Course Review: Learning How to Learn

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I recently took the Coursera class Learning How to Learn, from the University of California-San Diego‘s Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski. This review is written based on the course as it existed in March 2015.

This review serves three functions:

  • For prospective students, should I take this course?
  • For prospective employers and admissions offices, what does having completed this course say about a potential employee or student?
  • For course developers and educators, what can I learn from how this course is developed and delivered?

This review will contain two parts: an objective description of the course content, structure, and experience, and a subjective analysis of the course’s value to students, employers, and educators.

Course Description

Learning How to Learn is a self-paced class covering several skills for learning, memorizing, and avoiding procrastination. The full description is available here.

Structure

Learning How to Learn is entirely self-paced. Students in the class have up to six months to complete all the assessments. All assessments and course materials are always available, so students may proceed as fast or slow as they would like.

Learning How to Learn is broken up into four broad units, described below. Each unit contains approximately an hour of video with short exercises (typically short ungraded free response or single multiple choice questions) interspersed. At the conclusion of the first unit, there is a peer-reviewed short essay. At the conclusion of the class, there is a longer final exam and a peer-reviewed final project.

Overall, the course can be completed in around eight total hours, depending on how much effort one invests into the short essay and the final project.

Content

Learning How to Learn consists of four units: “What is Learning?”, “Chunking”, “Procrastination and Memory”, and “Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential”. Each unit primarily provides a number of tricks and metaphors for thinking about and improving learning. Among the topics touched on are the role and importance of sleep in learning; how and why to chunk material in one’s mind; the problems of procrastination and how to overcome them; the different modes of thinking, when to use them, and how to switch between them; and other small tricks for learning material better.

The course title is fitting: Learning How to Learn is about one’s personal learning. While it touches on some of the mechanisms of learning, its primary focus is on teaching the learner to learn, not necessarily why these skills work. It’s worth noting that, in my opinion, the course also focuses primarily on the types of learning we do in school rather than real-world learning. While real-world learning can be informed by these skills as well, the examples used throughout the course are drawn from traditional education, such as memorizing lists of facts, studying for an exam, and taking a test.

Assessments

There are 6 formal assessments in Learning How to Learn:

  • Three quizzes, one at the end of each of the first three units. The quizzes are made of multiple-choice questions and are auto-graded.
  • One final, at the end of the fourth unit. The final is made of multiple-choice questions and is auto-graded.
  • One short essay on a personal learning challenge, at the end of the first unit. The essays are peer-graded.
  • One final project to teach the concepts taught in Learning How to Learn at the end of the final unit. The final project is peer-graded.

Additionally, there are short, optional multiple-choice and free response questions throughout the course, as well as an optional peer-graded final video project.

The quizzes and exam can be taken an unlimited number of times until a satisfactory score is achieved. However, they can only be taken once every 24 hours, and the student cannot see which answers they got right and wrong.

Prerequisites

There are no necessary prerequisites for this class. It is applicable to any learner, from middle school to graduate school.

Identity Verification

For Verified Certificates ($50 at the time that I signed up), students complete the Coursera two-phase authentication: a typing sample is submitted and a picture is taken of the student immediately after completing the assessment. Assuming that these are adequate in ascertaining the student’s identity, they are nonetheless not difficult to circumvent. It would be trivial to collaborate with someone else on the assignments or even outright submit someone else’s work. This verification only assures that the student was present when the work was submitted.

If the student is not enrolled in a Verified Certificate, there is no identity verification at all.

Course Analysis

Generally, Learning How to Learn uses the “talking head” approach of a person on screen presenting material with visuals alongside. The production quality is good and the visuals are varied; they are not simply slides presented alongside the speaker. Interviews are also intermingled with the lectures to break up the style, and the occasional quizzes do a fair job of checking more than just attention.

The twist on the assessments, delaying retaking and hiding incorrect answers, is overall a useful shift. Hiding the incorrect answers does limit the feedback students receive, which is problematic, but this combined with the time delay forces the learner to actually review and attempt to correct their own error. While many quizzes in MOOCs like this can be “gamed” simply be retaking them and playing the odds on multiple choice questions, these two features introduce some additional rigor into the process.

