student multitasking when studying July 26

Four Student Misconceptions about Learning

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“Efficient and effective learning starts with a proper mindset,” Stephen Chew writes in his short, readable, and very useful chapter, “Helping Students to Get the Most Out of Studying.” Chew continues, pointing out what most of us know firsthand, students harbor some fairly serious misconceptions that undermine their efforts to learn. He identifies four of them.


student struggling with test June 2

Too Much Jargon: A Barrier to Learning?

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The language of our disciplines is complex—it has to be. What we study is specific and detailed, and it needs to be described with language that precisely captures essence and nuance. However, for students being introduced to our disciplines for the first time, it’s all new language, and it’s mostly new language for students now learning about our fields more in depth at the postsecondary level. Moreover, many students now come to college with limited vocabularies. They might be learning in a second language, or simply not had educational backgrounds that promoted vocabulary development.

Most introductory courses contain literally hundreds of terms that are unfamiliar to students. When learning a foreign language, students are helped by knowing what the new word refers to. When they learn that the French word chat means cat, they know what a cat is. But when it’s a term like sidereal time or pyrimidine, not only is it a new phrase or word, it refers to something also unknown to students.


students collaborating on project May 3

Actively Learning to Teach

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Today I had an interesting experience while teaching my biochemistry class. I had students write the Krebs cycle on their digital whiteboards while keeping track of the specific carbons in the cycle intermediates. The point of this exercise was to have students understand how biochemists study metabolic pathways and to practice writing the chemistry of the cycle. To initiate the exercise, I explained the biochemical logic of the first reaction. After that, I let them go because we had already spent a lecture discussing the reactions. This produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.

With active learning, we often discuss the culture shock that students feel. No longer is it sufficient for students to sit listening as passive consumers of information doled out by their instructor. An active learning class compels students to become actively engaged in applying the material and uncovering the consequences of their newly learned knowledge. But for those of us instructors who never had active learning modeled for us as students, the experience can be just as alien. It can be invigorating, as it was today when my students were working hard to understand the biochemical logic of the reactions. But for me, it also felt like was I wasn’t doing my job. I was reminded of those comments on my end-of-term course evaluations: “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!”

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student at white board April 26

Helping Students Discover What They Can Do

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“What has held me, and what I think hold many who teach basic writing, are the hidden veins of possibility running through students who don’t know—and who strongly doubt—that this is what they were born for, but who may find it out to their own amazement, students who, grim with self-deprecation and prophecies of their own failure . . .can be lured into sticking it out to some moment of breakthrough, when they discover that they have ideas that are valuable, even original, and express those ideas on paper. What fascinates me and gives hope in time of slashed budgets and enlarging class size, and national depression is the possibility that many of these [students] may be gaining the kind of critical perspective on their lives and skill to bear witness that they have never before had.”


students at blackboard February 3

Attacking Problems as a Novice Learner

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My wiper blades needed to be replaced. I hate these kinds of tasks; they make me feel completely inadequate. But I was doing a lot of reading about learning, and I was looking for concrete examples in my own life to help me better understand the theory and practice of learning. Knowledge transfer, constructivism, scaffolding, and making thinking visible were all pretty new ideas to me.

So, I approached the task as a learning opportunity. I gave myself every advantage—no rain, moderate temps, a Saturday morning with no commitments. I prepared deliberately—a full stomach, empty bladder, and the entire toolbox next to the car. But my resolve was shaken with the very first task. Packaging these days requires the jaws of life. After struggling with the pliers and breaking a fingernail, I went inside for the heavy-duty scissors and was once again ready to get started.

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college classroom December 1, 2016

Using Brief Interventions to Maximize Student Learning [Transcript]

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The shift toward student-centered learning has transformed our classrooms, and it’s no longer enough to be a subject-matter expert. Instructors have to not only know the material their students need to learn, but they also have to have a reasonably good grasp of how students learn it.

The task is to master both, because that’s when the real learning magic happens. That’s the idea behind cognitive theory and its application in higher education. And while it took you years of study to earn credentials in your discipline, you can learn how to apply relevant aspects of cognitive theory to your courses in far less time.

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students paying attention December 1, 2016

Recognizing the Signs of Underpreparedness

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Take a few moments to list your top three or four frustrations with students who are not prepared to successfully complete your course—students who almost seem destined to fail your course.

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reflective learners October 31, 2016

Transforming Midterm Evaluations into a Metacognitive Pause

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Midterm evaluations often tip toward students’ (unexamined) likes and dislikes. By leveraging the weight of the midterm pause and inviting students to reflect on their development, midterm evaluations can become more learning-centered. Cued by our language, students can become aware of a distinction—that we’re not asking what they like, but what is helping them learn. This opportunity for students to learn about their learning yields valuable insights that not only inform instructors about the effects of our methods, but also ground students in their own learning processes, deepening their confidence in and commitment to their development in the second half of the course.