that term means to you or tell me a story that it calls to mind for you. And then you just listen for what they offer and then make those connections. So if a student, let's say Damien says, well, when I hear optimization, you know, I think of, making something the best it can be, then you are able to grab onto what Damien has just said and say, absolutely you're exactly correct and let's build on that to, you know, make this definition more robust in this particular context. And now let's add to it. And adding to existing concepts and experience is a wonderful way then to have the student learn. It's much easier to add to something they already think than to tell a student. Like, let's say someone says to you, well for me, optimization is a bad thing. Why would we ever want to optimize anything? Cause it, I don't know, creates more work for people. Right. And you might say, well no, that's not true. And here's why. You're actually not helping the student in that moment. Because telling a student, no, the way you're thinking is wrong, doesn't make them stop thinking yet. They still think it, but now you've just shuts down the learning. I would think to a certain degree it can because now you've just essentially said you're wrong. Stop being wrong. Be right like me. And you know, it doesn't necessarily feel good. And the other interesting thing to think about is if you think about the way that our brain is actually structured, any time we learn something new, it creates a new neuronal pathway. Well, of course our brain has billions and billions of these neuronal pathways and in fact, our capacity to grow more neuronal pathways as far as science can tell is limitless. Very encouraging, right? I often find when I teach and train older adults that this is encouraging for them as well because it's absolutely a myth that our brain cannot continue to grow more neurons as we get older. That's a total myth. As long as we continue to engage our brain and knowledge and activity, our brain stays what's called plastic and seeds still has plasticity and can grow more neurons. So the way it works though is if you're talking about an existing neuronal pathway that a student already has, right? And this, this concept of what optimization is, is an existing neuronal pathway for you to say, no, don't take that pathway actually only makes the pathway stronger. If you think about a literal path that you're taking, like you hike when you're hiking and you're on a path, what happens if, if someone says don't go down that path, go down the other path, but you still have to go back down the wrong path to get to the other one, right? So you're actually just making another groove in an already existing path. Okay? The best thing you can do is try to find out where they are and build on that. Or you can even reroute, but you can't eradicate an existing notion. And this you've written about the brain being like cubbies, like in kindergarten and this sort of fits along. We ended this, this notion that you're best served by adding to what is already in a cubby. I'm sure most people remember, we all had some version of cubbies. If you think about it though, our brain has hundreds of thousands and billions of cubbies. And inside each of those cubbies is some experience or some piece of knowledge that we have had in our lives. And so anytime we experience a new stimulus, our brain seeks all it searches. If you are scans of those cubbies and it says, how is this thing that's now coming in? How is this stimulus like what I already know? That is like something that's in one of these cubbies. Now if it finds a connection, if it says, Oh Yep, this reminds me of this thing in cubby number 478 right? And I'm making that connection. Who, who am I as the instructor to say, no, the connection you just made is wrong. Too late. Already made it right. So, so that connection is made, but it's a wonderful thing that that's what our brain does. Now, if it doesn't find a connection, then what happens is that it will process that stimulus with a low signal and likely not be able to make a connection at all. So that's when you really get students who may react with the look of befuddlement and say, I have no idea. I've never heard this term at all. So I can't connect it to anything. So that leads me to a second tip. One is that you can certainly just ask your students directly. So what does this make you think of? Um, the other is that you can open the floor to all of the students, you know? So if Damien says to you, well, I don't know, I'm, I'm really unfamiliar with this term, it doesn't really make me think of anything. Then, you know, you can say, okay, so Louise, how about you? What does it make you think of? And Louise may have a connection or a way of explaining it that you wouldn't have even thought of as the teacher. Louise might say, well, for me or minds me of this time when I was, you know, in my job just last week and I did this, and then Damien, he goes, Oh, I've done that. Right? And so all of a sudden now you're sort of crowdsourcing.Cindy Cragg:
This ability to connect the new information to something that is in your students already. And I love that. And of course, again, that engages your students even more because now they're engaged in this learning, this learning and the community of learning, which I think is such a great concept and can be so powerful. You also mentioned in the article that you wrote for UPCEA's Unbound, you mentioned the University of Oregon's Robert Sylvester and his research on how our brains pull seemingly disjointed or random information together in a unified way. And he likens it to a jazz quartet, which I thought was very interesting as you briefly unpacked that a little bit in your article. And so going from this cubby idea to then all of a sudden things coming together from individual places and in this disjointed way to make this beautiful sound, so to speak.Dr. Allison:
