Reflection and Metacognition (In A Nutshell)

I was surprised to discover that my notes for this section were much more limited, and consequently this overview is a bit shorter than the others, and in places more specific. Again, the specific supporting citations will reappear later in the longer version, which of course I’ll post here when I’m done with it. Meanwhile, let me know if I’m missing (or misrepresenting) anything.

A fifth fundamental property of constructivist learning environments is that they support reflection and metacognition.

To constructivists, reflection is a powerful mechanism for meaning-making, particularly as students sort out relationships between the actions they take, the consequences of their actions, and other variables affecting their experiences. Metacognition, the practice of thinking about one’s own thinking (including decision making and strategies), is also a powerful tool for students to promote their own cognitive development.

It’s no surprise, then, that constructivists call for learning environments which embrace reflective thinking, as opposed to prescriptive thinking – environments that support (or require) reflection on experience and reflection on action rather than mimicry of the teacher’s thinking. Many theorists suggest that good learning environments encourage the sort of automatic reflection that occurs as students encounter new experiences, measure them against their past, and make a decision about how to act. Still, these theorists also suggest that educators support students in practicing conscious and explicit reflection as well. This may be one of the most important roles a teacher can play in a constructivist learning environment. Ideally, a learning environment will include formal processes for such reflection and such support from the teacher.

As with other elements of constructivist learning environments, it is best if the processes of reflection and metacognition also hold some real-world relevance for students – or even for society. For instance, some theorists have suggested that reflection is an ideal way to learn ethics.

A video game or simulation can offer many opportunities for reflection, both in game and out of them game. A good game can provide the sort of automatic reflection constructivists are interested in, and (particularly with the support of a teacher) game playing is an opportunity to reflect on experience and actions taken. Such a period of reflection can be as important (and take up as much time) as the game playing itself. Students also engage in a manner of automatic metacognition as they work to sort out the rules of a game. Some games also include meta-rules that allow students to change the rules of the game. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORGPs), in particular, offer opportunities for groups of students to reflect on the consequences of their in-game actions – perhaps using formal processes such as after action reviews.

Socially-Negotiated Learning (In A Nutshell)

Most of the time I was writing it, I didn’t feel quite as good about this one, but I think it came together well. This is the third in the triad of key elements I started investigating when I started this PhD program three and a half years ago (Context-embedded, inquiry-driven, and socially negotiated learning). I still feel good about the three categories, and about the additional elements I’ve added… particularly “motivation and engagement” up front, and “reflection and metacognition” at the end (which comes next).

In any case, like the other “one-pagers” I’ve posted, each paragraph (or each sentence in many cases) will be supported by references to seminal constructivist theorists, educational technologists, and video game scholars. The final paragraph won’t be necessary when this is incorporated throughout the section.

In the meantime, let me know what you think of the overview. :)

A constructivist learning environment does not leave a student in isolation, but rather facilitates socially negotiated learning.

Early constructivists believed that all learning is experience. Those that followed soon came to the conclusion that all experience is social, and that thus all learning is social. In fact, some social constructivists maintain that meaning is not so much made within an individual mind, but socially negotiated and shared between individuals.

Constructivists are often primarily concerned with students’ individual cognitive development, and this too is a social process. The culture (or cultures) within which learning takes place affects student development, making the culture of the learning environment an important aspect for educators to consider. The social processes of education can also effect individual student development.

Communication, particularly the development and use of language, is a critical element of learning – and of a constructivist learning environment. Dialog, which implies a social relationship, is the foundation of all meaning-making, even if it is merely internal dialogue.

In order to support dialog and social negotiation of meaning, one aim of a constructivist learning environment is to promote cooperation and collaboration between students, as opposed to isolating students and placing barriers between them, common effect (if not common goals) of traditional learning environments. Facilitating cooperation and collaboration has the additional benefit of helping students to improve their social skills and teamwork.

Another benefit of cooperation and collaboration between students is that individual students can complete tasks with the help of others that they would not be able to perform independently. Student’s intelligence can actually be distributed among others in the learning environment, a situation that constructivists consider common in real-world scenarios. For this reason, constructivist learning environments often encourage the development of learning communities or communities of practice.
Within such a community each student can play an important role. In this way, role-playing as an educational strategy can also be a way students can develop socially as well as individually.

