January 11th, 2012

How Students Learn: Thoughts from a Favorite Author


We all have our favorite authors … of course, most of mine write about teaching and learning. I read everything I can find written by my favorites and they remain favorites because their writing seldom disappoints. Peter J. Frederick, a history professor at Wabash College—he may be retired by now—is one of my favorite authors.

The first article of Peter’s I read has a great title, “The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start.” I recently looked at the article again and most of his suggestions are just as good now as they were 30 years ago when the article was published. When you are as old as I am, you come to accept that there are few new things under the pedagogical sun and there is a certain agelessness about many good teaching ideas.

Yesterday, I found an article of Peter’s that I hadn’t read. It’s a brief reflections piece in which he shares four moments that occur regularly in his classroom, followed by four learning principles that support what’s happening during those moments. The paragraph describing those principles is a wonderfully succinct description of what we know about how students learn best.

“First, students learn best to the extent that they are actively involved with the material, in our case history, reading, interpreting, touching, listening to, feeling, role playing and manipulating it. Second, students learn best when they are confronted with a compelling human historical problem, decision, or personal question. It is best to put the problem into a larger context … that connects with problems, questions, and themes in their own lives. Third, learning occurs in a context of frequent and caring (or lovingly challenging) feedback and occasions for reflection, especially with others. Therefore, small groups. The fourth, and perhaps most important, principle is that every learner makes his or her own meaning by reworking prior learning and experiences in terms of new ones. This means we must find ways of connecting what’s already inside their heads with the concepts, ideas, themes, and yes, even the names, dates, and facts we want them to know.”

Peter uses four question sets to keep his instructional decision-making on track. Here is a sample question (or group of them) from each of those sets.

  1. “What do we know about who our learners are and what’s inside of them?”
  2. “In what ways can we make the historical questions and issues we deem most important connect to student lives and prior experiences, to their goals and aspirations, to their fears and hopes, or to what’s happening on campus that week, or in the news?”
  3. “In a typical classroom day, who is doing the talking? Who is analyzing the primary source? Who is interpreting the passage, document, photograph, letter, chart, map, graph, video clip or artifact? Who is making the meaning, identifying recurring themes, sorting out multiple perspectives? Who is doing the synthesizing, the connecting with other cultures, eras, events and people? That is, who is doing the learning?”
  4. “What are the four or five conceptual themes that inform our courses, upon which students can hang the myriad of facts?”

There’s nothing quite like a good question to encourage deep thinking and lead to answers we may not like but need to confront.

Yes, Peter is a favorite author—one from whom there is much we can learn. Good pedagogical scholarship not only benefits those who read it, I think its primary benefit still goes to those who write it. Peter writes that he tries to practice what he preaches. Every time he’s ready to leave for class he looks at a note he has taped to the corner of his desk, “Less of me is more of them, for authentic, deeper learning.”

Reference: Frederick, P. J. (2001). Four reflections on teaching and learning history. AHA Perspectives, 39 (October). Online at http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2001/0110/0110tec1.cfm

And just in case you’d like to take a look at Peter’s vintage piece on discussion: Frederick, P. J. (1981). The dreaded discussion: Ten ways to start. Improving College and University Teaching, 29 (3), 109-114.