Teaching for Comprehension

Adult learners are different from children. The people that come to V School are typically in their twenties or thirties, have had one or more careers or jobs, and are now making a career change. One key difference is that adults require context in everything that they do. They have little patience for sitting through material that doesn't have a "why" attached to it.

The other unique element of V School is that it's an immersive, "crash course" style of learning that is meant to take them from knowing a little of at least one programming language to being able to build and deploy a full-stack web application in only a few weeks. Given the fast-paced nature of the learning it is important that we develop a strategy to help the students retain and apply their knowledge base. This requires them to understand basic concepts (REST, MVC, etc.) and then be able to apply them practically within the given technology stack they are learning.

First, let's talk about the unique needs of adult learners.

Teaching Adults

  1. Context. Before we begin any lesson or teach any concept they need a basic explanation of the purpose of what you're learning. For example, if you're going to be teaching a lesson on JavaScript callbacks it should start with an explanation of what a callback is and it's purpose. The student needs to understand why they should care about callbacks.
    Along with the "why" in context, comes the "where". It is optimal to teach in a manner that builds skills upon each other rather than in isolation.

  2. Self-direction. Most adult learners prefer to be self-directed and learn better if they are allowed the freedom to explore a subject on their own. Leaving plenty of time for research and practice on their own during class periods with you as a resource will be massively beneficial to the student. In this way you become a facilitator for the students learning which will increase comprehension, retention, and motivation.

  3. Application. Not only does quick/immediate application of the knowledge being taught improve retention it also helps with attention span in general. Adult learners tend to lose interest quickly if something is not applicable or doesn't provide a means to an end. After explaining and demonstration a skill students need to apply their knowledge to a new scenario that requires them to develop deeper understanding.

  4. Participation. This goes along with self-direction. Adult students need to feel in control of their learning experience. That means pace, style, and time spent on a subject. While all students can't be accommodated, adjusting a lesson on the fly in response to student feedback is crucial. That may involve teaching something you didn't intend, developing an example or way of explaining something when the student(s) fail to respond to the first examples, or going over things step-by-step in greater detail.

While some of the concepts or ideas already discussed regarding adult learners will be repeated, it's important to go over strategies for optimal learning.

Strategies for Retention and Comprehension

The ability to repeat back information previously given is retention. Retention is important in order to continue the process of learning with concepts that build upon each other. But more important than just retention is comprehension.

Comprehension consists of understanding the topic to a degree that it can be applied and combined with other knowledge to handle unique scenarios and solve problems "in the wild". The core of teaching for comprehension involves several key points.

  1. Teach conceptually. If we start at a high level it is easier to explain to a student the purpose of what they're learning. Remember that we need to introduce context with the "why" and "where" included. Explaining the concept at a higher level is a great place to do that.

  2. Use Visuals. Lecture has about a 5% retention rate. But if we add in visuals so that we are showing the student retention immediately jumps to 20%. As a side note, reading retention is usually about 10%. So having assignments that involve reading on their own is also great.

  3. Demonstration. After we've explained a higher level concept using visuals, analogies, and so on, we should begin demonstration. During demonstration we should ensure that we are explaining what we're doing in sufficient detail so as to make connections between previously learned information. For example, if we're teaching http and using Angular's $http service we may pause to explain that our ".then" clause takes a callback; something they learned in an earlier lesson.

  4. Participation. While demonstrating the instructor should be involving the students. For example, have the student perform the exercise along with you while stopping to ensure retention and comprehension with questions. Optimally we should be facilitating discussion as much as possible. Ask the students questions, or if repeating information from a previous lesson, ask one of the students to guide the class through it. (i.e. Bootstrapping an Angular app). While discussion has a 50% retention rate,teaching others has a 90% retention rate. So get the students involved in teaching each other.

  5. In Class Practice. It may be tempting or seem helpful to spend more time explaining and demonstrating when students don't understand. Although this may be necessary, in order for the student to really grasp what is being taught they have to put it into practice. Add small practice problems throughout your lesson. After explaining, demonstrating, and discussing, have a prepared exercise that the student will do on their own that combines all the things learned in the lesson. The exercise should not be much more complicated than the demonstration. However, the exercise should be sufficiently different from the demonstration that developing a true understanding is necessary to complete the exercise.
    This practice time also allows us to do something very important: get one-on-one time with our students.

  6. One-on-one time or direct mentorship. I don't think this can be overly emphasized. Having one-one-one time will be equally valuable to the teacher as it is to the student. When we watch or go through an exercise with a student we can more easily and thoroughly pinpoint what they are struggling with. Through this practice a teacher can learn where the holes are in their students understanding and begin to fill them as well as adjust future or previous lessons to improve explanation of the topic. The student benefits by being able to ask more in depth questions and receive more specific explanations. Some students may be bashful about asking questions during class. Having a positive session with you can help those people. Often times you'll find that all of your students are actually struggling with the same things. This is an indicator to revise or revisit previous topics with the whole class and improve a lesson's content.

  7. Repetition. Simply repeating a task over and over again will start to build competency. When creating new exercises, lessons, or homework, don't skip over steps leading up to the knew topic. Require all your students to repeat things many times until they are very comfortable.

I believe that if all or most of these learning modalities are incorporated into every lesson students will be better prepared to immediately integrate into a working environment and build upon their skill sets.

Template for Creating LessonsFor more on retention rates by modality: http://thepeakperformancecenter.com/educational-learning/learning/principles-of-learning/learning-pyramid/