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Conversation #49: Robert Duke on Optimizing Student Learning

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Robert Duke

A conversation with Dr. Robert Duke of UT-Austin, on optimizing student learning.

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Coston: Hello and welcome to the teaching, learning and everything else podcast. I am Tierra Coston and today I speaking with Dr. Robert Duke. Dr. Duke is a Marlene and Morton Meyerson Centennial Professor and head of Music and Human Learning at The University of Texas at Austin, where is the university’s distinguished teaching professor,  Elizabeth Shatto Massey Distinguished Fellow in Teacher Education, and Director of the Center for Music Learning. A recipient of the keyboard pedagogy award. He is a clinical professor in the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas and the director of the psychology of learning program at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. Dr. Duke’s research on human learning and behavior spans multiple disciplines, including motor skill learning, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. His most recent work explores the refinement of procedural memories and the analysis of visual gaze in teacher-learner interactions. A former studio musician and public school music teacher, he has worked closely with children at-risk, both in the public schools and through the juvenile justice system. He is the author of Scribe 4 behavior analysis software, and his most recent books are Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction, The Habits of Musicianship, which he co-authored with Jim Byo of Louisiana State University, and Brain Briefs, which he co-authored with Art Markman, his co-host on the public radio program and podcast Two Guys on Your Head (link is external), produced by KUT Radio in Austin. Thank you for speaking with us today Dr. Duke.

Duke: Thank you for allowing me to be here.

Coston: So just from listening to that background, you have such a wide background and a wide variety of experiences. How did you come into higher education?

Duke: By accident actually. I had imagined when I was young that I was going to be a musician. And a lot of unexpected circumstances led me to think differently about the possibilities in my life. I had originally gone to college thinking I was going to be an attorney and go to law school which made my dad very happy. And so when I told my dad I wanted to be a music teacher he was less happy. But I found that even throughout my music studies, I was still curious to find out how people developed certain skills and how their memories formed, and how they refine skills over a period of time. And that led me to start investigating into other areas of interest. And I was very fortunate to be at Florida State University that has a music therapy program that put me in touch with a lot more principles of psychology and other faculty members who were studying how people’s minds work, how we learn, and how we develop those skills. So that’s what inspired me and kept me pursuing in a way. Even when I went back for my degree, I still wasn’t sure I was going to go into higher education but the experiences that I had were so positive and I enjoyed teaching so much that it seemed like a natural course.

Coston: Okay. So, so much of your work focuses on how people learn and how memories form. How does that form what happens in your classroom and how you teach.

Duke: I think that’s a great question because like most beginning teachers, I though the most effective way was to explain it to them really well. And like many people, I counted a lot  on my ability to provide many lucid explanation as a way to help other people understand the things that they need to learn. What I quickly discovered that that was not exactly the most effective way. Because I was doing most of the work and my students were doing most of the listening and following my instructions and pretty much repeating things I had showed them. And as we talked about during my discussion today on the Xavier campus, it’s possible to do all of this as a learner and still not understand what you are doing. So it caused me to shift my thinking more than a little bit to imagine what kinds of things I could do both in and out of class that would force them into situations they might initially find confusing, but strategically so that the situations they have aren’t confusing to the point where they can’t function but they were optimized to maneuver their way through those problems and come to a conclusion on their own.  

Coston: Can you provide an example of that, maybe something you did a certain way when you first started teaching as opposed to when you progressed and learned more.