How does that happen? How does that happen? A wonderful question. Yeah. And actually I'll say that how that happens in a really kind of leads me into another tip or strategy that I have for our listeners in terms of how to make that connection to prior experience. Well, and let me back up and say a little bit more about the jazz analogy, which I love. Oh, and we need to talk about analogies to that. Okay. That's a neck. That's another tip we need to get to all. Alright. But the jazz analogy is great because, um, you know, there are a lot of people who hear jazz and think, oh, it's beautiful. And there are a lot of people who hear jazz and think that sounds like a bunch of noise. Right? And it feels really discordant. And whether or not you like it is not really the point of the analogy, but the, but the point is that there are these discordance sounds right from the trumpet, from the snare drum that don't necessarily relate to one another organically or logically. And yet they come together to produce a congruent sound, which is the jazz song. And that is exactly how our brain functions. And what I mean by that is that, um, our brain produces a more congruent image when it is presented with different types of stimuli. And that is the second tip is to use lots of different kinds of stimuli. When you're teaching. It's called creating an enriched environment. And an enriched environment just means exactly that. It means I'm using lots of different kinds of stimuli. So yes, asking questions, engaging my students as one. I might also ask them to. Um, uh, here's a great example. I often ask students to create mind maps. So once we've covered a few concepts and I want to see how are you linking these concepts together in your own mind? I'll ask them to create a mind map so they can visually demonstrate how they're, you know, conceiving of the connection of all of these concepts together. And they'll all be different because that's how the brain works because I'm going to link it to different experiences. Sure. And someone else. So you can use a multitudes of, of stimuli. You can use music, poetry, sounds, colors, analogies is a great one. Stories, parables, metaphors, engaging students in different ways in you yourself using different stimuli, visual as well as auditory and kinesthetic whenever possible. You know, we don't tend to use it as much with adult learners, but adults love to play with things just as much as students or kids are using all of those different ways creates an enriched environment. And again, the way that the brain works is that if I'm able to engage with different types of stimulate different modes, then I'm more likely to build a more robust understanding of that particular concept. So if you just explain it to me, I might get it. But if you then tell me a story of how that concept has actually been utilized, oh, now I have an even more robust understanding. And then if you can show me a picture or have me talk to someone who has also utilized it, right? So any and all of those things, right? Um, rhymes are fantastic songs, right? And think about how many songs, you still remember absolutely many, many that's, and that, and the reason they're still there is that those things have lasting memory effects, right? Um, because typically you not only heard the song, but you yourself sang it, you heard other people sing it. Maybe you saw it written, maybe you saw the sheet music, right? So you engaged in that song in a multitude of different kinds of stimuli, which is why you still remember it. So the more that we can create an enriched environment, the more likely we are then to create a robust understanding of a concept. And so you're more likely to tap into a student's prior experience by using those multiple stimuli. So if you think about it, if I, um, you know, show a picture of a concept or I just talk about the concept, but then I can tell a story about it, I'm, I'm much more likely to tap into the learner's prior experience by doing both of those things. And if I only did one and if I can sing a song about it and then even I'll remember it 20 years from now. Absolutely. I, so I, it is not unusual as a matter of fact for me to engage my students in creating songs or jingles in rhymes around concepts that they're struggling with. And I very often hear, um, from them, you know, much like that's the one thing they remember. They've never forgotten it. Yeah, it is. I, I that for me and I'll, and I'll say I'm around enriched environments, the probably the most common question I get is, okay, I can see how I can create an enriched environment when I'm teaching on campus or training in person. But how do you do that online? And it's a totally valid question because certainly it's more, it's more challenging, right? Of course it is. You can't, um, well you feel so much more disconnected the students from the instructor, instructor from the students. Exactly. And you just have to get a little bit more creative. So for example, if I will, you know, if I'm teaching on campus and I want to bring in some things in my classroom to have them engage, um, you know, kinesthetically with something or, uh, even with smell, for example, that can be very powerful. But instead of the onus being on you as the instructor to bring those things to the student, you could still, if you're teaching online, ask your students to go get those things. So, you know, for example, if I'm just gonna choose a strange random thing, um, let's say I was teaching environmental studies and I wanted to bring in different kinds of leaves and plants and I dunno, Tree Bark, you can tell that's not what I teach. I would bring those things in. If I were teaching on campus, I would do it myself. But there's no reason I couldn't just go ask my students to go do those things on their own and use their smartphone to record it. Sure. Right. And so, Hey, I found this plant and this tree and I'm smelling it, I'm touching it, I'm feeling it. And then they recorded and posted onto our class discussion board. Okay. They can still record videos and tell stories rather than just typing. Um, they can still