OI2 Professor Spotlight Series: Dr. Veronica Yan

By: Kristen Mosley

Photo of a seedling.

We had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Veronica Yan – an Assistant Professor in Human, Development, Culture, and Learning Sciences – who seamlessly incorporates the concept of “pre-training” into her undergraduate and graduate courses. Dr. Yan’s background in experimental and cognitive psychology drives her research interests and informs her instructional innovations in the College of Education.

In this first installment of OI2’s Professor Spotlight Series, we learn about Dr. Yan’s incorporation of an innovative instructional practice that supports students in navigating and mastering new information. For more background information on the benefits of pre-training, review our previously published series on Flipped Learning!

What is pre-training?

Everyone’s working memory is limited: we can only hold and make sense of so many pieces of information at once. Experts can appear to hold more information, not because they have larger working memories, but because they can more efficiently “chunk” things together.

As teachers, the concepts that we teach are highly familiar and the connections between ideas is more obvious. Hence, the material can feel fluent to us and chunked easily. But for students who are new to this material, they are dealing with getting to grips with each new concept and figuring out how they connect to each other. The cognitive load our students will experience is much higher. It’s easy as an expert to go too fast.

Pre-training involves giving students some familiarity with content before they need to fully engage with it. Pre-training helps reduce the cognitive load by exposing students to the material first in a relatively lower-demand manner.

Tell us about how you incorporate pre-training into your course.

I incorporate pre-training slightly differently in my undergraduate and graduate courses; the big difference is how important I consider the readings.

In my undergraduate course, the main source of learning comes from our class time (Tuesdays as an interactive lecture, Thursdays as application activities in groups). Hence, I use assigned readings as the “pretraining” to prepare for class time. These readings expose students to the ideas and concepts that will get taught on those Tuesday lectures. To make sure students do the readings, they answer a handful of multiple-choice questions; to guide students to think about the topic, they answer two open-ended questions that are graded only for thoughtfulness, not for accuracy.

In my graduate course, I want them to engage more deeply in the readings too. I assign 3-5 readings per week, which can be a lot. Without preparation, it’s often unclear to students how they should approach the readings, how they might be connected to each other, and which aspects are important to the course. In my three-hour graduate course, I spend the last hour giving them a preview lecture or introduction into the topic covered by the next set of readings. Sometimes, I give them orienting questions or things to look for when they do the readings. This helps prepare the students to go into the readings with some background knowledge so that they can more effectively engage with the readings. They each then write a discussion post about their readings and come to the next class prepared to engage in deeper discussion of the topic.

The incorporation of pretraining in these ways also means that students also space out their learning. They have to think about each topic multiple times across that first week of learning (and beyond). For the undergraduates, they have the reading, the Tuesday lecture, the Thursday application activities (and then also weekly cumulative quizzes, written projects, and cumulative final exam). For the graduates, they have the preview lecture, the readings, the class discussion (and then also projects/tests). This spaced practice and repeated return to topics is important because learning is not “one-and-done.”

What resources, experiences, or sources of inspiration helped you create and implement this aspect of your course?

I conduct research on and teach about principles underlying long-term learning, so it was important to me that my own teaching practices would be informed by these same principles. My teaching has changed over the past five years that I’ve been here at UT Austin, in response to student feedback and experiences. The graduate course preview lecture did not exist in my first iteration of the course, and it arose out of realizing that the graduate students struggled to understand how to approach reading articles. But the first preview lectures started off as a very brief overview. This semester is the first time that I have explicitly designed my syllabus to “straddle” topics across two classes. My teaching is always a work-in-progress.

What impact have you noticed that pre-training has had on you and/or your students?

The pre-training means that students are coming into class much better prepared to discuss the concepts, both with me as well as with their peers during group activities. In the interactive lectures in my undergraduate course, for example, students are not only able to better respond to questions that I pose to the class, but they often ask me deeper, better questions. These student-generated questions are invaluable: sometimes, they draw out potential misconceptions that I never would have realized; other times, they lead me to discussing finer nuances that would have been too much had it been their first exposure to the material. In both cases, they deepen learning for the whole class.

What advice do you have for others considering implementing pre-training in their own course or adopting a similar practice? 

With my undergraduate students, it was important that I emphasized that the pre-training was low-stakes. They should not spend hours and hours trying to understand the reading; they do not have to make copious notes and memorize everything in them. Those open-ended quiz questions are NOT graded for accuracy. The readings are only to prepare them for lecture and only content from class would ever appear on the high-stakes exams.

None of the readings I assigned were taken from undergraduate textbooks; they were mostly journal articles or handbook chapters. So, I also emphasized that it was okay if they found these types of readings difficult, and the beginning of each class included a PollEverywhere question where students rated the difficulty of the readings. That way, it was normative and public: that if you found the readings difficult this week, you’re not the only one.

What do you think is the biggest takeaway of incorporating pre-training into course design? Why does it work? Why should others consider it? What does it offer students? How does it shape the classroom culture and space?

It’s important to consider not only what you are delivering as the instructor, but also what the students are receiving. When our students aren’t understanding something or aren’t retaining something, it’s important to think about what we might be doing that might be leading to the issues, and what support we can offer to address them. And it really does help with student engagement (with me and with each other) during class time too, which just makes teaching a much more rewarding experience altogether.