Duke: I taught a course throughout my time in Texas on human learning and behaviour for undergraduates who will be going into careers as teachers. And I did a lot of explaining about the factors that influence the behaviours of human beings. And one of the challenges of teaching a class like that is because all of my students themselves are human beings, for the most part worked pretty well for them but when you become a teacher, there are several hundred people that are thrust into your life and most of them are not anything like you or your friends. So now you have a whole new population to work with and help in learning the things that you are in charge of teaching them. And I found that explaining things very clearly to my students about environmental contingencies and what things might lead to certain kind of decisions and action as human beings. And as soon as a start asking them to operate in scenarios that I create for them, I found that all the things that I explained clearly to them, they could recite back to me, but they were not able to apply these situations to themselves. So what I recognize later that I need to do much less explaining before I create a situation for students to be in even though they might not know what they are doing. We sort of operate under this idea that a teacher explains something really clearly, the student has this self perception that they understand what the teacher us saying, them the students knows it, the teacher is successful and we can move on. But I found that the best indicator on well I have explained something to a student and how well the student knows is by asking them to do things that I have not explicitly showed them how to do. Now that has challenges to because students are worried about how they are going to look and how they are going to be evaluated when doing certain things because they take comfort in the fact that they are going to be asked to show me what I just shown you, and if you do it just as well as I’ve done it, then you get a good grade. But I find we need to pull that away, especially from high achieving students, and say I’m going to ask you to do things you have never done so that both you and I have a understanding based on how well you can apply what you learned to this situation. And if you do that only when students are going to be graded, it’s a terribly threatening, unhappy, insecure situation for a student to be in. So one of the things that changed for me was I started doing that all the time. I didn’t wait for a friday quiz day to asked students to apply what they know. I’m asking students to apply what they think they know the whole time. So rather than there being long amounts of time where I’m talking and they’re listening and writing, and then maybe at the end of or on another day I ask them to explain what they learned, the student application parts are woven into everyday activities of the class. So they’re parts where students are explaining things to me or explaining things to each other or trying out things they don’t know what they are doing but they are trying to see what happens. So the combination of all those experiences create an environment where students have the opportunity to fill in those gaps from understanding. So they don’t have to wait till I tell them because I give them circumstance they may think they understand or they may not but they can point out Oh! I understand this but this part is missing. And so now, they have a felt need to fill in that gap, and not because I’ve pointed out the gap but because they did. And so they see well in other contexts I may not be able to apply it the way that I want to. So then there’s this kind of motivation of finding out more. So the big change that happened is that everything kind of became indistinguishable. Like here’s a problem to work on or a scenario that might be difficult to understand, you do that no matter if it’s an exam or a project or an assignment, we do that everywhere. So we are practicing applying information frequently. We know now what are the things that actually help learning. We know the two things that certainly help learning is self testing and innovative practice, meaning you have repeated opportunities to try something, each opportunity is another cue to your brain to update what you don’t know.

Coston: Absolutely. And it sounds like those changes were very beneficial to the students. And I know that’s only one description of a change you have made in the class. My question is how did the students transition go over with students?

Duke: Well I think in order to teach what I just described, students have to feel genuine about it. That they’re doing well is my priority. But what it means to well is redefined. Doing well means you really understand what the class is about. And that only happens with frequent interactions individually between students and I and between one another. So even if I teach a large class, I still try to have individual interactions with students throughout each week. I make sure I touch basis with students about something they may have written in class and I also had students talk to each other a lot. Every day, I wanted them to sit next to someone they have never learned anything about learn something about them today is how it actually starts. So it makes the class seem less impersonal and more engagement in collaborative enterprise. So the idea of trying things out and not knowing what you are doing seems less intimidating. Also, I had individual people speak in class everyday and not people who volunteer but people I call on. And so after a couple of days I know who is a talkative person, who is more reticently confident about subject matter, who is more confident. So what I chose to ask and the people I chose to call on is strategic and I’m not going to ask a challenging application question to somebody who is very insecure or tentative. I’m going to still call on them and ask them to do something but it’s not going to be the same as if I would have asked someone is warm and talkative and willing to speak. And people who are talkative in class, I generally keep the question going until they cannot answer it anymore. And everybody sees that it’s okay. And what they see is that it’s not so bad. So people get out of the idea that the only time you answer a question is when you are certain of the idea or you’re going to be right. And when you’re called on because I will call on you, you’re going to understand more about things at the end of the conversation than you did at the beginning. And not just calling on them coldly especially at the beginning of the course. I don’t call on you unless it’s something I have asked you to write about. So even if they are panicked they can just read what they wrote. So at the initial stages of this, everyone has opportunities to look and feel good because everyone has an understanding that none of us really have an understanding because we are all learning. And I know that when I’m called on, I’ll have something to say. So I think that the change in climate has been very effective because I’m talking much less and the students are talking much more. I’m asking more than I am telling. And I’ve done this before with taping my lectures and having students listen to them ahead of time but I found that that didn’t work. There becomes a healthy rythem with me explaining a little and then the students doing stuff because then I’m not doing everything. There is enough interaction so that when students are given the chance to do something on their own, I get data from that. Because I’m listening to their conversations as I’m walking around the room. So I’m better able to direct the course of the conversation in a way that people will fill in the gaps that they are not understanding.

