February 20, 2023

Dr. Marie Norman, Co-Author of “How Learning Works: 8 Research Based Principles of Smart Teaching” on the Science of Learning, Motivation, and the Future of Work

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #95

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Dr. Marie Norman, a co-author of the book How Learning Works: Eight Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. She is the Director of the Innovative Design for Education and Assessment Lab, as well as an Associate Professor of Medicine, clinical and Translational Science.

On this episode of Bring It In season four, Marie sat down with Sam and discussed how to teach different backgrounds, the importance of technology, and the principles leaders should focus on while teaching.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Dr. Norman shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “In order to be motivated, people have to see the value of what you’re asking them to do or the outcome of it.”
  • “Just because you’re covering it does not mean somebody is learning it.”
  • “Having brilliant people or a lot of expertise doesn’t mean much in teaching unless you find ways to reach people.”

Sam: What brought you to write How Learning Works?

Marie: Absolutely. And thank you for having me. I appreciate it. So, about myself, I’m an anthropologist by training, but I got particularly interested in the teaching of anthropology and that led me in the direction of the scholarship of teaching and learning. So I was working at Carnegie Mellon University teaching in the history program, which is where they have anthropology, and working also in the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence there. And my co-authors on this book were my colleagues at the Eberly Center, so big shout out to Marsha Lovett, Mike Bridges,  Michele DiPietro, and Susan Ambrose. And really the kind of work we were doing there, we were working closely with faculty to try to help them teach more effectively, and we were often in a problem solving mode of trying to diagnose problems.

So instructors would come and say, ‘my students are coming to class, or they screw up this assignment regularly and consistently, or I don’t know how to lead a discussion on sensitive topics.’ And they’d come to us for help and we’d help them sort of work through that. And as we did, we started to recognize that there was a sort of limited set of principles that are grounded in, at this point, a century of research on how people learn that could guide them, that could guide decision making and help people solve problems, but also help them adjust a course to a new student population or a new teaching modality that it was just these bedrock principles that serve you in all teaching and learning contexts. And while we were in higher education, I think those principles apply equally well to corporate training or any situation where people are learning and have to learn regularly and adjust to a changing world. 

So, we wrote the first edition of How Learning Works in 2010, which identified seven learning principles. And we found those principles just endlessly useful to ourselves with our kids, with our spouses, in our work, and also they’ve really stayed very steady and stable and equally useful despite all the changes that have happened since 2010. You know, the covid and everybody being forced online and all the disruption in education with budgets being cut and new forms of education like Coursera and edX, or Masterclass kind of cropping up and all these new technologies, all these ups and downs in education. But these principles are just a steady foundation that I think can guide people who are teaching or training. 

Sam: I would totally agree, the principles of all of them. The one thing I wanted to ask is, in your opinion, which one has sort of stood the test of time and become the most important right now in 2010 to 2023? Of those seven, which one do you feel is the most, if I only focused on one as a leader, what would you advise me? 

Marie: Can I pick two? 

Sam: Yeah.

Marie: So I think motivation is critically important on teams and in every context, and that’s probably the one that I go to the most often. I like to think about motivation in terms of value and expectancy. So in order to be motivated, people have to see the value of what you’re asking them to do or the outcome of it. And they have to feel that they can succeed, that there isn’t too many obstacles or too much favoritism, or too much difficulty for them to succeed. And if you think about those as levers to motivate people, like how can I enhance the value? How can this be more valuable to them? Or how can I show them the value of what I want them to learn better or more clearly on the one hand, and then how can I lower barriers that are getting in the way of them learning on the other hand and find that sweet spot in the middle? That’s to me a really helpful way of thinking about it.

And then there’s climate, which I think now, particularly as we’re focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion, really thinking about how the climate of learning environments affects learning is also very relevant and very important cuz people do not learn well when they are stressed and frightened if they feel like they can’t take risks or can’t say things without being smacked down or if they feel like there’s sort of an in of one in a particular place, learning is really inhibited. So it’s also up to educators and trainers to think hard about how to create learning environments where there’s psychological safety and where people feel like they can take intellectual risks and speak up.

Sam: You bring up that last one I think is really important. I was on the phone the other day with an operations leader who oversees training and development in the restaurant industry and in that environment, such a high percentage of their workforce are low wage, frontline, back off house, talking about dishwasher to busser roles.

Before they clock in, you talk about stress. I mean, they’re coming in with stress. They know they’re leaving to stress and they might be coming into a training or a coaching situation where their teacher manager at the restaurant should and have to consider the climate before they put them into a training or a coaching situation.