Constructivists maintain that the skills that students develop when roll playing in a learning community will transfer to real-world contexts more successfully than those skills developed in isolation with traditional teaching techniques. Ideally, constructivists hope not only for a transfer of skills, but that the learning that occurs in schools will itself have relevance to the student and to the greater society as well.

Many video game scholars maintain that video game playing is a often a deeply social experience and that well designed games can provide a learning environment that facilitates socially negotiated learning. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) in particular, are inherently social and require dialog, cooperation, and collaboration between players. Learning communities and communities of practice are commonplace in MMORPGs and though it may not be common among casual players, the games are designed to promote role-playing within the environment.

Inquiry-Driven Learning (In A Nutshell)

Writing these “one-pagers” is proving a valuable process for me. I’ve got my dissertation well outlined at his point. Unfortunately, the smallest units of the outline are meant to be about 2 pages long, but will probably wind up about 5 pages long – because I have about 20 pages of notes for each section. So each “essay” within the lit review is still a bit overwhelming. It’s difficult to narrow down which citations I’ll actually use and what I’ll actually say.

So, I’m skimming all of the notes and quotes I’ve collected for each section (in this case about 17 pages worth), and jotting down (in my outliner) the main themes or points I can take away from it all (in this case about a dozen points). Then, I am composing the “one-pager” that simply expresses each of these points in a logical manner as concisely as I can – and without citations of any kind. Then (and I’ve only done this in once case so far), I’m going back and selecting only the citations or quotes I need to support what I’ve said in the one pager. In the one case I’ve completed this last step, the resulting section was six pages long.

In any case, I’m finding the writing of the one-pagers motivating, so here is another one… this time on Inquiry-Driven Learning. Again, each paragraph will be supported with references to seminal constructivist theorists, educational technologists, and video game scholars.

Another fundamental property of constructivist learning environments is that they facilitate inquiry-driven learning.

According to constructivist pedagogy, meaning is made, knowledge is created, and learning happens when the learner is an active and critical participant in the process. Ideally, students are empowered to some degree to determine the direction of their own learning.

The heart of inquiry-driven learning is the opportunity for students to ask questions and seek answers (in an authentic or real-world context). This is sometimes called or associated with discovery learning because as students explore the learning context for an answer to their questions, they experience moments of discovery, which can be a powerful motivating factor for students. This process of posing questions and seeking answers naturally encourages students to make new connections in their mind, the essence of building schema in the constructivist philosophy. It also involves a good deal of sophisticated problem solving on the part of the student.

While educators can encourage inquiry and support student discovery, constructivists hope that students come to learn the importance of self-regulation (or discipline and diligence) in pursuit of their goals.

Because different individual students will ask unique questions, inquiry-driven learning is necessarily individualized. The learning environment (and the educators) need to be adaptive, allowing for differentiated experiences for each learner.

Similarly, constructivists encourage diversity in both the delivery of the curriculum and in the curriculum itself. In terms of delivery, the learning environment should take advantage of multiple learning modalities and the students’ multiple intelligences (by building on their strengths and addressing their weaknesses). Also, while student interests serve as gateways to new learning, students will develop islands of expertise that may be unique. Though many constructivists advocate helping students develop certain commonly important concepts, they tend to resist a hegemony of the curriculum.

Ultimately, allowing student inquiry to drive student learning, constructivists build in a measure of relevance into the learning experience. Ideally, the experience can also tap into student interests, desires, and cares. If important information is embedded into the learning environment such that it is available on-demand and just-in-time to support student inquiry, then this information too will have greater relevance to the students.

Open ended video games, such as massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), have the potential to offer simulated environments in which students can be empowered to ask questions, explore the world, experience moments of discovery, develop self-discipline, and undergo an individually differentiated learning experience that they care about.

Context-Embedded Learning (In A Nutshell)

This is yet another “one page” overview of a topic that will appear in my literature review. The final version will be fleshed out with supporting citations. Each paragraph will be supported by references to seminal constructivist theorists, educational technologists, and video game scholars. At this point my challenge is whittling down 20 pages of quotes into about five pages of concise text. I’ll post the longer version when I’ve finished it, but for now I plan to continue drafting these overviews… it’s giving me a sense of momentum. :)

As always, any feedback is appreciated.

