February 27, 2023

Marsha Lovett, PhD — Co-Author of “How Learning Works: 8 Research Based Principles of Smart Teaching,” Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Innovation at the Carnegie Mellon University

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #96

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Marsha Lovett, co-author of How Learning Works: 8 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Lovett is Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Innovation and Co-Coordinator of the Simon Initiative and Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

On this episode of Bring It In season four, Marsha sat down with Sam and discussed knowing your learners, what to look for in educators, and the importance of a growth mindset.

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


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

  • “Learning happens through doing and through receiving feedback to hone your skills and knowledge.”
  • “Learners will be more motivated when they see more value.”
  • “You are not your learners.”

Sam: I’d love to start by you, maybe sharing a little bit of your background, and I guess what led you to the endeavor of writing and participating in how learning works? 

Marsha: Sure. Well, thanks for that question. I think a lot about the position that I have. I’m so lucky to be at a university where I can think about the research on learning and put that into practice in our education. I started out my doctoral training and my PhD is in the area of learning science, so just like you can have a chemist who studies chemistry and a biologist who studies biology, a learning scientist studies, what are the underlying processes of learning? How can we better understand them and in my case, also improve them?

And so I was sort of a regular old faculty member doing the research and teaching on learning, And a position opened in Carnegie Mellon University’s teaching center, which is now Teaching and Ed Tech Center, which supports faculty and instructors in improving their teaching and student learning.

And so I stepped into this role and I have loved it because it allows the work of research on learning to be actually applied in practice, and I get to see the positive impacts. So through the work of the teaching center, we consult with faculty when they have ideas they wanna try or challenges, problems they wanna solve, and we found these consultations, we kept coming back to the same ideas, being helpful to them. And so seeing those recurring themes and wanting to support not only our faculty we could meet with here at Carnegie Mellon, we wrote the book to sort of synthesize that research literature so that individuals could take it into practice.

Sam: Of the seven principles, is there any one specific one that you feel is most important today in our current workforce climate? 

Marsha: Well, that’s a really tough question. I have to say, I do have my favorites and a caveat that we say is they all interconnect really closely together. But I guess if I had to pick two, I don’t think I could put one most important, but of the two that I would pick, one has to do with practice and feedback. So a principle that you don’t just learn by passively absorbing information and then magically being able to do things better and so forth. Learning happens through doing and through receiving feedback to hone your skills and knowledge. 

And the other one tied for most important would be the principle on motivation. And a lot of times I will acknowledge faculty and trainers, all kinds of folks who are teaching on a subject. They’re motivated because they’re experts in that subject and they need to recognize motivation is a part of the learning puzzle for the folks that they’re teaching. So I would put those two at the top of my list.

Sam: In your experience teaching teachers, which one of the seven do you feel teachers struggle with the most? Now, I would imagine this is the same for managers and talent leaders who are trying to onboard a new hire and also continue to develop an existing one. 

Marsha: Yeah, I think it might be the motivation one, to be honest, Sam, because like I said, if you’re teaching in a topic area, you probably already have an affinity for that topic, you’re happy to be in the room, but all of your learners may not share the value that you ascribe to learning that topic.

And so I think a lot of times it’s natural for folks to just presume that the learners see the value of this. And that’s one of the key lessons of the motivation principle, is that learners will be more motivated when they see more value, and we can’t presume that they see that value. So thinking about how to make what you’re teaching relevant to learners so they can see the value is really important.

The other key ingredient to motivated learning is that the learners feel that it’s doable, that they actually have what it takes, it’s a fair environment, so if they work hard, they will be rewarded with learning and other advantages. And so creating an environment where not only you’re making the value clear in a way that connects to learners, but also shows them that if they put an effort that will come to good results, that’s gonna create a motivated learner. And so I think it’s kind of an aha for some faculty, they might say or other trainers might say, ‘is that really my job to motivate the learners?’ And I think yes, because if you don’t, they’re not gonna be as engaged and they’re not gonna get the learning outcomes you want.

