09 December 2009

Think Aloud Protocols

It is possible to study objectively the form of thinking that occurs covertly in many types of typical tasks and activities in everyday life through think aloud or talk aloud protocols (or protocol analysis) (Ericsson and Simon, 1980). One of the biggest obstacles in this type of study is to find nonreactive settings to reproduce the thinking process without altering how the subjects would normally think. The single most important precondition for successful direct expression of thinking is that the participants are allowed to maintain undisrupted focus on the completion of the presented tasks. They should not describe nor explain their thoughts to anyone during the process. Interviewers should also limit their interactions with the subjects as much as possible during the sessions. Subjects can also be given a series of simple warm-up exercises (such as mental multiplication of two numbers) that will provide them with the practice of directing their full attention to the presented task while verbalizing their thoughts.

If participants are asked to describe or explain their thinking, it is found that such verbalizations present "a genuine educational opportunity to make students' reasoning more coherent and reflective" (Ericsson and Simon, 1998). These subjects are more successful in mastering the material and generate more self-explanations and monitor their learning better. Writing is found to be the most effective (as well as demanding) activity to improve and develop student's thinking.


Ericsson, K.A. and Simon, H.A. (1980). Verbal Reports as Data. Psychological Review. 87(3), pp 215 - 251.

Ericsson, K.A. and Simon, H.A. (1998). How to Study Thinking in Everyday Life: Contrasting Think-Aloud Protocols with Descriptions and Explanations of Thinking. Mind, Culture, and Activity. 5(3), pp 178 - 186.

03 December 2009

EnGauging Students

EnGauging students is the process of engaging students in learning and gauging what they are learning simultaneously. Engaged students are more motivated to learn, and gauging students in the process provides students with feedback so they know what they need to change in their study habits. Some tools to enGauge students include:
  • Brainstorming - list as many answers as possible to a question
  • Case studies - solve a problem or situation in a real-world context
  • "Clicker" questions - answer questions electronically in class
  • Decision making - work together to recommend solutions to a problem
  • Group exams - work together to discuss exam questions but writes answers individually
  • One-minute papers - write a short answer about a topic or question
  • Pre / Post questions - answer questions before and after a topic is taught
  • Strip sequence - arrange a series of events into the correct order (e.g. Parson's puzzles)
  • Think-pair-share - think about possible answers to a question individually, and discuss with partners to come to a consensus
  • Reading assessment - enlisting groups of students to design the activities and teach each other
  • 99 words / seconds - summarize a topic / lecture in 99 words or in 99 seconds (see example here)
  • KWL - have students answer 3 questions, individually or in a group, each class: "what we Know", what we Want to know, and "what we Learned".

Handelsman, J., Miller, S., Pfund, C. (2007) Scientific teaching. W.H. Freeman & Company.

Desirable Difficulties

Given that the fundamental goal of education is to make changes in the learner's long term memory, Bjork et al. have shown that learning conditions that introduce difficulties for the learners are potent in enhancing long-term retention and transfer. Humans do not simply "store" information in long term memory but rather, we relate new information to what is already known. Our long term memory is not a playback device. It is primarily semantic in nature. "Desirable difficulties" have been shown to be effective in making changes in the long term memory. This includes: spacing rather than massing study sessions, interleaving rather than blocking practice on separate topics or tasks; varying how instructional materials are presented or illustrated; reducing feedback; and using tests rather than presentations as learning events. See Bjork's Seven Study Tips and his slide presentation.


Bjork, R. and Linn, M. (ND). Introducing Desirable Difficulties for Educational Applications in Science (IDDEAS). Retrieved on December 3, 2009 from http://iddeas.psych.ucla.edu/IDDEASproposal.pdf.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)

Cognitive Load Theory is all about efficiency where efficiency is defined in terms of learner performance and learner mental effort. CLT suggests that we have only a limited amount of cognitive capacity for solving problems in our short term working memory (as opposed to long term memory for information storage). The higher the learner performance and the lower the learner mental effort (which occurs in the short term working memory), the better! According to CLT, there are three main types of cognitive load when one tries to learn something: intrinsic load (due to the complexity of the content to be learned), germane load (due to the instructional activities), and extraneous load (due to wasted mental resources on irrelevant material). Thus, in a first year computer programming course, learning to program in Java imposes the intrinsic load, providing worked examples on a variety of programming tasks contribute to the germane load, and requiring students to work within a complex integrated development environment (IDE) impose extraneous load on the students. Efficient instruction maximize germane load and minimize extraneous load.

Cognitive load depends on the interaction of three components: the learning goal and its associated content, learner's prior knowledge, and the instructional environment.


Clark, R.C., Nguyen, and F., Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in Learning. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.