Perhaps the most fundamental property of a constructivist learning environment is that it offers a context for student learning.

Context-embedded learning has been a cornerstone of the constructivist movement since the early 1900’s. Now, nearly a century later, video games and simulations can offer new contexts for student learning that would not have been available to students in the past.

While traditional teaching and learning tends to be a passive experience for the student who receives knowledge from the teacher, constructivist pedagogy emphases learning by doing, learning from experience, and problem solving. In order to learn by doing, a student must not simply read from a textbook or listen to a lecture. Rather, the student must engage authentic (or real-world) problems in their authentic context. Ideally, the student will be challenged without being frustrated, and thus remain in a state of flow, an ideal state of learning (or performance).

In order to support student’s early efforts, the learning context can be a microworld, or simplified version, of the real-world context in which similar skills might be used – and to which students’ new skills will eventually be expected to transfer. Microworlds model only the elements of the experience that are important to a student’s developmental level, while limiting other distractions.

Learning that happens within a microworld (or other authentic context) is what constructivists consider situated learning, and allows students to develop a situated understanding of the skills they are developing and problems they are solving.

Similarly, many microworlds (and other authentic contexts) offer opportunities for students to developed a distributed understanding of skills and problems. Unlike in traditional testing situations, students do not need to memorize all of the answers to their problems and information required in the learning context. They can call upon tools and other individuals within the context to aid them in their efforts.

As students develop situated and distributed understanding within a learning context, they are essentially exploring an identity within that context – a way of acting and thinking that is specific to the context and problems at hand. Constructivist educators purposefully and explicitly support the development of educationally beneficial identities by their students. Some modern constructivists strive to help students develop professional identities that may be useful in their adult future, particularly professional identities that emphasize sophisticated or innovative ways of thinking, doing, and problem solving.

One particularly powerful strategy for supporting this sort of identity development is to facilitate true role-playing experiences for students, in which each student takes on a specific role within a cognitively immersive environment. Story telling, especially in conjunction with student role-playing, can also be a powerful tool.

Many learning contexts include a goal or problem that may engage and motivate students thus inherently creating a sense of relevance. However, it is best if the learning is also relevant or significant in students’ lives outside of the learning context. Only if the learning problem or learning context is in someway connected to things the student cares about and is familiar with will the learning experience be most effective.

Video games, particularly massively multiplayer online role-playing games, have the potential to offer students such a context for learning.

Jock Schorger in Qatar

This is a picture of my advisor, Dr. Jock Schorger of Walden Univeristy, at work in Qatar. He recently moved there (around the first of the year) to take his new position as “Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Specialist, Curriculum Standards Office, Education Institute, Supreme Education Council, Qatar.” The picture comes from a post he made in our online classroom… sharing his excitement about finally getting “indoor Internet” at his home. He certainly continues to lead an interesting life, and he’s putting Walden’s mission of effecting positive social change to work.

Here’s Jock’s original caption:

After 3 days of sand storms and occasional rain I now have indoor Internet. Finally after almost 7 weeks I am conveniently connected. I had never thought about indoor-vs-outdoor Internet. I have learned outdoor can be dangerous to your computer.

Also a picture from the Desert: Goat Milkman and Friends

I just couldn’t pass up posting this here. :)

Motivation and Engagement (In a Nutshell)

Note: The “one page” overviews I’m writing for each section of my dissertation seem to be just the right size for blog posts, so here is the one on motivation and engagement. I’ll post a link to the full version as soon as I’ve had another day to work on it. Meanwhile, how’d I do? Anything critical missing?

One of the fundamental properties of an effective constructivist learning environment is that it engages and motivates students.

Engaging and motivating students has been a primary concern of the constructivist movement since long before computers and video games. Now, though, modern complex video games offer a new multi-modal medium for engaging students and a wide variety of new strategies for motivating their participation.

For more than a century, traditional classroom lessons – including lectures, reading, and written assignments – have often failed to effectively or reliably engage and motivate students. In recent decades, video games (and other interactive media) may have exacerbated this problem, as students, particularly gamers, are now coming to school with higher expectations of engagement and interaction.