Sam: It’s just been so interesting to me over the years, observing in different settings, whether it’s coaches in sports or it’s HR leaders where there’s almost this feeling of we do unto others what has been done to us. You know? So I sat through a classroom. I force everybody to watch learning. I had to sit through the learning videos and the little quiz at the end that really doesn’t ensure real retention. It’s just like checking the box if I’m going to pass it. And breaking that cycle feels so hard. I mean, are there any observations from the front lines on how we move to a world where a book, like How Learning Works, is on the shelf of every HR leader everywhere? And other books like it instead of just gut.

Marsha: Right. Well, it is a natural tendency that the way I learned is the way I’ll teach others. What I try to remind folks who are leaders in this regard is, remember, you are not your learners. And this is always true because you need to think about who the learners that you’re working with, and what are their needs, instead of just presuming that they’re gonna take up information the same way that you did. And this can help break that cycle, I think, because maybe you did learn really well by just listening to someone lecture at you, but that’s not necessarily the way that others are gonna learn, or the expectations of today’s learners or students have changed and evolved over the years. And so we need to be responsive to that as part of creating a really positive and productive learning environment. 

So that’s one thing I always try to remind people, you are not your student. You are not your learner. And try to put yourself a little bit into their shoes. And this can be helpful also because, not just in terms of motivation, but presuming they know things they may not know. We learn most when it connects to what we already know. And so thinking about what your learners already know may be different from you or your background experiences. And so connecting to that prior knowledge can also be really helpful.

Sam: Yeah, this connecting the prior knowledge is a huge opportunity today in a world where since work is changing so rapidly and workers are shifting in, many cases we’ve just got out of great resignation, and it’s a great something every other month, the great resignation, great reshuffle, there’s boss loss, now we’re talking about workers who are quiet quitting. And I share that as background because I feel like people have a lot of unseen talent that oftentimes, tell me if I’m right on here and expand, there’s a lot of skill that sometimes is sitting under the surface that if you’re not tapping into it the correct way from a teaching perspective, you’re not able to build it in a certain direction. That’s what I think about when I hear you say connecting to prior knowledge. I think of like a back of house person who could be your next bartender or a frontline worker that could be your next sales rep. There’s a lot of skill there, but are we doing the right stuff to connect to it and unlock it? 

Marsha: I think it’s really important to think about what are those connections and sometimes individuals don’t even see the connections themselves. I may have some relevant knowledge here, but a phenomenon is that folks often think, well, everybody knows that, so they don’t contribute.

So really looking for those skills or gems and trying to draw them out can be really helpful. The other thing I think about in terms of prior knowledge, it’s so amazing the power of different background experiences. When you bring people together who have different experiences, research shows the results tend to be better, right?

Because you’re getting a broader set of ideas into the mix. You’re not getting group think where it’s just one idea, the first idea, or everyone’s thinking alike leading to a certain path. Pulling out people’s prior experiences and helping them see where the connections are is really helpful.

Even this idea of activating the prior knowledge. So something we know about how learning and memory works is that memories don’t really go away. They just become so deactivated that over time, if you haven’t thought about that thing or brought that skill to bear, it might not be something that you do or say in the moment, but trying to activate or encourage people to remember something or bring it to the forefront when it might be applicable, that can be a really great help too. And it also lets the person know that you see they have something that you can bring to the table. 

Sam: Some of the activities, the way I interpreted some of the stuff in the book, you can’t really run away from struggle and failure. You have to lean into it. The hard stuff is the best stuff, and you gotta create an environment where there’s a lot of trust in order for failure to occur and not demotivate.

Marsha: Yes. I like this example. I think we speak to it in the book where, just take an example of someone who’s practicing to play a certain piece on the piano and they have a fixed amount of time. If they play the parts that they really know well, that they can go through smoothly, and it sounds great.

Well, that’s gonna be a lovely listening session for them, but are they really getting the best practice out of that? No, because they’re avoiding or skirting the challenge. Now, of course, challenge is effortful and it doesn’t feel great always to be making mistakes. So your point about the trusting environment is really important. Having a safe space to make a mistake and get constructive and critical feedback is important, but it’s not until you actually push your boundaries that you can grow and develop. 