Marie: Absolutely. And under those circumstances, they may even need to provide some sort of transition, right? To kind of lower stress levels or give people a minute to relax or before introducing new content. I think exactly those sorts of things are very important.

We’ve all collectively as a nation and world, gone through a pretty major trauma over the last couple of years and everybody’s destabilized, and kind of recognizing that and creating space within learning experiences for people to share what’s going on with them. Connect with one another, those connections and these principles are so interwoven, but the connections are also motivating.

One of the features of motivation that sort of falls under value is connection, is relatedness, is the ability of people to feel accountable to one another and connected to one another. So when trainers can enhance that within trainings, that’s also really important and that’s hard to do if people are stressed out.

Sam: Yeah, I think that’s a big one. Throughout the book, which obviously, you can see I have in front of me and it’s pretty marked up… 

Marie: That makes me so happy.

Sam: I attack a good book and throughout the book, the word transfer comes up a lot. This concept of what you teach has to transfer and it feels like in the corporate workforce space, the thing I commonly hear is learning happens this way. I know how learning works. And the learning motion is traditionally we create a video module that’s 40 days long and we force you to watch it and there’s like this click through test somewhere along the way to make sure you’re still breathing and then your checkbox and trained and that’s it.

Can you talk a little bit about transfer and how, in a workforce environment, the ultimate goal is to get the best outta your workers, get them ready and get them continuously learning. But I dunno, it feels like we’re not considering at times how learning actually adds to your title, how learning actually works.

Marie: Exactly. And transfer is such a critically important part of that. So transfer refers to one’s ability to take what you learn in one context, like a training or in a classroom, and use it outside that context in a wider range of context appropriately. And what the research shows is that this often does not happen. People learn something in a classroom, but don’t think to apply it or don’t know how to apply it outside the classroom or the training. And that’s often because we approach training with some misconceptions about how people learn, and a lot of that is reflected in our reliance on content.

We kind of think content equals learning. I provide the content, therefore they have absorbed it. And so we use very passive ways of teaching like lectures, maybe with minimal interaction, like a quiz, to try to get people to learn things, but we don’t give them practice, which is truly how people learn, through practice and feedback. They have to do something, see how they did it, get feedback from an expert, do it again, get feedback. That’s how people learn to actually use what they’re learning and apply it. And I think we have this kind of misconception that if you tell them that is training, and it doesn’t work and it doesn’t lead to transfer and it leads to a very brittle kind of knowledge that often does not make its way into behavior and therefore doesn’t achieve the outcomes that employers want.

Sam: One of the things I took from the book is it feels like you have to be comfortable as a teacher, a manager, and a coach. You gotta be comfortable making people uncomfortable a little bit. It feels like challenge was a word that I took away. I don’t know how you feel. One of the lines I circled was talking about practice, which you’re talking about and says, for it to be effective, it must target an appropriate level of challenge relative to the student’s current performance, and then again, sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria. I guess, any thoughts around how you figure out the right amount of challenge when you’re teaching a class of a variety of different people from different backgrounds who are working with the workforce?

Marie: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a gnarly question. It’s a tough one to answer. To some extent, you learn from teaching and adjusting, right? Like you realize, ‘Ooh, that was over their heads, or that was way too easy for them’. But you’re not even gonna know that unless you incorporate a lot of questions and not just questions like, does that make sense, but questions that ask them to use that would demonstrate understanding. So asking trainees to give me an example where that might be the case or explain to me why this, where they have to generate an answer is going to give you a better sort of diagnostic sense of whether this is too easy for them, too hard for them, sort of where it belongs, and then you would adjust for future trainings. 

And then I think it’s also important to think about numbers. Like you probably can’t reach everybody at all learning levels simultaneously, particularly in large groups. So you need to pay attention to the bulk of people, whether this is sort of at the sweet spot for a bulk of people, and then provide remediation for folks who aren’t keeping up and maybe provide additional sort of challenge opportunities for ones who are advanced or already pretty much know the stuff. So thinking about that sort of way of differentiating I think is important as well. 

There are also a lot of things you can do as a teacher to kind of capitalize on those differences in class or in training in terms of who you call on for which answers. You can use the folks who are sort of at the top of that pile to answer more complex questions or explain things to others, and you can target maybe simpler questions to folks you think may not be keeping up. So there are different ways to address that, but that’s a tricky thing. It really is. 

