How We Learn:
It’s about Engagement, Collaboration, and Flexibility

Wendy Beecham is the Managing Director of Executive Education at UC Davis. She has over 25 years of leadership experience, and has coached c-level business leaders on executive performance.

The recent Time magazine article, College is Dead. Long Live College, returned my attention to a critical issue in education: how humans learn. The debate about traditional brick and mortar learning institutions with professors providing lectures versus new online learning communities has quickly moved from an ancillary topic to the forefront of education as it’s pointing out new innovative learning techniques that will impact traditional learning methods in years and decades to come.

In response to how the brain learns, the new wave of online courses are a far cry from yesterday’s web-based classrooms, long characterized by one-dimensional lectures and dry downloadable PDFs. With the advent of the online gaming industry, there has been much discussion about leveraging gaming strategies and technologies to improve learning, especially for millenials with limited attention spans.

There are several new Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) systems called Coursera and Udacity, launched by Stanford Professors, and edX that was launched by MIT and Harvard, that are creating some new discussions and opportunities (follow a current discussion here). The Time article described an online physics class which stops every few minutes to ask the participant a question, reinforcing the information they just consumed. Humans need to be engaged to participate, and having constant interruptions prevents students from being distracted by other web sites or online chat. Furthermore, students of the physics class are invited to send in videos of themselves working on class experiments, and they are encouraged to interact with each other and help answer one another’s questions – building relationships much like those found in a physical classroom.

Implications for Executive Education

This type of learning is in close alignment with what I have observed to be effective with corporate executives. Typically, it’s been a few years since our “students” were in a lecture hall. They’re seasoned leaders who know their jobs inside and out, and they’ve had decades of hands-on practice. Sitting quietly, listening to monotonous PowerPoint presentations, memorizing and regurgitating information just won’t do the trick when it comes to higher-level strategy issues like improving productivity, changing corporate culture, or promoting innovation.

To engage the leaders with the curriculum, it’s essential to incorporate constant interaction to evaluate how much they are retaining. Asking them to respond to questions with clickers for immediate survey results, providing the opportunity to break into impromptu discussion with questions, and constructing hands-on workshops are all methods that make a huge difference when it comes to retention and implementation.

The venue for learning is equally critical.  Harvard recently opened a new building with teaching areas called “Hives” created specifically to foster teamwork, collaboration and flexibility – all skills related to the Agile Leader that we need to be in today’s environment.  At the UC Davis Graduate School of Management we use a combination of facilities depending on the needs of the client and more often than not are in rooms where there are no set seating arrangements.

These formats are also reminiscent of the Khan Academy.  This version of online learning is based on short YouTube videos but they have created teaching guides to be used in the classroom. The teacher becomes the facilitator while the students teach each other.  Those who learn faster coach others who struggle, while they themselves move forward through the coursework at a faster pace. The data is showing that students are more engaged with the content and are testing better as they have different levels of support based on where they might be struggling in class.

The Time Magazine article also mentioned a study published in the journal Science, where a group of researchers conducted an experiment on a large undergraduate physics class at the University of British Columbia. For a week, one section of the class received its normal lecture from a veteran, highly-rated professor; another section was taught by inexperienced graduate students using strategies developed from research into human cognition. The students in the experimental course worked in small groups to solve problems with occasional guidance from the instructor. They got frequent feedback. In the experimental group with novice instructors, attendance increased 20% and students did twice as well on an end-of-week test. This reinforces the idea that teaching methodologies are just as important as the reputation and experience of the professor.

All of these musings are indicative of the need for Executive Education providers to be more innovative not in just what is presented and how we interact with our clients, but how we coach our faculty and presenters to be more agile themselves in responding to how humans learn.

To learn more about executive education programs at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management contact Wendy Beecham today.