Insights from the Field: The Intersection of Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology in the Digital Learning Space


Zeren Eder

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This week, Dr. Michelle Miller, author of Minds Online, and OLC faculty for the workshop, Bringing Theory to Practice through the Neuro, Cognitive and Learning Sciences, joins us to discuss her collaboration with Dr. Kristen Betts on this new offering within the OLC Institute for Professional Development.


Zeren: Hello. This is Zeren Eder with OLC. Today I have the pleasure of having Dr. Michelle Miller with me for a quick chat about the new OLC workshop Bringing Theory to Practice Through the Neuro, Cognitive, and Learning Sciences, which she co-developed and will be co-facilitating with Dr. Kristin Betts. Welcome Dr. Miller, and thanks for joining me today. Why don’t we start with getting to know you a bit?

Dr. Miller: Well, my background and how I started out in research and in teaching was as a cognitive psychologist, and I did most of my early work in theories having to do with memory encoding and with language. And I did some interesting studies. I was able to participate in studies about cognitive aging as well. So that’s when my early career started out.

But when I came to Northern Arizona University (NAU), I got a lot more interested in work that kind of crossed over between theoretical cognitive psychology, applied cognitive psychology and teaching.  Especially the kinds of teaching challenges that are common in today’s educational environments of the foundational courses, that are sometimes very important for students to succeed in, but also hard for them to succeed in large classes. And of course, I got interested in technology as well. So, NAU has been to the forefront of many aspects of online and technology assisted learning since I first came here in 1999 and so I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with colleagues who are interested in these modes of teaching and to have opportunities to experiment and a lot of support of doing so.

Zeren: Thanks for this introduction Dr. Miller. Could you tell us something interesting about yourself that wouldn’t necessarily be in your resume?

Dr. Miller: Well, I do have probably too many hobbies. I like to juggle a lot of things, and have a lot of things going on in my life. I also have three daughters, one of whom is off in college one of whom is attending an arts boarding school in California, and the other who’s is still my little one at home. And, really, my favorite of all the kind of hobbies that I have is reading. I particularly love nonfiction of various kinds. I love memoirs and any kind of really high quality non-fiction that’s either really well-written, really interesting or really useful, or ideally those books that are a combination of all three. And I love loading up all of my different books that I’ve checked off my list into Goodreads. So that’s one of my favorite thing to do online is to put my books into Goodreads.

Zeren: How wonderful! So we know there are many opportunities for you out there to teach online and we are delighted that you chose OLC. Could you share with us why you chose OLC and which Institute course or courses you teach?

Dr. Miller: OLC has a really special place in my professional heart. I started going to the international conference years ago and really loved the opportunity to hear from some of the people at the forefront of new developments, to interact with colleagues who were doing lots of interesting things, and to see what kinds of new technologies had been invented just that year. So that was a natural fit. I also was so excited when I was first matched up with my co-instructor Dr. Kristen Betts, and that whole meeting was arranged by OLC, by Jennifer Rafferty. So, the opportunity to collaborate in that way has been really exciting for me, and I do feel that that shines through in the course that we’ve created. And that’s the opportunity to work with an instructional designer, and have really cutting-edge, really high-quality collaboration in that way, as well, was a big draw for me as a prospective instructor for this course.

Zeren: Well, it was my pleasure to work with you and Dr. Betts as your ID in this project actually. So, what are the three most important things prospective participants should know about the Bringing Theory to Practice Through the Neuro, Cognitive and Learning Sciences workshop?

Dr. Miller: Well, really the first thing is: I want to emphasize how truly unique this course has turned out to be. As I mentioned, it is a collaboration between myself and between Dr. Betts, and throughout the development of the course, we’ve played off of each other; we formulated new ideas; we’ve compared and contrasted across our two perspectives, and I think that dynamic interplay is something that will come across in this course. So, I truly believe there is nothing else exactly like this that’s out there in the landscape of online learning opportunities for higher education professionals. So, that is one thing.

Another thing is to anticipate that while we are very, very empirical or research-based in our approach, we were very mindful about bringing in a diversity of different kinds of resources and learning activities. So, without giving too much away, you can expect everything from brain games to research articles, to videos and websites that we’ve curated from our own professional collections. And so that’s another thing that we’re very excited to share with our students.

And lastly, the third most important thing is that this course is also created to be personalized to the individual learners. So, you will be asked to and given many opportunities and the [necessary] support to bring in learning resources, and highlight these specific ideas techniques and concepts that really align with whatever your practice is.