So another important piece of this that’s come out in the research literature in the last decade to be a very robust phenomenon, and I know you’ve talked about this with other guests, is the idea of growth mindset. So one of the problems that we all face with failure is, if we do poorly or it looks like something isn’t going well, there’s a natural question, should I attribute that I just can’t do this? This is not for me? And that would be someone expressing a fixed mindset that if they don’t do well at something at first, they might think they can never do it, or that they don’t have the capacity to do well in that thing.

So as educators, if we think about helping to cultivate a growth mindset, then failure doesn’t mean you can’t do this. Failure means, and I love this, Carol Dweck, one of the social psychologists who’s been the leader and discoverer of this kind of research, is I haven’t learned that yet. And the, yet, that one word is so important because it opens the possibility for future development, putting in time and effort and the right strategies. I can get better.

Sam: I love that. I haven’t learned that yet. Yeah, it’s a great part of mindset. The one thing I was gonna ask you, which you’ve already answered one of ’em with growth mindset, was around what makes a great teacher? Cause I know that there’s a lot of we’re moving into an environment now this year where companies are afraid of or concerned about recession. You’re seeing a lot of organizations lay off large sums of workers, oftentimes the workforce let go first is frontline and human resources, which just so happens to be the group responsible for training and coaching and development. I wanted to get your perspective because it sometimes feels like we take the best person in this role and just advance them into a role like director of training. And I’m speaking broadly, not all organizations do this, but sometimes a director of training, but we say this in the book, is not classically trained in how learning works and how to be an effective teacher. 

What are the things that we should look for, and I’m assuming growth mindset is definitely number one, if you were advising me as a CEO and I’m hiring my next head of learning and development, head of training, what recommendations would you have for me if I wanted to build a company that was a high performance learning environment where we get people up to speed quickly and we keep developing them over time and learning is a strength of the organization. What would you advise me? 

Marsha: Well, I would agree that growth mindset is definitely something I would look for. Not just do we want students or learners to have that growth mindset, we want educators to have that growth mindset too, because then they’re gonna help promote that in the whole learning community.

I would add something else too. I think an important quality I would look for is someone who is really focused on, what is the goal of this learning? And really driven to create the learning experience that’s gonna get to that goal. That’s gonna make the learning more effective and more efficient. And we don’t have time in our environments, in our organizations to just do training for training’s sake. So that would be the one thing. 

And then with that goal in mind, I would want someone who is always looking to reflect on how did this go, and how can I improve? So just like we were talking about feedback and making mistakes or being willing to acknowledge something didn’t go perfectly. That’s the only way you can really, truly improve. 

And so I think looking for someone who really can keep their eyes on the goal and be willing to reflect on what went well so they can keep doing that in their educational activities or training programs and whatnot, and where they can identify, this needs work, we can do better here. Then they’re always going to honing the blade, they’re always gonna be creating a stronger learning program because it’s keeping on evolving and being refined over time based on what they’re experiencing. 

Sam: Are there any goals that you find or would recommend, and I ask that because it feels also at times where a lot of organizations think of training as a one and done event. You are trained, you are hired, you are onboarded, box checked, and then I think the joke is that on-the-job training is largely figure out on your own. That is really what it stands for, but a lot of learning management systems and e-learning products are set up in this pass/fail structure. Did you go through this course? Yes. Checkbox done. HR is happy. What other goals should an organization have to know that what they’re doing from a learning perspective is working other than just completion of something that’s mandatory? 

Marsha: Well in the higher education space, we wrangle about this a lot too because we don’t wanna measure learning in terms of only seat time. Like the person sat in the chair, that doesn’t tell you what they learned, that just tells you what they experienced. You had the butts in the seats kind of thing. So the goal that I’m always looking for, is after this learning experience, activity, whatever program it is, what can the person do?

Actually kind of phrase, ask the question and phrase it as a verb because then you get much more clarity about understanding whether your program was effective. If you just say, well, do they understand this better? Maybe, sort of. I don’t even know what it means to understand this, what you know, it’s a little ambiguous.