However, there is little doubt that modern video games are deeply motivating and engaging to many of the same students that struggle to pay attention in school – despite the fact that games continuously and consistently challenge students, often to the brink of frustration. It has been clear for some time that these games are fun not in spite of being hard, but precisely because they are hard. Massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), in particular, often require players to perform repetitive tasks that seem suspiciously like work, and yet these games are among the most compellingly immersive experiences available.

Traditionally, constructivists have found a great deal of value in children’s play, and consider it an important element of education. Constructivists, of course, look at play not so much as something that students do, but rather as a state of mind. These perspectives are shared by modern video game scholars.

Despite advocating for the value of fun and play in education, the constructivist perspective does not recommend an environment free of structure. In contrast, the hope is to harness the strategies of motivation and engagement responsible for the incidental learning that takes place in many good games and put these strategies to use for the purposes of intentional learning in formal educational environments.

Video game scholars caution, though, that not all games (or specific strategies for motivating and engaging students) will appeal to all students, even those that consider themselves gamers. Also, it is not surprising that video games are not a terribly effective instructional medium for students that consider themselves non-gamers. Of course, many of the strategies for motivating and engaging students are not necessarily unique to the video game format, and can be implemented in more traditional educational contexts.

Constructivism (In A Nutshell)

Note: I originally wrote this in preparation for writing part of my dissertation – and I linked to it in yesterday’s post. I realized it also made a good post in it’s own right, so I’m sharing it here now. Please feel free to comment. Did I forget anything or misrepresent anything – or nail anything right on the head? :)

In contrast to the empirical behaviorist view that knowledge about an objective reality can be simply and reliably passed on from teacher to student, the kernel of constructivist philosophy is the belief that all knowledge must be actively and subjectively constructed in the mind of each individual. This core belief is associated with several corollary beliefs that have become hallmarks of constructivist pedagogy.

The most important of these corollaries is captured by the adage of learning by doing. Constructivist philosophy holds that the learner should take an active rather than passive roll in the learning process, and that the tasks required of the learner should have an authentic context and purpose. It is under these conditions that the transfer of learning from the educational experience to the “real-world” is believed to be most successful.

In addition, learning is often considered by constructivists to be a social process, involving the negotiation of meaning between individuals and the distribution of knowledge over social networks. It is commonly accepted that individual learners can complete more sophisticated tasks with the aid of mentors or peers than they can on their own.

It is also commonly accepted by constructivists that individual learners will have different interests as well as different strengths and weakness, including a varying degree of aptitude not only in mathematical and linguistic intelligence but also in multiple other kinds of intelligences.

Criticisms of constructivism often focus on the lack of structure provided to students, however many constructivist educators insist on a structured environment in which students’ knowledge construction can be facilitated. Such an environment is one in which students are challenged without being frustrated and in which they are focused on intentional (rather than incidental) learning.

At a minimum, a constructivist learning environment will motivate and engage learners. Most importantly, it will also provide a context for learning, opportunities for inquiry or discovery, and a framework for collaborative learning. The value of all of these elements is increased if the environment also facilitates reflection and metacognition on the part of the learner. Such an environment can also be useful for the development not only of traditional school skills but also difficult-to-teach “soft” skills and “21st century skills”, such as digital-age literacies, inventive thinking, effective communication, and high-productivity. Within such a learning environment, the role of the teacher in providing support to students is especially critical. Each of these elements of a constructivist learning environment will be discussed in greater detail in the following sections. Each section will explore traditional constructivist perspectives, the contributions of educational technologists, and the more recent literature on video games and education.

Feedback Early and Often

The open source software movement has a a philosophy of releasing early and often… in order to take advantage of feedback from the user community. In business and in progressive education, I’ve also often heard the adage “fail early, fail often.” Again, the primariy purpose of this is to receive feedback, but it also helps one avoid perfectionism and practice risk taking.

Given my frustrating first efforts at beginning to actually write the dissertation, I want to seek feedback early… and perhaps often as time goes on, though hopefully the early feedback will help alleviate the need for more feedback later in the process. Regardless, I’m suddenly very aware of my lack of people to talk with about this.