Coston: Earlier you said that students were doing all of the work and you were kind of passively listening. It sounds to me, like you aren’t doing less work, you’re doing more work. You’re just giving the students a greater level of responsibility of their own learning.

Duke: I think that is an excellent way to put it. The thinking part of this is really a lot of work. I just have to pay attention more when I am teaching. When I’m giving a lecture I don’t have to pay attention to anything. I just give my talk and it’s over. But to have students involved in a meaningful way is a lot of work. But the benefits of it are so positive it pays off so quickly and it’s so motivating in a way. I think for many people, who have been giving lectures and not having the students being involved at all, will say hey I should try that a little bit. And I think people who embark on this need to cut themselves some slack because this is a skill. It’s not just here’s a tip, start doing it when you start because you’re not going to be great at it when you start. It matters what and how students are involved and all of these things that didn’t matter at first now matters. And so consequentially, when you first start you’re not going to be good at this and I think that’s what deter’s so many people away from this. I have good notes, lecture slides, examples, I know the material and now someone is telling me to mess that up and let the students start talking. And so now there’s this big mess in the class. And I think we are honest about not just what students are able to do on the exams and projects but about what they can retain in our class. And I think that we’re most often blowing through way too much subject matter that doesn’t allow students to make it a part of their thinking. And i think that is what this does. I as a student can’t sit in a class and discuss an idea with another student that has been tossed out when I don’t fully understand the idea. I have to think harder to think harder to talk about than I do when someone is just telling me about it. And I think there is a lot of data that supports the fact that this is how memory is formed. The challenges of teaching like this are many and some are huge because a lot of faculty don’t know how to let go of what the class is going to be about and how the class is going to go because it is not going to always go how you anticipated it. And again, you are in a room full of human beings that do not think the same way you think or value the same things you value. And to let them be more in charge can be a little intimidating. So I think the reasons people are hesitant to try this is understandable but the ways you set yourself up to be a good faculty member aren’t that much different from the ways you set yourself up to be a learner in this scenario. And you don’t have to do a grand altering of your class. You just need to say you know, I want to give the students a question based on some props I give them and we’re going to spend about 5 or 8 minutes on that. And then you start to do enough reintegration to the point where you’re like, you know, we can two of these instead of 1 in a class. So just one bite at a time is how the old saying goes.

Coston: So my final question would be what about those teachers who have a certain amount of information to cover in a certain amount of time with little wiggle room and these particular things take time. So what can they do?

Duke: Well I don’t have an easy answer to that because there’s not an easy answer to that. But I think if you are going to teach effectively and enjoy it, you have to be kind of subversive. Now someone listening to this may say well easy for you to say. You’re a 10 year long professor at a major university. But I think there’s more about that you don’t have to make everything about this. Try your best to reach those learning goals and curriculum they give you, but take some time out for that. I was giving a workshop and I was talking about ideas with that. And one of the teachers in the group was a high school teacher at a IR school which stand for in remediation. And he was saying look, our school is going to get closed unless we get to a certain test score. So I spend most of my time doing test prep because that’s all the principal wants us to do. So how do I do this? And I don’t have an answer to that because that’s a horrible situation to be in. Not only is it horrible for the teacher but for the students. Because that’s not what school is supposed to be about. It’s not a happy thing for anyone. But just for your own sanity, you have to carve out some time where something right happens. Where you’re engaging in the subject matter in a way that is interesting and inspiring. And fortunately one of the nice things about teaching is the privacy depending on what level you teach in. But I realize there are many levels of education that care about what you are doing moment to moment. So this is easy for me to say because I don’t have that issue. But I think with various degrees or how highly prescribed your gig is, there are opportunities to do different things and try things that engage students at whatever age.

Coston: So I take away from this two things: One, carve out time with whatever constraint you may have to work in whatever that is and two, know that whatever you decide to do know that it will take time to get better.

Duke: Yes. I think those are very good takeaways.

Coston: So on that note, I want to thank you for speaking with us today. We have been speaking with Dr. Robert Duke, University of Texas in Austin. Thank you for taking time to speak with us.

R. Duke: Thank you!     

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