Blog Post

How do we learn most effectively? How do we analyze educational technologies (using that knowledge) to find which are the best?

Greetings, fellow HASTAC Scholars!  I apologize for the late introductory post.  I decided that the sound bite version of who I am was already pretty well represented by my blog bio, so I wanted to wait until I had something more to share.  Below, I have included the beginning of my thesis project - my university calls it my "thesis proposal."  It is essentially the outline I want to follow over the next six months; I would be happy to hear any thoughts you have on it!





“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life. “
- John F. Kennedy (1961 Inaugural Address)


Technology is as often held up as the savior of our world as it is called the harbinger of its end.  The truth, though, is that technology is a varied as people are – some save lives and bring us closer together; others tear us farther apart.  Most exist somewhere in the middle of this continuum - valuable, but flawed.  So how do educators, who stand as the gatekeepers between these varied creations and our students, decide whom we invite into our classrooms and who remains at the door?




I am setting out to answer that question in this project, and I want to start by asking one important and commonly asked question that nonetheless seem to have little to do with technology on the surface - how do students learn?  To find the answer, I will be reflecting on my own experiences and the experiences of others growing up in public schools, reviewing my undergraduate and graduate coursework and readings about the science of teaching, soliciting the thoughts and feedback of current teachers and other education professionals, and studying the existing literature on the subject.   Once I have this information, I will set about synthesizing a rubric through which any existing or new technology can be analyzed using these key findings about how we learn. 




These are the preliminary criteria I have found students need for highly successful learning: Agency, Clarity, Collaboration, Competence, and Engagement.  (I will be looking at these traits specifically, but I will also be looking at articles and literature about learning in general, so I may find additional traits or refine these five during the thesis process.)  Before I talk about each of these traits, I want to share a theory I have drawn upon to create this initial list that is outside the literature I have encountered in my undergraduate and graduate classes, which is called self-determination theory.  The following quote summarizes it well:


The theory focuses primarily on…the needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy (or self-determination).  Competence involves understanding how to attain various external and internal outcomes and being efficacious in performing the requisite actions; relatedness involves developing secure and satisfying connections with others in one’s social milieu; and autonomy refers to being self-initiating and self-regulating of one’s own actions.  (Deci et al, p.327, 1991)


This theory has been successfully used to better understand patterns in education, game design, parenting, sports – really any area of human life that is influenced by personal motivation.  With that in mind, Agency means students have the ability to make meaningful choices in their education.   “It is this interest and volition, we suggest, that lead students to display greater flexibility in problem solving, more efficient knowledge acquisition, and a strong sense of personal worth and social responsibility.”  (Deci et al, p.325, 1991)  This trait is best reflected in coursework that allows students to draw on their own personal funds of knowledge and lets them choose how to go about learning about a subject through open-ended projects whenever possible. 


Clarity is gained by using three related strategies that work together to help students clearly grasp the material they are studying.  First, students critically explore content to understand it from several angles.  This concept is elegantly reflected in Arthur Costa’s three levels of questioning originally detailed in his book, “Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking.”  In it, Costa shows that higher-order questioning leads to greater understanding of a subject.  By asking questions like, “What if” and “Why” as well as analyzing, judging, or justifying ideas, student interest and comprehension are increased simultaneously.  Second, a student looks for and finds patterns that connect specific facts and concepts being learned to a bigger picture within that subject area.  Ultimately, they find patterns that link that subject area to many others.  Third, the learning experience is authentic and clearly connects to real-world uses for the subject being studied, so the student sees the purpose of that knowledge and can justify to themselves the effort spend understanding it.

Collaboration is both a learning strategy and a valuable skill to learn in its own right.  As they grow older, learning to work with others is a vital ability for students to master, especially as they move into higher education or the workplace.   Further, as students learn what it means to be citizens in a democracy – a social system based on mass cooperation and decision-making not done by a lone individual but collectively by all – skill at collaborating gains civic value as well.   Beyond this, though, collaboration is an essential skill for increasing the scope of material students can be given and the speed with which it can be learned.  As Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky famously said, “What (a) child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow.  Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it.”  (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 188) Collaborative student work can be used as a scaffold for students by which they eventually reach individual mastery of a subject.  This powerful strategy is based on the concept of a gradual release of responsibility from teacher directed to student group work to individual accomplishment was first introduced by David Pearson and Margaret Gallagher (1983) and has been steadily built upon by teachers since then.

Competence builds on the second part of the statement above; “Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development, and leads it.” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 188)    He called this area where learning takes place that is just beyond a child’s current knowledge and ability level the Zone of Proximal Development, or the ZPD.    To effectively get a student from where they are to where you want them to be, you must scaffold their learning by providing opportunities to learn which they can understand and be successful at without being too easy or hard.  Self-determination theory (Deci et al, 1991) also helps explain why this trait is such a powerful tool, as wanting to feel competent is a central reason for being motivated to learn.  When a task is so difficult that a student feels unable to succeed, even with effort, they stop trying.  When it is too easy, they stop being interested in the material, because they know they are simply performing rote tasks that do not let them feel competent.  They do want to be tested, but they also want to succeed.