Sam: Yeah. I find myself, when I’m trying to talk about the point you made on generative learning, kind of putting a student in a situation where they have to generate the answer without knowing it prior. That’s a hard one to sell to teachers and managers. And people challenge you. This is what they say, they have to learn it first. And how do you answer that question? How do you respond to that when you say, ‘let’s pop quiz them or low stakes, test them on something before they’ve seen it’, and you got all the science on why that’s effective, but it’s hard to change people’s biases around the old motion.

Marie: There certainly are. So you know, preliminary tests can be very motivating because they expose gaps in learning and they can make the learner feel more invested by recognizing, ‘Ooh, I thought I knew this, I don’t, actually’. They can also show you where the gaps in areas are for you to address. So they serve a lot of purposes, but you can also do a lot of formative assessment throughout a training where you teach something and then you ask people about it. That’s when they really learn it deeply, is when they have to do something with it. 

There’s a model called the ICAP model that I find useful that differentiates different levels of cognitive engagement. The ICAP stands for Interaction, Construction, Active learning and Passive learning. So it’s sort of the opposite order that you want. So passive learning, lecture. Just stand up there with slides and drone on. Active learning might be something like incorporating a little quiz. But then the highest levels of learning, the highest levels of cognitive engagement come when you ask people to construct something with what you have taught them.

So not just repeat it back or answer a couple questions, but explain why it’s meaningful, or talk about why this is meaningful the workplace to look at these kinds of things, or how they might adjust it for their own workplace. That’s that extra thinking is where deeper learning happens. And then the highest level is interactions. So if you can get people to role play scenarios and practice using skills that they’re being trained on, that kind of thing, that can be really, really effective as well. 

And those are in fact assessments, you’re checking in with them. Are you listening? Is this making sense? Can you use it? Can you apply it all the way as you go? But that does mean you can’t cover as much. And I know you always get pushback from folks on that level of kind of like, but we wanna cover more. But the fact is just because you’re covering it does not mean somebody is learning it. So there’s a story that My co-author Mike Bridges tells about Isaac Newton, and it might be apocryphal, but I don’t care. So Isaac Newton taught at Cambridge and he was renowned as this brilliant, brilliant physicist, and people flocked to his lectures and they would crowd the lecture hall and he would speak. But he spoke in such a way, so abstract, so far over their head that nobody understood what he was saying. And slowly they sort of trickled away until it was an empty lecture hall and he kept teaching. And so there you have teaching and you have content, but you have no learners and you have no learning. And so having brilliant people or a lot of expertise doesn’t mean much in teaching unless you find ways to reach people.

Sam: Yeah, I feel like that happens a lot. I wanna talk about technology now, but I feel like that’s now you just have to turn your camera off on Zoom and look like you’re in the class, but you’re not, you’re actually getting up and leaving. Are there any, as you think about your model, I know you mentioned you have another edition coming out here in the next few months, which is exciting…

Marie: With eight principles, we’re up a principle.

Sam: Are you able to give us a sneak peek? 

Marie: Sure. Where we really sort of dug in was, first of all, updating all the research that’s happened in the interim and drilling into the social and emotional components of learning, which are really highlighted online. Also to kind of bring in more of the technological and online sort of use cases and scenarios. So we’ve broken out the chapter that dealt with student development and course climate into more or less two chapters. One that really looks at individual differences among students, whether it’s in terms of their intellectual development or social development in one chapter, and then the other chapter just digs deeply into course climate and why it matters with all the research on belonging and mindset and resilience and things along those lines. 

Sam: On the technology front, I wanted to ask, it feels, especially since Covid, there were a lot of companies that didn’t have the, I would say the learning infrastructure ready for that transition. A lot of organizations, and you’re seeing it right now, again, layoffs. The first group that gets laid off is human resources, they’re the ones often responsible for training and development and learning, and then companies often wonder why it’s so hard to find people when it swings the other way, and they have to figure out how to get people up to speed.

From a technology perspective, is there anything you’re seeing that is helpful versus harmful from an investment perspective today? If you were advising me, and I’m, let’s say I said I’m gonna create the next big restaurant brand and I wanna build a big workforce, I wanna make sure everybody is delivering five star service every time, and I gotta build a good learning infrastructure and I have a budget for tech. What are the things you would say are most helpful? What would you advise me and what are the things you tell me to stay away from? 

Marie: Yeah. I think one thing that is really important with online or distance learning is reducing cognitive load, extraneous cognitive load. So cognitive load refers to the mental burden from any particular task. And it can either be Intrinsic cognitive load, so the mental efforts you need to do to perform the task, which is inevitable, or Germane cognitive load, which asks you to go beyond that task and make other connections.