For Prospective Students

Learning How to Learn is highly student-focused; its primary goal is to help the student personally improve their learning to excel in other learning activities. For that reason, its value to any prospective student is high. The value does not depend on one’s interests or current ability; the content is useful to everyone.

While the content of Learning How to Learn is useful, this isn’t a case of “One Special Trick to Pass All Your Exams!” The course is full of useful nuggets of information, but it isn’t a cure-all. The techniques outlined in the course require significant practice to master and benefit from, which itself is part of the point of the class. In my opinion, the most critical takeaway of the class is that learning itself is a skill you can learn: you are not endowed with a certain amount of intelligence that will never change, but rather you can learn to learn more.

Regarding the Verified Certificate, its only function is a motivation for you to complete the course. If you’re more likely to complete a course having invested money in it, by all means pay for the Verified Certificate (I did for exactly that reason). If not, just consume the material on your own.

Take this course if:

  • You don’t think you’re smart.
  • You have trouble learning new material.
  • You tend to procrastinate.
  • You’re still learning (and you should be!).

Don’t take this course if:

  • You have an intermediate background in psychology (you likely already know the material).
  • You need deadlines to succeed (as the class is entirely self-paced).

For Prospective Employers and Admissions Offices

With regard to identity verification, the identity verification for the Verified Certificate is trivial to circumvent. Thus, a Verified Certificate in Learning How to Learn should carry limited clout for that reason alone. The remaining analysis will infer that the student did complete the certificate themselves.

With regard to assessment, the rigor of the course is decently high. As referenced above, the assessments are structured such that students cannot easily “game” the quiz; in other words, they cannot simply take the quiz, see what they get wrong, and retake the quiz changing their answers to the questions that they got wrong. Passing the quizzes and exams actually represents some level of real achievement.

The essay and final exam are peer-graded. While I, personally, have some reservations about the validity and reliability of peer grading, research has shown this approach to be effective.

With regard to content, the content of the course is itself not particularly analogous to existing courses on education, but it is valuable in and of itself. One can believe that a student exiting the class has at their disposal a number of useful tricks for learning new material, and is thus at least somewhat prepared for the learning associated with a rigorous academic program or new position. Moreover, the act of completing the course can be said to demonstrate a willingness in the learner to improve their own learning ability (until and unless a Verified Certificate in Learning How to Learn begins to carry enough clout that students obtain the certificate solely for that clout).

Overall, until and unless a Verified Certificate in Learning How to Learn becomes sufficiently valuable that students pursue it specifically to put it on their resume, completing the course ought to be taken as a minor achievement and positive inclusion on an applicant’s resume. (See The MOOC Certificate Paradox.)

For Course Developers and Educators

There are three main things that this course does that I’d like to see more courses do:

  • Enforce a delay between quiz and test retakes. I love that most MOOCs let you attempt quizzes as many times as you want, but being able to try multiple times in a very short time span incentivizes narrow learning of the answers to quiz problems rather than broad learning of the material as a whole. This is compounded by the second part…
  • Structure quizzes such that retakes aren’t simply about correcting answers. I hesitate to say “limit feedback” because there are other ways to accomplish this goal. The general idea is: retaking a quiz should not be a matter of simply looking at the previous take and changing your wrong answers. Under that structure, it’s trivial to game the quiz into a good score. Instead, there needs to be something more. The questions themselves might change between retakes. The available answers might change. Or, as in the case of Learning How to Learn, the specific questions aren’t marked right and wrong.
  • If you’re going to take the “talking head” approach, display engaging or interesting visuals alongside instead of bullet point PowerPoint slides. Talking heads with PowerPoint slides in a MOOC are the easiest way to present material, but they’re also among the least compelling ways. Find ways to liven up the material with visualizations, visual metaphors, or other more visually compelling information.

For more information, please see the course web site. If I’ve left out anything crucial to understanding this course, let me know below!

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