Stephen M. Kosslyn of ‘Active Learning Sciences’: “Learning Objectives”

Learning Objectives: Educators need to define clearly the learning objectives for programs, courses, and each individual class. What is taught should be in the service of helping students to achieve the corresponding learning outcomes. And those outcomes should be measurable; we should be able to assess how well the goals — the learning objectives — are in fact being […]

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Learning Objectives: Educators need to define clearly the learning objectives for programs, courses, and each individual class. What is taught should be in the service of helping students to achieve the corresponding learning outcomes. And those outcomes should be measurable; we should be able to assess how well the goals — the learning objectives — are in fact being achieved, which is an essential first step in being able to improve the offerings. It’s a rare student who will gain something lasting from a seminar that has no clear purpose other than to talk about the material.

As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Stephen M. Kosslyn.

Stephen M. Kosslyn is President of Active Learning Sciences and President Emeritus and Chief Academic Officer of Foundry College; prior to that, he was Founding Dean and Chief Academic Officer of the Minerva Schools at KGI, having previously served as a Professor and Center Director at Stanford after having been Dean of Social Science and the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Kosslyn has received numerous honors, including the National Academy of Sciences Initiatives in Research Award and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

My present path really began when I was in high school, which was during the 60s. Like many others at that time, I became obsessed with how to cure society’s ills. My idea then was that education was the key, and I’ve never let go of that idea. Fast forward to the last few years of my three decades on the Harvard faculty. By that point, I had written four books on how research findings can help us make clear and compelling presentations and better communication graphics. I was increasingly interested in how to apply laboratory findings to real-world problems, and increasingly focused on education.

When I was invited to join Minerva, a newly minted start-up university, I jumped at the opportunity. Minerva was a very rare opportunity to lead a team to design a university curriculum from scratch — not only the content, but also the teaching methods. And both the curriculum and teaching needed to be designed for a real-time online teaching environment, which was ahead of its time and very exciting.

Minerva is a very selective university, taking a smaller percentage of applicants than Harvard. After more than five years at Minerva, I decided that I wanted to have a larger impact; I wanted to do something that would improve the lives of many people. I founded Foundry College to help working adults obtain skills and knowledge needed for jobs that will not soon be automated. Because we wanted working adults to learn easily and be able to use what they learned in their daily lives, we were led to apply the science of learning in novel ways; in particular, my colleagues and I developed new types of active learning and developed new teaching methods that take advantage of technology.

Thinking further about how to draw on the science of learning to design new teaching methods led me to write the book Active Learning Online: Five Principles that Make Online Courses Come Alive, which was published in October 2020, after almost all teaching had moved online. I came to realize that the best way to fulfill my mission in life is to use science-based methods to design new, cutting-edge educational programs and courses and to teach instructors how to use the science of learning in their teaching. This led me to found Active Learning Sciences, which allows me to reach a large number of learners, to help make their educational experiences more effective and more enjoyable.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was a young faculty member, I was asked to teach a required seminar on research methods in psychology. I lectured on various research techniques and asked students to discuss research papers that used those methods. Everyone, including me, was bored stiff. I began to think about what scientific research is actually about, and what students really need to know — even if (or perhaps especially if) they won’t become researchers themselves. This led me to invent a new method for teaching research methods, which I called the QALMRI method (short for Question-Alternatives-Logic-Method-Results-Inferences; if you are interested in the details, please google “QALMRI”).

Students found the QALMRI method helpful, so I published a summary of it. I recently was surprised to discover that the method is being used by numerous other instructors — many of whom I have never met — and is being recommended to their students.

Why is this interesting? Two reasons, I think: First, as this incident shows, even a young professor sometimes can completely reinvent a course, looking at the subject matter in a new way. That’s remarkable, given the potential reputational risk for the institution. And second, this experience made me a little less jaded. When I was young, I believed that if you build a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path to your door. As I became more familiar with business, and the many examples where marketing trumped quality, I came to accept that this doesn’t really happen. But now I’ve learned that this sometimes can in fact be the case — even if only in a small way.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, indeed. Let me focus on three. In one, we are helping to create a new medical school that will rely on active learning so that students from many backgrounds can master the material. These students often won’t have a STEM (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) background, but instead may have majored in the humanities or social sciences. Moreover, most of these students will be from under-represented groups. Research shows that active learning is a superb way to help a wide range of students learn and help them understand how to apply what they learn.

In another project, we are helping a large university to develop a program for “Universal Learners,” particularly students who have not been in school for years. This program will ease these students into being able to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Our aim is to start from basics and help the students build up their knowledge systematically and quickly. We use a project-based-learning approach, so that it’s continually obvious why specific skills and knowledge are worth learning.