I’ve finally started writing (after arriving at 450 pages of notes when I finally got my last few resources into my outliner). I decided to start with the first substantial section of chapter 2, a brief overview of constructivism prior to discussing constructivist learning environments in more depth. Despite my initial efforts at organizing and outlining my notes, this was still a daunting task. My six pages of notes just for this segment alone were in places overwhelming, insufficient, or rehashed and poorly written material from previous papers. After a few aborted efforts at writing the section, I was frustrated.

I finally talked through it with Eva and she motivated me to write a “one page” version of the section with no notes. This turned out alright, so I went on and supported each point with what I considered a minimal amount of research. It represents not even the tip of the ice burg (luckily, there are several much more detailed sections to follow), but I think it serves the purpose… and it comes off more like the articles I’ve written recently than the laborious papers I wrote over the past two years.

In any case, I’d love feedback if any of you can take a minute to look over these six pages. Imagine it’s followed by nine more sections that provide greater detail. (I’ve linked to an overview outline of my dissertation with this section highlighted to put it into perspective.) I’m curious if this is the sort of writing you’d expect to see in a literature review?


“Tips” for Ph.D. Students (Or Higher Education 2.0?)

I’ve gotten a lot of email (and even a few comments) as a result of the things I’ve shared about Walden University on this blog… early on I was primarily sharing posts from my online classes that I repurposed here on the blog… then it become my KAMs (papers due before our dissertation), letters to prospective students, and answers to people’s questions. Now, Walden students in the dissertation stage who have the same faculty mentor are given an online “class” of their own in which to discuss issues related to our research, and more importantly, find a measure of camaraderie or fellowship. So, once again I can actually share posts from our discussion forums.

These might be most helpful for other doctoral students, but they may be interested to others of you because my experience might indicate some of the ways new technologies are effecting (or could effect) higher education. I’m including two recent posts including “tips” (if I’m in any position to offer tips) for my fellow students.

This first post is about the prospectus that precedes the dissertation, and really doesn’t concern technology at all:

Prospectus “Tips”I’m not sure this will be all that helpful to you [fellow student], but the most important thing is to have a clear idea what you want to study. Everything else flows quite easily from that. The particular method is the only really big decision left, and even that may be obvious once you’ve settled on a problem or research question to explore.

The other important thing to remember is that the prospectus is only a form to fill out at the very beginning of your research. It is not a matter of writing anything down in stone. Your final study and dissertation may wind up looking significantly different. The prospectus just gets you pointed in the right direction – and serves as a tool for recruiting your committee… as I understand it. ;)

For me, the prospectus was a relatively minor task. I had more or less been focused on a particular topic (video games in education) and research question (what are the potential uses of MMORPGs as constructivist learning environments?) for two years by the time I wrote the prospectus. (I settled on the topic by the end of my first year.) By the time I wrote the prospectus I had “nearly 80 theorists and more than 100 sources” identified as relevant to my study (and it’s much more than that now). I suspect this is excessive, but my point is that whatever has interested you so far can be a guide… and serve as the foundation of the prospectus – and the dissertation.

Good luck in any case!


This next one focuses on “tips” for conducting efficient research, and I was (strangely) surprised by what I found myself writing… it is all very different than spending a lot of time “in the stacks.” Is this higher education 2.0?

Research “Tips”Again, I’m not sure just how helpful this will all be, but here are a few of the things I have found valuable in my research…

1. I do as much research as possible online and in electronic format. For this reason I’m more than happy to pay $119/yr for a memebership to, an online library. You can search issues related to your topic prior to purchasing a membership, so there’s little risk of wasting your money. [This is in addition to the online databases Walden University pays for.]

2. I use an outliner. (In my case, I use OmniOutliner for Mac OS X.) One of the advantages of having digital resources is that I can cut and paste. So, I’ve been saving quotes right into the appropriate section of my outliner. Then, writing is just a matter of re-organizing these, weeding them down to the few I really need to make my points, and then “connecting the dots” with my writing. Supporting my points has not been a problem for me… though my writing has been a bit dry and “quote heavy” the last year or so.

