Love to Learn

I love to learn about learning!  What can I say?  Maybe I'm a geek or maybe I'm a mother of a child who struggles or maybe I'm still trying to understand my successes and failures in learning over the last 40+ years. Regardless, when it comes to books about of educational psychology and success, I can't seem to get enough!  I guess it's no wonder that I work as a trainer/content developer for Epicor.

I've read (or listened) to books by Malcolm Gladwell, Carol Dweck, and Paul Tough.  In "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, he mentions that it takes 10,000 hours of practice, which consists of practicing, receiving constructive feedback, tweaking the process, and further practicing, to become an expert in something. Carol Dweck's book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” puts forth the notion that a 'growth mindset', which is the understanding that success is a result of effort more than raw ability, is important so that students remain eager to learn and take on new challenges without fear of making mistakes. Lastly, in his book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character", Paul Tough discusses how it's not intelligence, but the qualities of character like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control that help children to be successful in life.

While I typically have my 'mom-glasses' on while reading (or listening) to these books, I'm usually left with two questions: 
1) How can I put any of this knowledge into practice for my son?
2) How can these lessons apply to adult learners who are learning the software Epicor sells?

I think I've finally discovered an article that can answer my questions.  In a whitepaper by Marcella Bullmaster-Day called "Productive Struggle for Deeper Learning" the author explains what productive struggle is and how it can build lasting understanding.  In particular, she outlines the key elements of productive struggle and learning strategies that promote it.  While the whitepaper does go on to promote Waggle, an online software for schools that provides productive struggle, there are some key lessons that can be gleaned from it and applied to the instruction we give our customers for learning our software.

First, productive struggle is important for deeper learning and mastery because it goes beyond the surface level rote learning into the deep conceptual understanding and fluency that allows a learner to apply the knowledge to new situations.  In addition, productive struggle must persist over time. The reason it must take place over time is to allow for new information to come into our working memory where it will seek meaning and association with what we already know, or our prior knowledge.  The more we work with the new information strengthens the associations with our existing knowledge via the interconnected neural networks or schemas in our long-term memory which leads to deeper understanding. Making these connections strong requires conscious effort of repeatedly pulling information from memory, making mistakes, correcting them with feedback and further practice. 

Love to LearnThe key elements of productive struggle are motivation, persistence, and scaffolded support through targeted explanatory feedback.  When learning goals are clear and the level of challenge is not too low or too high, students are likely to be internally motivated to engage in productive struggle to achieve the goal.  Giving opportunities for choices of activities, for collaboration and for hands-on activities will bolster student motivation. Motivation also requires the 'growth mindset' mentioned by Carol Dweck in that students understand that success is the result of effort and not just their raw ability.  They will engage in productive struggle because they won't fear failure and they'll be more apt to learn from their mistakes. Having the motivation to persist in struggling is supported by the quality of the teacher-student relationship and the scaffolding provided by feedback.  Productive struggle could cause frustration on the part of the student, but that's where good feedback comes in.  According to Dr. Bullmaster-Day, effective feedback is important for making goals clear and helping learners understand what they need to do next to make better progress.  Instead of just pointing out mistakes, effective feedback guides students to develop better strategies for processing and understanding the material so they gain mastery, confidence, and motivation to continue.

In the whitepaper from Dr. Bullmaster-Day, she outlines learning strategies that promote productive struggle. Productive struggle is fostered through what psychologists have termed desirable difficulties; challenges that compel the learner to repeatedly retrieve information over time, thereby strengthening long-term memory for flexible transfer of the information to new contexts later.  Strategies for desirable difficulties include low-stakes quizzing and self-testing; mixing or “interleaving” different types of problems; and spacing study and practice over time and locations.  Let's look at them further:

Quizzing and self-testing: The retrieval-enhanced practice of low-stakes, ongoing quizzing or formative assessment requires students to express, from memory, what they understand about new material and allows them to pinpoint and correct their knowledge gaps or misconceptions. Productive low-stakes testing methods include creating flashcards; generating summaries, outlines, and questions; explaining the material to oneself (elaborate interrogation); explicitly relating new material to other examples; and taking multiple-choice or constructed-response tests. 

Spaced (distributed) practice: Spreading study, quizzing, and practice sessions over time and locations has been shown to produce lasting learning because long-term memory of the material is strengthened each time information is actively retrieved. Spaced practice involves productive struggle, as it entails some forgetting, mistakes, corrections, and re-learning. 

Mixed (interleaved) practice: On standardized tests and in real-world situations, questions and problems do not come to students with labels naming the type of problem and revealing which strategies, skills, or algorithms should be invoked to solve the problem or respond to the question. Therefore, practicing different kinds of questions and problems builds learning-for-transfer more effectively than the more common massed-practice approach of working on one type of problem at a time until it appears that students have mastered it before moving on to the next. Interleaving problem types requires students to ask themselves, “What kind of problem is this? What do I need to do? Where should I start?” They must engage in the productive struggle of retrieval to answer these questions.

Does Epicor's Educational Approach Promote Productive Struggle?
Can our software training provide students with opportunities to gain confidence and competence through personalized pathways to retrieval practice, scaffolded instruction, and in-the-moment feedback?  You bet it can!  Through a mixture of on-demand learning and live training opportunities, our customers can get the education and support they need to utilize our software packages to their fullest and get the most ROI on their investment. By utilizing the ELC (Epicor Learning Center), customers can take courses assigned to them based on their roles, they can take tests where they can see which courses they may need to review to strengthen their knowledge, and through live training, they have hands-on activities and questioning to push their understanding further.  Could more be done to promote productive struggle?  Absolutely and I'm excited to see how I can start to incorporate more into the live training.  

Evaluating everything we offer, and looking at how it can be further improved, makes me realize that it's no wonder that I've enjoyed working for Epicor these last 19 years!


Posted by Jennifer Bankos, Trainer, Epicor University


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