In yet another project, we are creating a course on active learning. This online course will use my most recent book, Active Learning Online, as a text, and is a good example of the old Silicon Valley dictum to “Eat your own dogfood”: It will use active learning to teach instructors how to use active learning. This project is particularly interesting because it relies on a lot of active learning in an asynchronous (“self-paced”) context. Most active learning is in synchronous (“live”) courses, so this one poses some novel challenges.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

At the risk of being slightly contrarian, I’m not sure that I agree with the assumption that there is a single “US education system.” We don’t have a national system, which I think in principle is a good thing. Rather than imposing top-down one curriculum (as, for example, occurs in France), one set of teaching methods and so forth, our system allows — and encourages — innovation at every turn. In K-12, school districts have a lot of leeway; at the university level, each institution has a lot of leeway (with a major set of constraints being imposed by the accreditors); and in fact each individual professor typically has a lot of leeway (as evident in my example of how I had the freedom to re-invent a research methods course).

This approach necessarily produces a large range of results, with ample examples of good and bad outcomes. However, if there is even a small tendency for quality to win out, for good outcomes to be reinforced and distributed, then over time the average quality will gradually improve. Think of it as a kind of evolutionary process, where we need a variety of outcomes from which to select and propagate.

The irony is that although our K-12 education is often knocked by comparing the results on standardized tests to those of Asian or European countries, our colleges and universities remain the envy of the world. My sense is that our K-12 systems are emphasizing skills and knowledge that are actually more useful for college than simply memorizing lots of material, as is common in many other countries.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

I hope three will do:

  1. Undergrad programs at the so-called “Research 1” institutions (places where research is heavily emphasized, such as UCLA, Yale, and Tulane University) generally seem to be preparing students for graduate school or professional schools well, even in the face of the pandemic.
  2. Graduate research education in the US remains the best on the planet.
  3. Professional education, such as in medical, business and law schools, is doing well.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  1. Learning Objectives: Educators need to define clearly the learning objectives for programs, courses, and each individual class. What is taught should be in the service of helping students to achieve the corresponding learning outcomes. And those outcomes should be measurable; we should be able to assess how well the goals — the learning objectives — are in fact being achieved, which is an essential first step in being able to improve the offerings. It’s a rare student who will gain something lasting from a seminar that has no clear purpose other than to talk about the material.
  2. Active Learning: The data have spoken loudly and clearly: Actively learning is vastly more effective than traditional lecturing, especially in STEM fields and for women and minorities in male-dominated fields. Active learning needs to be implemented widely and needs to be continually improved. If the primary goal of education is to lead students to learn, this is an essential practice.
  3. Hybrid Classrooms: The massive experience teaching online, forced by the pandemic, has identified good and bad aspects of synchronous and asynchronous online instruction. We need to cherry pick what worked really well online (e.g., small group interaction in synchronous courses) versus what did not work so well (e.g., delivering lectures over Zoom). The resulting hybrid classroom should allocate functions to teaching modality (i.e., in-person physically together, synchronous online, asynchronous online) based on what works best in each modality. This would not only promote learning, but also probably be most cost-effective.
  4. Transfer to the Workplace: I’ve often heard and read that contemporary education isn’t relevant to the workplace. We can debate this, but the deeper problem is that even when fundamental skills and knowledge are taught, students may not use them appropriately. Probably the hardest problem in the science of learning is the problem of transfer: People do not automatically apply what they learn in one context to other contexts. Regrettably, what you learn in class often stays in class. Researchers have discovered ways to promote transfer, but these need to be deliberately built into a curriculum.
  5. Universal Learner: We should develop programs for the “Universal Learner,” designed to be effective for all students. Active Learning is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be designed specifically to be accessible to all. My experiences at Foundry College indicate that this is feasible, but it requires a conscious effort and requires deliberate application of the science of learning.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.

Sure. Most of this isn’t going to be a surprise, given what I’ve said above:

  1. Have a clear North Star: It’s common in courses to have “topics” listed on the syllabus, but it’s much better to have learning objectives. Learning objectives typically begin with a verb; instead of “Memos” (a topic), it would be “Write Effective Memos” (a learning objective). Learning objectives directly lead to learning outcomes, which are measurable. Every educational program, course and individual class session should be driven by clear learning objectives, and those learning objectives should be directly assessed. Students need to know what the point is at every level, and instructors need to know where they want the students to end up.
  2. Induce students to “turn things over in their minds”: Perhaps the single most important principle to emerge from the science of learning is the Principle of Deep Processing: The more you pay attention to and think through material, the more likely you are to remember it. To get a sense as to what I mean, I often ask people the following: At the end of the day, can you reflect back and recall the events of the day? What percentage of what you recall do you think you intentionally tried to memorize at the time it occurred? The standard response I’ve gotten, from thousands of people, is that people intentionally tried to memorize less than 10% of what they later can recall. People recall these events simply because they paid attention and thought through what was happening at the time. This is a very general principle, and to the extent that students can be induced to do this, they are likely to learn.
  3. Lead students to try again, only better: “Deliberate practice” is among the most powerful ways to learn. This isn’t just doing the same thing over and over, hoping to get better. Rather, the key idea is to produce a behavior (e.g., a golf swing, a spoken French word, a dish in cooking school), get corrected by an expert (e.g., a golf coach, language tutor, or master chef), and then try again, doing your best to reduce the difference between what you did at the outset and the corrected version. In fact, you don’t even need a human expert. I love what Benjamin Franklin did when he was learning to be an effective writer: He would select an article or essay he found well written, and try to paraphrase it a day or two later. And then he would compare what he had written to the original, noting where he had fallen short and what he needed to do to improve.
  4. Weave information into tightly organized units: We humans have a limited capacity to take in new information, and if instructors present too much they will overwhelm students (who will simply tune out). What counts as “too much”? We humans can apprehend only about four units, called “chunks,” at the same time. But, and here’s the really cool part, each of those units can contain four units, and each of those can contain four, and so on. Thus, students can absorb a huge amount if it’s organized effectively.
    One of my favorite demonstrations of the power of effective organization was done at Carnegie Mellon University. The researchers recruited an undergrad to come into the lab a few times a week. At each session, they read the student a series of random digits, and simply asked him to repeat them back. At first the lists were very short, and after the student correctly repeated back the digits he got a new list that was one digit longer. The lists that the student could recall grew steadily longer over time. This process continued for a year and a half. At the end of the study the student could repeat back a list of 79 randomly chosen digits, read one per second! He was able to do this by drawing on his experiences as a marathon runner. He converted sets of digits into times for specific segments of races, and organized those segments into longer stretches. This sort of thing is standard among professional mnemonists, like Joshua Foer (who wrote Moonwalking with Einstein). In short, breaking information into small units and tightly organizing them is crucial for learning.
  5. Create and invoke associations: I often have trouble remembering names of people I meet, and thus I’ve worked out a simple technique to help me do so. If I meet someone named Rebecca, for example, I think of someone I already know who has that name. I then visualize that familiar woman’s face and consider features that she has in common with the new person, such as the shape of her eyebrows, length of her nose, or texture of her hair. I then stare at those features of the new person, and visualize the familiar person’s face morphing into the new person’s face. Later, when I encounter the new person again, I look at her face until a feature reminds me of the person I knew previously. And voila! I then recall her name.
    This is an example of the power of associations. Associations can help learning at three distinct phases of the process. First, they can help you organize material so that it’s easier to store (like the associations helped the marathon runner organize digits into chunks). Second, they can help you integrate new information into what you already know. And third, they can serve as reminders, to trigger memories and help you recall. Being aware of the power of associations invites many teaching techniques, ranging from using precise analogies to creating rich narratives.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

Increasing the status of teachers couldn’t hurt. Three ways to do this are: First, raise the bar — make it more difficult to become a teacher. However, a potential problem is that we need large numbers of teachers, and raising the bar might reduce the number of candidates below what we need. This leads to my second recommendation: Raise the pay. I don’t think raising the bar would be a problem if the pay were raised substantially. Given the importance of teachers in both the lives of individuals and for society writ large, I think raising the pay substantially is easy to justify. Third, enhance professional development so that teachers keep up not only with developments in their fields (as is currently the focus of professional development), but also with the latest research on effective teaching and the latest developments in useful technology. Make it clear that teachers have deep and valuable expertise — which they already do, but this can be taken to the next level.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The value of an education in a
liberal arts college is not
learning of many facts but the
training of the mind to think
something that cannot be
learned from textbooks”
 — Albert Einstein

This probably wouldn’t serve as a “life lesson” for most people, but it was for me. There’s an old joke, which defines a “lecture” as the process whereby the professor’s notes are transferred to the student’s notes without ever having passed through either of their brains. For me, this quote from Einstein strikes to the heart of a major problem with education: There’s too much emphasis on cramming information into students’ heads. Yes, students do need to understand the big picture and need to obtain key specific knowledge and skills. But we might want to focus at least as much on how and when to use information appropriately. And we should teach students the most efficient and effective ways to find information when they need it.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Mr. Mark Zuckerberg currently has a little bit of egg on his face, given the role of his platform in current societal problems. Many of those problems can be addressed by education. I would love a chance to convince Mr. Zuckerberg that he really should start a new type of university, one that’s focused on teaching a wide range of people the foundations they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world. This university would directly help many people to have a better life. This university would look to the future but build on the best of the past, would use science-based pedagogy so that students actually learn, and would truly be student-centered. If I could have an hour with him, I suspect that he could come to see the wisdom of such innovation for the good of his company, our country, and the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?


Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

My pleasure!

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