3. I use RSS feeds. I subscribe to relevant blogs and news feeds, and I create RSS feeds from MSN, Google, and Technorati searches so that my computer is essentially researching for me 24-7 and the updates come to me in my aggregator. If you are researching something contemporary and/or cutting edge, which I suspect you all are in Ed Tech, well managed RSS feeds can be a valuable resource.

4. I write about my research on my own blog. I can’t believe I haven’t said this here before, but you could all benefit from this. I’ve been connected with more practitioners and experts in my field by blogging my research than I could ever hope by simply emailing it off to Jock [our advisor]. I actually know and correspond with many of the most influential authors I’ve been studying. More resources come to me because of what I share online than I can possibly tell you about here. I would not have had the same experience in this phd program without my blog. (Even without a blog, I would highly recommend making an effort to correspond with key authors and researchers… you are, after all, becoming an expert in your field, and there is a good chance they will be willing to help… and even a good chance you will earn their respect.)

Again, I don’t know how useful this “advice” will be for anyone else, but I hope it helps.


Any other graduate students out there have anything to add to this list of suggestions? Or any responses to them?

PS. I guess it’s high time I start a “higher education” category here. Done.

I’ve Been Busy Part IV: Now Back to Doctoral Work

Last week, in the online forum Walden University provides for students with the same faculty mentor, I wrote the following about the writing I’ve been doing for my KAMs (Knowledge Area Modules – writing projects leading up to the dissertation… I’m on my last one):

Incidentally, I’ve been reflecting on KAM writing lately, and find that I don’t getting into the flow state as I do when I’m doing other writing. I’m consistently unengaged with and disappointed with my KAMs, and I think I’m realizing why. I’m not writing for an audience (I don’t even have one in mind other than the assessor) and I’m not writing for a purpose (other than to pass the KAM). Also, since the purpose of the KAM is merely to demonstrate my knowledge, I find it difficult to write anything creative (especially when there is so much knowledge to acquire and demonstrate as it is). I’m curious what you all think about this.

I later spent half of Saturday and half of Sunday this past weekend writing about 15 pages of crap for my final remaining KAM. (I’ve been researching, note-taking, and outlining for months in preparation for this.)

More significantly, I brought this up with Eva on Sunday evening and we chatted. I said things like “when I write for my blog or for an article I’m including only what I think is important, but when I’m writing a KAM I’m trying to show that I read all these books and articles.” Of course, she was wise enough to say simply, “you should only be writing what’s important in your KAM, too.” Which, basically, is something my assessors have been trying to tell me for quite some time now. And it’s why I usually write close to 60 pages per section (instead of 30… and each KAM has three sections).

The bottom line is, I had a breakthrough that night, and finally turned a corner I new I was going to have to turn before finishing the degree. I resolved to no longer write crap for my academic writing… to no longer cobble together quotes and references to show how much I’ve read (which is always too much, btw). I’m going to take the extra time for an additional step (after reading and collecting my notes in an outliner) to decide what I have to say, and then prune away my notes until only those things essential to my point remain. This is going to be painful – and it will take time, but in the end I think it will actually save time… and, of course, I think my academic writing will be better for it. I’m glad I’ve still got a chance to write this way before my dissertation. (All my KAMs will likely end up in my dissertation, though.)

So, starting tonight, I am starting an all new outline for this KAM and whittling down my resources to fit it. I’m excited about the new process and look forward to seeing what I can write. I just can’t believe it took me three years to get here! Or five years of grad school, if you want to look at it that way.

In the meantime, I’m sure I’ll continue to blog sporadically, but I guess I need own up to the fact that I can’t maintain a blog with daily new content and daily links, as I tried to back in the first few months of the year. Maybe after the baby Ph.D. is born, though then there might be another kind of baby altogether. Well, I’ll continue to share what I can.

Thanks for reading, as I used to say.

UPDATE: Incidentally, my audience for this final KAM is you guys. :)

UPDATE 2: This is much scarier. Note all my procrastination…

UPDATE 3: A thought from Senge is appropriate… “one of the most painful things in the life of a poet is learning that you often have to leave out your best line in order for the poem to work as a whole.” (Senge et al., 2000, p. 561)