But if you ask the question and really design the learning experience in terms of, after this, I want the learners to be able to do X, Y, and Z, then you can actually observe. Can they? And what I’d love to see is they even get a chance to do X, Y, and Z in the learning experience so that you can see and observe how it’s going, how they’re developing along the way, but critically in terms of the real outcome, when they get back into their own context, then are they doing and able to do X, Y, and Z.

Sam: That’s a great point. I mean, again, just think about environments. If you’re in a new retail role and you go through an onboarding, now 30 days later, can you perform some of the key functions that were introduced in the X hours of onboarding you experienced? Would it be something like that?

Marsha: Yes, absolutely. And as you said the one and done mentality has the other problem that if we’re not continuing to practice or if we didn’t learn something up to the right level, it’s either going to be entrenching bad habits or, if we don’t use the skill, the skill will fade away. It’ll get less strong over time. So having the check-ins is a way to see if the person is able to do what they need, the X, Y, Z of the educational activity on the job in the context where they need to, then you know what to focus on in that subsequent training. 

Sam: Yeah, I think order’s always interesting too when it comes to learning or a training event.

So many feel you have to, this is a common thing I hear from a talent leader. They have to learn it first and then this, versus like, I read about low stakes quizzing you mentioned. I guess like generation or generative learning. It seems like that’s what it was coined as, but introducing the concept through a test or an event as the learning event. But there’s this, I hear a lot of people say, well, they gotta learn it first and then we can do that. 

Marsha: Yeah. Well, I think what that perspective has is a bit of a misconception that learning it is like putting it in a can and putting the can on the shelf. And that’s not really how learning works. It’s not that you’re pouring knowledge in, it’s that the learner needs to build and construct knowledge and refine and strengthen and maintain that knowledge. So it’s just kind of a different model. And the way the brain works is much more construct, build, refine, maintain, not just pour knowledge into a vessel. I think that reframing what is learning and what is our job supporting learning can be really helpful. 

Sam: We talked before about a new book coming, a new edition coming out, and I think you mentioned that there’s an eighth principle coming up. I don’t know, can you give us a sneak peek or do we have to wait?

Marsha: Sure. Happy to. So in the original How Learning Works book, we articulate seven principles for how learning works. And in the new edition coming out in a couple months, we have eight principles. Now I’ve already said the way the human brain works hasn’t changed in the past decade. That’s not it.

What we did, spoiler alert, is, we took one of the principles that combined issues of students identity, intellectual development, and culture of the classroom, and we broke it apart to really acknowledge that it’s important to think first about the individual differences among all our students and how important it is to think about their identity, their intellectual and social development, and how those are changing for all of us across the lifespan. And then we do that and we recognize that’s a piece of the culture of the learning environment. 

But those two topics now get their full due in individual principles. Of course the two are very interrelated. All of the principles actually interrelate in a lot of really interesting ways. But I think this allowed us to really acknowledge the importance of individual differences among our students, the identity of learners and the fact that identity and intellectual stages grow and develop over time and put that front and center and really encourage folks to think about how that’s an advantage. That’s something that diversity is something that you can leverage and make the whole group stronger as a result.

Sam: Love it. We’re looking forward to it. When does that come out? 

Marsha: I think end of March. So in just a couple months. 

Sam: Awesome. Very cool. We’re excited for it. And my final question, Marsha, and I appreciate you joining us, what we’re talking about, obviously in this conversation, about the future of work and talent leaders that are thinking every day about how they get the most outta their people. I wanted to ask you what is your hope for the future of work? 

Marsha: Great question. I would pull in this idea that as technology’s changing, as our world is changing, we have the opportunity to bring together in work environments, people to collaborate across many, many dimensions of difference. People who grew up in different contexts, people from different parts of the world, people with different perspectives. And my hope and dream is that in the future of work, we can really be leveraging that potential of folks working across those different differences and creating something really amazing as a result. 

Sam: Marsha, thanks for joining us today. I appreciate it. 

Marsha: My pleasure. Thank you, Sam.

Topics Discussed: Motivation, Learning, Memory, Growth Mindset, Teaching

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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