draw my map and then take a picture of it. Or they can do a video walk through their mind that do a video tour. Yeah. Or even use technology tools such as, you know, pick, do chart. Sure. To create an as a geographic. Yeah. There are lots of different ways that we can engage our students in, um, going out and doing things other than, you know, sitting passively and either watching a video and not that there's anything wrong with videos but you know, just the video or just your lecture or text, um, or a discussion board, you know, typically isn't going to create as much of an enriched environment if you ask them to get up out of their seat and go do something. Um, and then, you know, record it posted, that kind of thing. So really being creative so we can absolutely still do those things online. And it makes me think of also the reporting back and, and kind of teaching what you've learned to somebody else, which I think would also fall into the category of creating an enriched environment. Absolutely. Having students teach concepts versus having the instructor teach them is a really powerful way to cement a learning. Um, the reason for that is if the instructor asks the student to teach a concept versus just learn the concept, then what you're doing is you're creating something called longterm potentiation, which is basically a process that happens in the brain, um, that the cements learning by engaging with a concept more deeply and more with more complexity than if you just learned it. Now, if you ask students to do that, um, within one class, that's great. And that cements learning. If you ask them to do this across classes and across an entire program so that each time they engage with a concept, it gets more complex every time. That's an even stronger way to create true longterm potentiation. And then you are ensuring that they'll likely know that concept for a long time, if not forever. So the more you can get a student to engage with the concept, again in those varied in different ways, you're increasing not only the likelihood that they learn it to begin with via the university environment, but also the likelihood that they're in that the brain is creating that LTP, that longterm potentiation, which will cement the learning. And give it a permanent cubby. I love that idea. I'm not really sure in terms of curriculum development how challenging that would be to try and make that execute on that. Right. But you know, it's fun challenge to think about it is I, you know, I suspect that most, um, well I certainly know at university college that, um, are academic directors yourself being one. Um, you might not be thinking of it in those terms, but I do know that we actually do that. Right? So we, when we're doing our course development and our development, we think a lot about making sure that students are being exposed to the same vernacular and the same terminology and the same right throughout their program and applying those skills and concepts in more complex manners as they proceed through the program. Absolutely. We just have, you know, we don't typically talk about it in terms of creating longterm potentiation and it's also sometimes referred to as creating a spiraled curriculum as a, but just because we don't use those terms doesn't mean it's not happening. So you can rest easy.Cindy Cragg:
Well you have definitely sprinkled some takeaways, uh, threw out the time that you've been giving us tips and things to think about. Are there, are there two or three things that come to mind that maybe are practices that you either regularly use or you find yourself commonly recommending to other people that are sort of your, your go to of like, okay, if you can implement these things or try and embrace these concepts, this will really improve the impactfulness of the teaching and learning experience? Yeah, that's a great question. I think that the first one that I'll share and I, it's the one I mentioned earlier that I wanted to come back to and it because it's so easy to do is to use analogies. And when I say analogies, I'm using that term really loosely to say use metaphors, similes, stories, parables, things like that.Dr. Allison:
Analogies are wonderful tools for connecting to prior experience because they allow the student to make the connection in their own way, not in the way that I think they should make them. And I'll give you an example. When I teach conflict, which is by the way, not at all fun to do, but very fun to teach. It's really fun to talk about conflict for some reason. Um, but when I teach conflicts, rather than giving my students a textbook definition of conflict, which I could do, you know, conflict is an express struggle between two interdependent parties based on scarce resources. Some for sounds like you've said that before. Yes. And not very exciting, right? So instead I ask my students, and when I say use analogies, I either we can use them as instructors and we can ask our students to create them. So, um, I say to my students, I want you to finish this metaphor or this simile. And I write on the board, or again, I do this online is very easy to just use a PowerPoint slide. Conflict is dot, dot, dot or conflict is like dot, dot, dot. And I asked them to just complete that with their own simile or metaphor and, you know, resist the temptation to just give me an adjective. Like conflict is hard, but I really want a simile or metaphor. And so, um, I've gotten some really wonderful examples over the years from my students. Two of my favorite, so I'll share really quickly. One is, um, which I've never forgotten. That conflict is like two bald men fighting over a comb. And then the second one is that I've always remembered, conflict is like a rap battle where I'm up against Eminem. And so what I love about those is that right away I have an immediate sense of what these two students think about conflict and how they approach conflict. Right. The first person, um, it's like two bald men fighting over a comb. That person obviously sees conflict as really pointless. Yeah. No one is ever going to win. Yeah. Right. And I know that just from that, um, for in this case it was a similarly, um, that they created. And then again with the rat battle being up against Emenim, I know that this person finds conflict overwhelming, something that is win lose and that they're likely to lose. So I immediately glean so much about how they view the concept of conflict. Just from asking them to create those analogies. That's incredible. It can be really powerful for us to use them and for them to use them. And when we tell stories, um, and share examples, those also count. Those are very helpful for connecting to prior experiences.Cindy Cragg:
So when they share those do you pull them all together into one PowerPoint presentation that you send out or pull all the slides together so that everybody can see everybody's analogy or simile or metaphor?Dr. Allison:
That's a great question. When we do it on campus, I just write them all on the whiteboard. I actually ask them to do is first share their similar metaphor but not tell me why they wrote it. Just share it. And then as a group we start to make sense of them a little bit. So what does this one tell you? What does that one tell you? You know, cause I would think that would be really powerful for everybody else to see the interpretation of their peers. Exactly. And not everyone has the same interpretation even. And that's okay too. Yeah. When I do it online, I just do it as a Wiki page. Okay. So add your own to this Wiki page and then we do, um, either a, an, uh, written chat discussion or we use a tool here at university college called Flipgrid, which allows students to engage in an asynchronous discussion, but it's video, it's really tool. And so then we just do that to discuss that, what they've shared on the wiki pages and you probably get some really fun responses. Great Way to create a connection and bonding within the students in the class is, and it gets them excited for what's to come. Now they're engaged in learning. Cause this usually happens pretty early in the class. So now they're engaged in like thinking, oh this class is going to be fun. Yeah. Right. So yeah. So analogies are definitely a tip that I will highly recommend. Another, um, a, again, I, I've said this, but I want to repeat it because it's a Gotu is just to ask questions, ask lots and lots of questions of your students. Where are you, what do you know about this? What connections are you making? Um, you know, and sometimes it's okay to say what's missing, what, you know, how am I not connected? That can also be very telling. Um, we can do pre-assessments by the way. It doesn't always have to just be in the moment. So, hey, we're getting, you know, here's what this class is about. What do you know about it? Or here's what this unit is about. What do you know about it? So now you know ahead of time going in that you can, um, try to meet your learners where they are. And that's really what this is about is meeting your learners where they are instead of necessarily trying to just get them to come to you. So just, I'm a big fan of, of asking questions. Well, and I think a lot of times I'm particularly for those, the teach more online. Well, I, maybe this is true in, in both online and on campus, but you know, uh, particularly for people who teach more online, I think in the discussion threads there's a lot of making sure that you're bringing the information that you want everybody to learn to the table and that it might be easy to lose sight of that, that idea of drawing out from your students what they're thinking and how they're feeling about what they're learning. Absolutely. That's a fantastic point and I think it's probably one of the hardest things for, um, instructors, teachers, trainers to let go of is this notion of, well, but wait a minute. I've got, you know, these 20 concepts that I have to cover this yes, module, this term, this week, whatever the case may be. And if I don't do that, you know, I've failed as an instructor. But the truth is that, you know, simply throwing out all of these terms and concepts doesn't make learning take place. If the connection isn't being made, then they're not learning the concepts that you're so ardently trying to get them. Sure. Get in front of them. And so would you rather make a stronger impact with 10 of the concepts or throw 20 of them out there and have it be the equivalent of throwing yogurt at the wall? And so that's, that's the thing that I try really hard to get across to to to people is that, um, for me it's about quality, not quantity because quantity isn't effective when it comes to learning. Right? Right. And think about this, when you crammed four exams in college, how much of that, do you still remember? Yeah, absolutely. No, no, not right if you're letting your brain the second you walked out of that classroom. Right. And that's exactly what we still sometimes do when we teach. It's the equivalent of, you know, teacher cramming and it isn't effective. Reverse cramming, reverse cramming, something like that. So, uh, yeah. And so actually it's funny, I love this question cause I think it relates to my third tip and I hope this one isn't to a nebulous, but my third tip is just try something new. Just take a baby step. You know, if, if you've been teaching online and you're a little hesitant to, you know, move outside of just doing a discussion board and a videotaped lecture, just try one thing, ask your students to, you know, go out and, um, for example, engage in a conversation with a colleague about a concept and then, and then talk about that conversation on the discussion thread, um, posted video on the discussion thread. Ask them to do a mind map, whatever it is, just take one baby step and try something new. And I think that, you know, people will be really pleased with the results when they try these ways to make sure that that connection to prior experiences really, really be made. Great suggestions, great tips, great insights and input.