Sunday, September 29, 2019

Learning by Doing

Have you ever sat down in a classroom, after months of learning, to discover you forgot every answer you had memorized for the big test? Enough teachers have experienced that very sinking-pit-of-the-stomach feeling as former students, themselves, that it has apparently inspired them to find new ways to assess how well their students are learning.

Fortunately for the world of genealogy, one of those innovative teachers was a speaker at last week's APG conference, and I just happened to sit in on his class. The instructor was genetic genealogist Paul Woodbury of Legacy Tree Genealogists, who, in addition to being a fellow APG member, has also earned a master's degree in instructional design and educational technology.

The take-home part of this information, at least for me, was the instructional design component of the presentation Paul offered at the APG conference. Like many others attending his session, I spend a great deal of time teaching genealogical concepts for various classes, and I wonder how much those lectures "stick" with students. Even though I teach in a computer lab, the learning part is not necessarily followed by the doing part until long after the student finishes the course.

The main portion of Paul's session at APG became a hands-on learning lab, where attendees formed teams and participated in what he describes as a "gamification" approach to learning. That, in itself, became our learning by doing demonstration. In less than one hour's time, we were transformed into participants in an escape room, and our keys to escape came to us through the carefully parceled out clues awarded to team members who arrived at correct answers to a series of research tasks.

As we expected, considering the instructor's forte, the subject matter for this "exam" involved not only genealogy, but DNA testing, specifically. We all had a lively time racing the clock and figuring out the correct answers to each of seven serially-issued packets of clues. It was a fun—exhilarating—time, but once out the door (in real life), I hadn't given the technique much further thought. The syllabus included a carefully thought-out explanation of why such new approaches are so necessary in education—including in the field of genealogy—but I told myself I'd read the serious academic stuff later.

Early this morning, though, I woke up to a thought: even though I'm not currently teaching a genetic genealogy course, I can put that same technique to good use in the class I am teaching now. That concept transposes quite conveniently to other genealogical scenarios. Since my current course—how to use the website—is coming to a close, what better way to wrap up the series than to put class members through hands-on participation in such a learning competition?

My mission right now—between today and Tuesday afternoon—is to come up with a research puzzle about a challenging family tree issue which can be readily researched via Ancestry.  With all the stories embedded in my family's history, there are plenty of sample scenarios to chose from. All that's left is to assemble the packets of graduated clues and line up the starting point of the sample trees to use.

The final step of this feedback loop is not really the question of whether students can demonstrate that they've learned the material in class. The final step is when the students show, through this demonstration, that the instructor has adequately covered the topic in a way that students can put to practical use. For that, I think I'll add one more step to Paul Woodbury's instructional idea: a debriefing session once everyone has escaped from the escape room. What worked? What could become clearer? These are questions that will hone the experience for the next class, as well. We all can benefit from learning by doing, but it also helps to quality check the aftermath of the doing. Just like the classical feedback loop, the system takes on more of a shape of learning by doing by learning by...well, you get the idea: a continual fine-tuning of the feedback loop by both teacher and learner.


  1. This sounds really interesting and fun! I can't wait to hear how it all works out.

    1. It certainly was a blast to experience the event as a participant, Miss Merry! I'll report back about how it goes, being on the other side of the table for this next experiment, once all the dust is settled.


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