Dr. James Stigler, a professor of developmental and cognitive psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), is the inaugural research fellow with the Precision Institute at National University. He appeared at National University Sept. 27 as featured guest lecture to talk about “Teaching for Understanding: What Will it Take?” This is a summary of his presentation.

One of the conclusions Dr. James Stigler has drawn from years of closely observing and analyzing how mathematics in the U.S. and elsewhere is taught is that teaching and learning is a system, and that every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it realizes.

During a recent guest lecture presentation for the Precision Institute at National University, Dr. Stigler said that in the U.S. math is typically taught as a series of steps to be practiced and memorized, rather than a set of ideas about the relationships of quantities. When students get an answer wrong, the teacher tells them how to do it properly. Later, when they forget the steps, students become frustrated and quickly conclude that they are simply not good at math.

By contrast, in high achieving countries, students are given opportunities to engage in what Stigler calls “productive struggle.” In Japan, for example, math teachers start class by giving students an unfamiliar problem and telling them to figure it out. The teacher lets them struggle but then leads a discussion of their answers, noting what they have in common as well as how they are different and then pointing out misconceptions that lead to the wrong solutions. Math is seen as a way of thinking, rather than as a set of fixed procedures.

These examples demonstrate different facets and constructs of learning, which is a topic being explored by the Precision Institute at National University. The Institute, launched this summer, is exploring ways to leverage technology, data, and communications to create a truly customized learning experience for all students. The idea is that students learn differently and our higher education system should adapt to how they learn and not be constrained by current frameworks or models.

A second feature of teaching in high-achieving countries, as detailed by Stigler during his recent lecture, is that teachers help students make “explicit connections” between ideas. Students need to learn that all of mathematics is connected, and that, for example, division is the opposite of multiplication and that subtraction is the opposite of addition.

A third key feature is what Stigler calls “deliberative practice.” Doing the same problem over and over but with different numbers does not lead to understanding. Instead, students need to practice over and over how to connect mathematical concepts to different, increasingly complicated situations. Jazz musicians, he said, don’t just practice the same passage over and over. They do it in different keys. They practice it faster as well as more slowly. They keep pushing themselves to make it more difficult.

Stigler said there is no one “right” way to create these learning opportunities, and that’s why the Precision Institute at National University is pleased to have him join the Institute and explore new ways to adapt teaching methodologies to the needs of individual learners. As a research fellow, Stigler will help the Institute learn more about learning, and re-examine teaching methods that have remained virtually unchanged in higher education for centuries. He will help the Precision Institute at National University study not just what’s working with students but what’s working for particular students who have particular circumstances.  Read more about Dr. Stigler’s background here: https://www.nu.edu/News/Dr-James-Stigler-Named-Fellow-of-Precision-Institute-at-NU.html

Precision Education at National University is a research-based initiative that is exploring new ways to leverage technology, open education resources, and predictive data analytics to adapt to student needs and guide them to successful completion of their academic and career goals. Learn more at: https://www.nu.edu/precision