getting your students to read

Reading to Learn

For some time now, students in my first-year biology course have been protesting that I’m assigning too much pre-class reading. I use the flipped classroom structure in most of my courses and that means students prepare for class by reading assigned pages in the textbook. To hold students accountable for completing the reading, I administer a two-stage reading quiz before we discuss the content and apply the concepts to problems during class. Those who complain tell me that reading is not part of their learning style and I’m putting them at a disadvantage.

The research on learning styles is inconclusive and contradictory (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). The theory behind them proposes that students learn best when teaching matches their learning preference, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. The research, however, does not support this theory in very convincing ways.

What the research does suggest is that learning occurs best when the teaching method matches the content and the learning task. Thus, if problem-solving is the skill to be learned, then practicing problem-solving is the best way to learn it. If concepts are what’s being learned, then various explanations of the concepts and practice explaining them is the best way to learn them. Learning can be approached in many different ways, and we each have our preferences about how we like to learn. But our preferences do not, indeed should not, prevent us from learning in different ways. If we find it difficult to learn by listening to a lecture, that does not mean we must live with poor listening skills. It means we need more practice at listening for meaning when we find the content challenging. If we have difficulties understanding the written material that appears in texts, that does not prevent us from becoming more skillful readers of text. It means we need a better understanding of the skills involved in reading textbook material and repeated practice in applying those skills.

What troubles me about learning styles is that they promote a fixed mindset and that evolves into a perceived learning disability where none exists. Certainly, learning disabilities are real and experienced by some students, but many of my students conflate having a particular learning style with the inability to learn any other mode. They treat their difficulty with learning from texts as an incurable problem and ask to be excused from ever having to do it. I can’t think of any profession where people are excused from reading. Rather, poor reading comprehension comes with consequences.

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Student persistence

Mindset and Stereotype Threat: Small Interventions That Make a Big Difference

What if there were a simple classroom exercise that could create positive and lasting effects on the academic performance and persistence of students—in particular, students who are under-represented in your field?

It turns out there is. More accurately, there are a number of such exercises—let’s call them interventions—that research shows are effective.

The interventions grow out of two intersecting bodies of literature in social psychology and are described in drastically over-simplified terms below.

Mindset research, widely known as the brainchild of Stanford’s Carol Dweck (2006), holds that students’ beliefs about learning and intelligence profoundly influence their ability to persist in the face of challenges and setbacks. Students with a “growth mindset” believe that intelligence is malleable, learning is often effortful, and failure is a natural (and perhaps necessary) part of personal and academic growth. When students with a growth mindset fail, it does not threaten their sense of identity, so they are able to move on and persist. As a result, they have a capacity for resilience that ultimately serves them well in academics and in life. Students with a “fixed mindset,” on the other hand, view intelligence as innate and failure as a threat to their core identity (“But I’m an A student! How could I fail?!”). They are fine as long as they succeed, but tend to panic, give up, or even cheat when they encounter setbacks or find that learning is harder than they anticipated. In other words, they are brittle rather than resilient.

Stereotype threat research, championed by scholars like Claude Steele (2010), has a different but overlapping focus on issues related to identity. It shows that students from groups stigmatized or stereotyped on the basis of social identity (race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.) experience stress when asked to perform challenging tasks that converge with known stereotypes. Think, for example, of women in STEM fields or the elderly performing memory tasks. The internalized pressure not to confirm stereotypes interferes with cognition, creating a kind of mental “noise” that negatively affects performance. Sophisticated experiments have shown that when a task-relevant negative stereotype is triggered in the minds of students from the stereotyped group, their performance measurably declines. However, when the stereotype is not triggered—or when steps are taken to actively reduce its salience—the performance of these students is significantly higher.

As powerfully detrimental as the effects of fixed mindsets and stereotype threat can be, there is good news coming out of both fields. Students with fixed mindsets can develop growth mindsets. In doing so, they can raise not only their short-term academic performance but also their long-term ability to bounce back from setbacks and persist in challenging fields. Stereotype threat, moreover, can be mitigated, and when it is, it can significantly decrease and sometimes outright erase the performance differential between stereotyped and non-stereotyped groups. In addition, reducing stereotype threat can help members of underrepresented groups overcome imposter syndrome and develop a stronger and more resilient sense of belonging and self-efficacy within a given field.

Still better news: simple interventions can address both issues simultaneously. And – this part is perhaps the most encouraging of all—they create positive effects that snowball rather than diminish over time, as positive outcomes generate confidence that lead to still more positive outcomes (Yeager and Walton, 2011). While these interventions seem almost magical, Yeager and Walton point out in their excellent review of the research (2011) that they’re not magical at all: they simply leverage what we know about the human mind, in particular how emotion and cognition interact.

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How to include introverted students in class discussions.

