student studying in library November 28

Enhancing Learning through Zest, Grit, and Sweat

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Early in my career, I focused most of my efforts on teaching content. That is, after all, what most of us are hired to do, right? With experience and greater understanding of how learning works, my attention shifted toward metacognition. I began investing lots of time and energy reading and identifying ways to help students grow as learners while they learned the content.


students working on project November 7

The Power of Transparency in Your Teaching

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The most recent issue of Peer Review (Winter/Spring 2016; published by AACU) highlights the powerful impact ‘transparency’ can have on learning for all students. One aspect of transparency is making obvious the intellectual practices involved in completing and evaluating a learning task. But making these processes visible for students is more easily said than done; we are experts in our fields for the very reasons that our thinking and evaluating are automatic and subconscious. It’s hard to describe exactly what we do intellectually when we synthesize or integrate, critique, or create. Similarly, it’s difficult to articulate the differences between an assignment we score as an A and one to which we give a B. Thus, a challenge in achieving transparency is developing a deep awareness of our own processes. Only then can we explicitly teach those thinking processes. In my own case, thinking about thinking (aka metacognition) was a new pedagogical consideration and it took time to learn this new set of skills in the context of teaching biology. So I was tickled pink one day last September when, at my new institution, I was able to problem-solve on my feet. I was teaching a new-to-me set of skills (writing outside of science) in a new-to-me format (discussion) to a population of students with whom I had no prior experience and in a class I’d never taught before.



students in a lecture hall August 4

What You Are Teaching? What Are They Learning?

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Consider the lessons we learn without being fully aware they are taking place. Take something simple, such as walking into a new building for the first time. With everyone and everything you observe, your mind is giving you feedback based on a multitude of judgments. These impressions, while sometimes incorrect, come to us with little effort. Yet they could loosely be considered teaching and learning without calling it either. I have found this to be a fruitful concept from a pedagogical standpoint. How many of us actively question this point to ourselves, “What am I teaching students, and what are they learning?”




Google Maps on iPhone June 20

A Real-World Writing Project Integrating Mobile Technology and Team-Based Learning

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Teaching first-semester freshmen presents some unique challenges. You are teaching them not only your subject, but also how to be college students. One of the best strategies I have found is to begin with a collaborative project that asks them to research their new home: the campus.


students studying at library June 10

The Phases of Inquiry-Based Teaching

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A central goal of education is teaching critical-thinking skills. Inquiry-based teaching is an excellent path to this goal. Based partly on the philosophy that “humans are born inquirers,” the method focuses on student discovery over pushing information from the instructor. Along the way, the students explore multiple sources and contexts, ask questions and pursue hypotheses, and work to apply their theories to new and diverse situations. In doing this, they actively discover the interrelatedness among concepts, topics, and theories.


iStock_000059103460_Medium.160516 May 16

Backward Design, Forward Progress

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Readers of Faculty Focus are probably already familiar with backward design. Most readily connected with such researchers as Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Dee Fink, this approach to course construction asks faculty to initially ignore the specific content of a class. Rather, the designer begins the process by identifying desired learning goals, and then devising optimal instruments to measure and assess them. Only thereafter does course-specific content come into play—and even then, it is brought in not for the sake of “covering” it, but as a means to achieve the previously identified learning objectives. Courses designed this way put learning first, often transcend the traditional skillset boundaries of their discipline, and usually aim to achieve more ambitious cognitive development than do classes that begin—and often end —with content mastery as the primary focus. Although the advantages of backward design are manifest, it’s probably still the exception to, rather than the rule of, course planning.


students in lecture hall April 11

Six Things You Can Do to Deepen Student Learning

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For baseball fans and players, springtime can only mean one thing: spring training. Every year professional baseball players head to Arizona or Florida to hone their craft. These are professionals mind you, but they continue to spend hours each year working on many of the same things Little Leaguers work on during the start of their seasons—throwing, catching, hitting, base running, and so forth.

As they make minor adjustments in these fundamentals of the game, the overall outcome is a major improvement. The same is true for faculty who remain mindful of their fundamentals, and make small, incremental improvements to their teaching.