Zeren: Nice! Sounds like a lot of fun! My next question for you is: How would you define innovation?

Dr. Miller: In my personal and professional definition, I’ll probably fall back on something much like a definition of creativity which we use in my field, which is out there with solutions that are both novel, they’re new and useful. So, I really like those practical solutions that address, not some theoretical idea or doing something just because it’s technologically possible to do it, but they’re really mapped onto the challenges that we face when working with today’s students in today’s learning environments. So, that to me is what innovation really is. Innovation is also a trait of the kinds of engaged practitioners that I always like to work with. So, the trait of being innovative is that courage to bring in something new, but also the real self-awareness to monitor how it’s going and to change midstream to suit the needs of your students in your discipline and that you’re working in.

Zeren: Thank you for sharing that. As you know, OLC’s Institute offerings help professionals stay current in their prospective fields, and oftentimes assist in the advancement of their profession as well. So, what do you believe are the top three ways in which professionals in our field can stay current and move ahead?

Dr. Miller: Well, the first answer to that off the of my head will reflect my bias as a lover of books and as a writer as well, and that is to take advantage of the many high-quality and engaging books about teaching and learning that there are. So there’s something for almost everybody out there in the modern landscape for books about teaching and learning. So, I think being an engaged reader in that sense. So, the second one is to—of course—stay as current as possible on the science of learning. However, there is a caveat that this science is very large and broadly determined. Even for those of us who work as experts in the field, it can be hard to stay apprised. So, that brings me to the third thing, which is to build out that professional network to take advantage of things like Twitter and your professional Facebook page as well to get leads on the latest nugget of information idea or technique that may map on to your particular challenges.

Zeren: Great insights! Here is my next question for you: What was the last book, journal or article you read related to the field?

Dr. Miller: It’s hard to pick out a single one, but right now I’m doing a lot of reading about the issue of the impact of technology on attention and on academic achievement, and this is part of the current research and some manuscripts I’m working on myself.

Zeren: Oh, that also relates to the seventh question, which is about what research projects you are engaged in? Do you have any other projects you are working on other than the one you just mentioned about neuro, cognitive, and learning sciences?

Dr. Miller: Right. So, right now I’m busy writing up some of the work I’ve been doing around our Attention Matters Project here at Northern Arizona University, which is an online med module for educating students about the impact of things like a digital multitasking on learning and on the other aspects of their lives. And, so that’s very exciting. Dr. Kristen Betts and I are also formulating a number of research ideas that have to do with neuro education. Let’s say I have been working on…… I’ve been working on assessing and analyzing the impact of a way to discuss tests in a face-to-face classroom that that I also feel has some exciting potential.

Zeren: Thank you! Let’s now have a quick look into the future. My next question is: What changes can we expect to see over the next five years in teaching and learning as a result of the work that’s being done to advance brain-based learning?

Dr. Miller: Right. Well, some of these changes, I feel, will have to do with technology. There’s a great amount of interest, as there has been for some time, in very ambitious project, a very ambitious cross-disciplinary projects such as adaptive learning courseware. So, I think in the next five years we will see some of the best of the best of these systems float to the top, and some of the not as effective ones start to fall by the margin. So, we will start to converge on some big solutions to that type of teaching approach.

I think that we will also continue to see more small-scale but very targeted use of technology by instructors in face-to-face and blended learning environments. Those have become mainstream for some time and instructors, I always feel, are the best source of innovation and new applications, and some of these technologies will not be dedicated eLearning technologies, but they will be—as we’ve seen in the past—adaptations of technologies that are used for other things. So that’s one thing.

I think will also continue to see more instructors across the curriculum continue to incorporate more strategies, specifically from the learning sciences, in the work that they do. It’s been tremendously encouraging to see interest in this expand over the past years.  I’ve been working in this area, and I do think that this trend will continue.

Zeren: Well, Dr. Miller, thanks for taking the time to chat with me today. It was a pleasure. Before we say good-bye, could you please tell how people can connect with you?

Dr. Miller: People who are interested in connecting with my work should find me at my website and blog or follow me on Twitter which is @MDMillerPhD
Thank you!

Zeren: This concludes our interview today with Dr. Michelle Miller. Thanks for listening!

About Michelle D. Miller 

Michelle is Director of the First Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology; her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a Redesign Scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology (Harvard University Press, 2014), and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general-interest publications including College Teaching, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, and The Conversation. Dr. Miller’s current work focuses on using psychological principles to help instructors create more effective and engaging learning experiences, and to help students become more effective learners.

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