How to Include Introverts in Class Discussion

Would you prefer to go to a party with 50 exciting, brand-new people that you’ve never met before, or would you prefer to have dinner with an old, dear friend? You’ve probably guessed already that extroverts would prefer the party and introverts would prefer dinner with a friend. But what does this have to do, in particular, with learning and students in our classroom discussions? Temperament influences our preferences for learning, and introverts have particular preferences about how they would choose to learn.

Not only is it a matter of preference, but it’s also a matter of where introverts produce their best work and the conditions under which they are best suited for learning. Introverted students tend to be very comfortable with solitary learning. They’re comfortable doing their learning through reading, research, writing, and sitting in a large lecture hall listening to someone.

Introverts are usually quite happy being alone, so the kinds of learning that lets them participate on their own are within their comfort zone. It’s also typical of introverts to prefer to have some time to think before they speak. And in that thinking, they have an opportunity to sort out their thoughts, clarify their own thinking, and come to some creative kinds of thinking and some deep reflections.

Many introverts are comfortable using written formats to clarify their thinking. They like to write things down before they’re asked to share them, and those writing opportunities allow them to think through the subject before speaking. Knowing these preferences and understanding the kinds of learning strategies that bring about the best results for introverts is important to us as faculty members.

To sum up introversion, it’s really a matter of difference. A good analogy might be to think about the difference between left-handed people and right-handed people. One is not better than the other. One is not right, and the other is not wrong. They’re simply differences, but they’re differences that have implications. And as left-handed folks have had to try to learn how to live in a world that might be designed for right-handed people, so too do introverts in our classrooms sometimes struggle to feel like they should be more extroverted.

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student writing

Write with Your Students to Promote Writing-as-Thinking

The single greatest strategy that I know to stimulate classroom learning is to write with students at the beginning of class.

Consider your own pre-class ritual to see if writing with your students might profit you and them. In my classes, students funnel in to reach their seats. At the start of some classes, students yell, tease one another, and laugh about subjects unconnected to the class. One complains to another about a different class, “Well, I said to her it sounds like you’re telling me to rewrite the paper!” They both laugh.

In another class, students shuffle in quietly. Some place their heads on their desks. Some just stare out the window. Still others fidget. Another is worried about her sick cat back home.

Of course, I’m overgeneralizing. Often our classes exist in the spaces between these two extremes. But what’s common to all—I don’t think this constitutes overgeneralizing either—is that students don’t consider pre-class as the time to prepare for class. Instead, they tend to use it exclusively for out-of-the-classroom experiences, sending a few texts, checking the score to last night’s game, maybe studying for an examination. They don’t see the need for transitioning into learning.

I remember for a long time feeling powerless to get students “in the mood” to think about the subjects of the class when they arrive: to take out their ear buds, open their books, have their pens at the ready. Even worse, I empathized! I could understand why they see this opening time as theirs; only the final tock of the clock signals class starts and the inevitable, “I’m yours for just one hour” or however long the class lasts.

As teaching professors, I think we can forfeit those settling moments before class officially begins by providing something greater: showing students how we, as professors, need to think when class starts. But thinking is very hard to do. The brain may need retraining to begin thinking in different contexts (Oakley, 2014, p. 25).

Therefore, the best way to engineer “opening thinking” is to bring it in unawares: to show it by example so the intellectual gears start moving in the right direction as class begins, all without undue introductions, syllabus corrections, and directions. That trio deadens classroom enthusiasm quickly and leads us away from prolific writing.

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group work activity

Strategies for Designing More Effective Group Work Assignments

Group work is one of those areas that some business and engineering faculty think is essential because that’s what those students will be doing in the workplace. I don’t want to undermine that view, but I do want to say that there is more to group work than just getting ready for the working world. We learn better when we share our ideas with others. When we have to articulate those ideas, have others bounce those ideas back to us, and try to justify claims or statements that we’re making, even in the hard sciences, there are many benefits that arise from working in a group.

If one student doesn’t understand something, another student may be able to help the struggling student look at a concept in a slightly different way. Hearing different ways of thinking about information, in each of our courses, is critically important. Group work can completely change the dynamic of your class. Without spending a lot of time on the theory, I do want to encourage you to try group work.

The teacher in a group class is no longer the central person. Students will still look to you for guidance and grades, but they will start to build up positive interdependence. In other words, they start to trust each other and they start to rely on each other to help learn the information. When their gaze focuses on classmates instead of you, it can be a little discouraging because the students seem to learn without your direct assistance. But what you’re doing is facilitating the effective functioning of groups. If you’re teaching groups, one of the best ways to know whether you’ve created a great assignment is to see what happens when the students get to work. If the volume level rises, you know that students are starting to learn from each other and you’ve done a great job.