But extraneous cognitive load is just sucking energy without purpose, and technology is terrible for that. You know, think of all the logins you might need to use different kinds of tech tools or learning how to negotiate different platforms or troubleshoot things that you don’t understand. And there are a lot of people in the workforce who are not particularly tech savvy and really struggle.

So I think finding a very, very clean, intuitive platform that is really user-friendly and beautiful, aesthetically beautiful, and pleasant to interact with is one essential thing. And then really limit how many different kinds of things you’re throwing at learners, both because of logins and because of the learning curves of using this discussion board or that collaboration tool or whatever.

So I think keeping it simple, really paying attention to aesthetics and design is really important, and then really taking advantage of the affordances that various platforms have. I personally am a massive fan of Zoom, but you have to really use Zoom. Chat is an incredibly powerful tool and you can use it in all sorts of different ways, breakout rooms, in all sorts of different ways. But you have to be thoughtful about it and you still have to keep on your teacher hat, right, and really be thinking, who are my students? What do I want them to get out of this? How will they interact in these rooms? How do I want them to report back? Really think through all the logistics carefully.

But I think there’s a lot you can do in Zoom, and then you can have, you don’t wanna be too heavy handed, but you can really highlight the importance of having webcams on so you can see one another and feel connected. I’ve started to really use a lot of cold calling in classes, but it’s not cold. It’s warm, where I give them plenty of notice. First of all tell ’em why I wanna do it in a very prosocial way, like I really wanna hear it from all of you. This is important that everybody has a voice in this class, and give ’em an opt out if they’re not ready or whatever. But it has made the biggest difference in Zoom classes because people are on their toes and they’re paying attention.

So anyways, those are just some of the things I can think of. I think technology, I’m always sort of frustrated with learning technologies. They never seem to be where they need to be. I don’t think they get the money and the investment that sort of commercial technologies do or social media, and I’m still waiting for things that are better than what’s out there, but they are getting better, more intuitive, more beautiful, more sort of integrated with the rest of our lives so they’re not sort of over there in the corner when you don’t notice them and don’t go to them. So those are a few of the things that I was thinking about. Were there any particular sort of tech challenges that came to mind for you?

Sam: I think a lot about accessibility today. A lot of the learning management systems in the market moved to enterprise because they kind of ran outta college to sell to, and when they did that, the end user should be the learner, the employee. But because the company controls what people learn, the challenge is it creates an environment where unless the company’s asking for it, the software companies don’t have to be as innovative. It’s not like a consumer product. Consumer products, you gotta be on top of your stuff.

You said beautiful design. You have to be cutting edge. I think that the challenge is that learning softwares maybe aren’t challenged as much by the end user, but you are seeing more consumer products, Coursera and a degree and other products start to go to the consumer. 

Marie: Yeah, I guess there are hazards in both directions. Educational markets and consumer markets like that. But you bring up accessibility, which I agree is so important that I’m seeing more platforms and tools that take accessibility into account and have sort of good accessibility guidelines and practices. But there’s still a lot out there that are not accessible, can’t be, aren’t screen reader friendly, don’t have all text, all those kinds of things that we really need to move fast.

Sam: Sure. Not everybody has an iPhone 14, and some workers are coming to work on public transit and connectivity is an issue, so I think there’s a lot there. I have one final question for you. We’re talking about the future of work, what is your hope for the future of work? 

Marie: Oh, I hope that the workforce of the future or the sort of work environment of the future is humane. I feel like in the past decades we’ve moved very far away from that and really kind of reduced humans to sort of cogs in a machine and I feel like there were some very important lessons from Covid that I really hope we retain about creating workspace. First of all, trusting workers to some extent, much, much more than we have, that people continue to work and work well, at least from where I sat during Covid without anybody l leading over their shoulder. And if the work is interesting and meaningful and you’re doing something that makes a difference in the world, in whatever way it is, that’s where the motivation should be rather than somebody standing over you asking you to punch the clock or docking you if you disappear from the webcam for two minutes or some of those things, which I think are really regressive and a move in entirely the wrong direction.

So if I’d like to see us move towards really thinking about how the workplace can be a motivating, innovative, interesting place for people where they want to put in the work and then we just enable them and get out of their way. I’d like to see more of that. 

Sam: Marie, thanks for spending time with us.

Marie: It was a real pleasure, Sam. Thanks so much

Topics Discussed: Motivation, Learning, Cognitive Engagement, Learning, Technology

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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