Finally, we reach one of the most popular words in education, often confused with the other four traits I have just described – Engagement.  This confusion is understandable; after all, a student who is able to work with their peers, has the ability to make meaningful choices in their own education, and who clearly understands content and is working at a level that is comfortable and satisfying for them seems likely to be very engaged in their learning.  However, learning can have all those traits and still be boring or seem totally pointless to a student.  Engagement is about presentation, fun and relevance – themed units, multi-modal learning, interactive lessons, realia, educational games, and clear explanations of the relevance of any given subject matter are essential to getting students interested in learning.  Video games, in particular, are often lamented as the cause of increasing student boredom in the classroom, or in more positive assessments of the situation, as causing students to demand more engagement in the classroom.  Either way, it seems clear that in the game industry, “…Designers face and largely solve an intriguing educational dilemma, one also faced by schools and workplaces: how to get people, often young people, to learn and master something that is long and challenging – and enjoy it, to boot.” (Gee, p.1, 2003)  I will be looking at traditional strategies for classroom engagement to better understand this trait, and I will be looking at the game industry in depth to explore what makes good video games so compelling – and what can be learned from them to apply to teaching our students more effectively and more engagingly.




In addition to greatly expanding my literature review (above), I will be gathering a diverse collection of individuals from the field of education to take several surveys throughout the thesis process.  This group will ideally consist of administrators, teachers in K-12 and higher education, and educational technology specialists.  The first survey will request the individual rate the appropriateness and accuracy of each of the key traits of successful learning I have discovered, and solicit feedback related to each of those traits (ie; should it be kept, modified, or discarded).  At the end of the survey, it will ask for any additional suggestions in an open-ended format.  I will then take this information and modify my thesis as necessary, performing additional research if needed as well.  After this process, I will synthesize everything I have so far into a working rubric that can analyze technology to determine it’s usefulness in the classroom.  I will then administer another survey to the same individuals, again soliciting feedback related to each of the rubric areas (for example, should it be kept, modified, or discarded), and at the end of the survey, it will again ask for any additional suggestions in an open-ended format.  I will then take this information and modify the rubric as necessary, performing additional research if needed.  Finally, I will request each of these individuals try using the new rubric to analyze several pieces of educational technology and provide any final feedback to make it more effective, easy to use, and accurate.




The process described above is how I plan to create a rubric that can easily determine whether any given piece of technology is worth adopting in a classroom.  Beyond what I have already determined are the traits through which students best learn, several more criteria need to be considered.  First, it is important to consider that knowing how to use technology is itself a valuable skill for students to master.  Further,


In perhaps the most thorough review ever conducted of technology and academic performance, education policy expert and McGraw-Hill research director Harold Wenglinsky found that socioeconomic status — and all the real-world factors that signifies, from parental involvement to teacher quality to domestic stress — mediate technology’s effects. Given equal access to computers, affluent students benefited more than poor students, a digital divide of effect rather than access. (Keim, 2012) 


It is essential that the use of technology itself be considered a worthy goal, especially for ELL’s and students in a low socioeconomic status.  Within that framework, of course, there are more and less useful types of technological practice for preparing students for higher education and the workplace.  With this in mind, I have added it to the rubric as a trait to consider when analyzing a technology’s worth in the classroom.   Another factor I believe needs to be looked at is the time a given technology takes to learn and implement - not only the process of installing or setting the device up in your classroom, but also learning how to use it yourself, teaching your students how to use it, and keeping on top of updates to the technology as well.  For example, a document camera might take an hour or so to learn how to use, and a few minutes of class time to teach to your students.  An occasional update to the software will require another hour of your time every year or so.  As you can see, the time investment is very small for document cameras, but it can be prohibitively large for things like Smart Boards or iPads.  I also want to look at pragmatic factors, such as how much something costs your school.  Document cameras, for example, are currently $600-1000 per device.  Conversely, if something is free and easy to learn, it could only be a little faster or only help in a certain area (Google Docs, for example) and still be worthwhile.  These are some of the additional factors to consider I have already encountered; my goal is to explore them in greater depth and to uncover any additional issues that need to be considered as well.  




I want to do this thesis project for several reasons.  First, it is vitally important that I, as an educator, have a clear grasp of what good teaching looks like and how students learn best.  Understanding these key qualities will improve my own teaching as well as be useful as a framework to build this thesis upon.  Second, I want teachers to have an easy way of determining whether an existing technology is or is not going to help their students learn.  I want to work on a thesis project that has direct value to the education community.  Third, while technology changes daily, how we learn does not.  This is why this rubric will be based on learning principles – it will be a tool to analyze any new device or computer program through those principles.  In this way, I hope to make a rubric that is essentially timeless and will always be useful to educators. 





Costa, A. L. (2001). Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking (3rd ed.). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. 


Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and Education: The Self Determination Perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26((3 & 4)), 325-346. 
Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.  Computers in Entertainment (CIE) - Theoretical and Practical Computer Applications in dddddEntertainment, 1(1), 1-4. 

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M. (1983).  The Instruction of Reading Comprehension, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, p. 317-344


Keim, B. (2012, January 26). iPad textbooks: Reality less revolutionary than hardware. dddddRetrieved October 15, 2012, from website: 

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. (Trans. By M. i Rech’) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.




Thank you for this, Tyler. I really enjoyed reading your proposal. Do you know what specific technologies you will be looking at? My research focuses on television’s pedagogy and educational potential. The question my thesis addresses is: how do children learn from television and how should we integrate this medium in the classroom? I would love to know more about your project and your findings in the future, and to see if we can use the rubric you plan to create to a more traditional medium like television...


If I understand you, you're going to be looking at how we learn and then create a rubric to match technologies that best fit learning models a, b, c etc.

Would be fascinated too to see how the technology the gatekeepers use affect how we learn.  How does choosing a collaborative vs prescriptive technology affect learning preferences.

Either way - hoping to read it when you're done!


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