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group work project

Group Work: Peer and Self-Assessment Form

Overall, how effectively did your group work together in learning the course subject matter? (circle the appropriate response)

not at all            poorly              adequately                  well                  extremely well

1                             2                        3                                  4                                  5

 

How many of the group members participated actively most of the time?
(circle the appropriate number)

not at all            poorly              adequately                  well                  extremely well

1                             2                        3                                  4                                  5

 

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experiential education - hiking in the mountains

What Is Experiential Education?

For many years, I have tried to explain what experiential education (EE) is to my colleagues. In the process, I often found myself bogged down in the technical jargon of my discipline (outdoor and adventure education) as well as the writings of thinkers such as John Dewey. I’m writing here to clarify my own understanding of EE and to present a simple model that can be understood regardless of academic discipline. In doing so, I am hesitant to even use the phrase EE because I believe it represents sound educational pedagogy no matter what it’s called.

From my understanding and experience, at the heart of EE are three key elements: content, experience, and reflection. Central to effective EE is establishing a clear and relevant relationship between these three elements in our teaching practice; ideally, content, experience, and reflection are seamlessly intertwined. I imagine three overlapping circles with EE in that space where they overlap.

The traditional lecture course is an example of content-focused practice. A teacher delivers the content, and it is up to students to experience or reflect on it. I think it is fair to say that the shortcomings of content-only practices are well understood and that most teachers are trying to distance themselves from relying solely on this tradition.

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The Success of Four Activities Designed to Engage Students

How can we engage students who are enrolled in large courses so they become active learners? I used four activities designed to get students involved, support their efforts to learn, and personalize the material in an introductory psychology course. How well did they work? For analysis, I divided the 52 students in my course into four groups, or quadrants, using their final overall course scores to place them in high- to low-performance groups. Final course scores were computed as points on a scale of 1 to 100, which were then reported as letter grades. Then I looked at how involved students in each group were in the engagement activities. I’ll start with a description of each of the engagement activities and then provide a summary of how well each of these approaches engaged students in learning the course content..

Optional retake exams. There were three in-class exams (each worth 20 percent) and a final exam. Each exam included short-answer and essay questions. Students could opt to retake any or all of the three in-class exams. The retakes, administered electronically, were personalized. For questions that students missed on the exam, new versions of the questions appeared on their individually constructed retake exam. Retakes were therefore a mastery system that encouraged students to focus on those concepts they did not understand. Based on the retake scores, points were added, not subtracted.

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What does it mean. Questions about research.

The Questions to Ask about Research on Teaching and Learning

Faculty have access to more information about college teaching than ever before. Researchers have studied a host of instructional approaches and published results in myriad journals. Educators have shared summaries of and links to such studies informally on websites and through Twitter feeds. This is good news for those of us who want to learn more about a particular instructional method or technique before we try it in our own courses.

Not all of us are educational researchers, however, and that brings some challenges for making sense of these studies. The research questions and methods may not be as familiar to us as those in our home disciplines. Unfamiliar research approaches can make it challenging to determine how much stock to place in study findings. This challenge increases when different studies report mixed or contradictory results.

How can we assess the research quality? How can we determine whether a given instructional method is something worth trying in our courses? What follows is a set of questions that you can use when evaluating individual studies and collections of them. The goal of these questions is to help you glean information from research to consider whether or how to implement a pedagogical approach.

Is the research question one you want to know the answer to? Education researchers ask and answer questions that may or may not have practical application for our teaching. For example, although hundreds of researchers have asked whether active learning is superior to lecture, some of us are not particularly interested the answer. We don’t see lecture and active learning as an either/or proposition and instead believe that we can use both approaches together. What we might want to know instead are the combinations or particular features of lectures or active learning methods that make them more or less effective.

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active learning in the classroom

Active Learning: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology

In recent years, the phrase active learning has become commonplace across the academic disciplines of higher education. Indeed, most faculty members are familiar with definitions that go something like this: Active learning involves tasks that require students not only to do something, but also to think about what they have done. Moreover, many faculty have already incorporated into their teaching activities associated with active learning, such as interactive lectures, collaborative learning groups, and discussion-related writing tasks.

However, faculty may not be aware that, from the perspective of cognitive psychology, the meaning of active learning is slightly different. According to cognitive psychology, active learning involves the development of cognition, which is achieved by acquiring "organized knowledge structures" and "strategies for remembering, understanding, and solving problems." (This particular definition is from a cognitive psychology text edited by Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, School.) Additionally, active learning entails a process of interpretation, whereby new knowledge is related to prior knowledge and stored in a manner that emphasizes the elaborated meaning of these relationships.

Faculty interested in promoting this cognitively oriented understanding of active learning can do so by familiarizing their students with such cognitive active learning strategies as activating prior knowledge, chunking, and practicing metacognitive awareness.

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