Posts Tagged ‘teaching tips’

Why Don’t They Apply What They Have Learned?

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

In the January 21, 2013 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, James M. Lang gave some insights into the answer to the question, “Why don’t they apply what they’ve learned”?  He referred to How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose and co-authors) and The Art of Changing the Brain (Zull).  Here is Lang’s article:

For two years I taught in a special program in which the same cohort of students took two consecutive courses with me: freshman composition in the fall and introduction to literature in the spring. In the composition courses, I worked hard to help students move beyond the standard strategies they had learned in high school for writing introductory paragraphs: Start with a broad statement about life (“Since the beginning of time, people have been fighting wars …”) and narrow down to a specific topic.

In both years that I taught the two-course sequence, I was startled to see many students come back from winter break and—on their very first papers in the spring class—revert directly back to those tired strategies that I had worked so hard to help them unlearn in the fall.

One such student came into my office early in the spring semester to show me a draft of her paper, and it included a lame reverse-pyramid (i.e., general to specific) introduction. “You have to rewrite your introduction,” I said to her. “Why aren’t you using any of the introductory paragraph strategies we worked on last semester?”

She looked up at me in genuine puzzlement: “You mean that the stuff we learned last semester applies in this course, too?”

D’oh!

In their excellent book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors describe the cognitive activity of applying learned material from one course to another and beyond as “far transfer.” They note correctly that it might be the most fundamental expectation we have for our students.

“Far transfer is, arguably,” they point out, “the central goal of education: We want our students to be able to apply what they learn beyond the classroom.”

Many of us state that outright in our courses. I am teaching two writing courses this semester and in both of them I tried to articulate for my students on the syllabus that I would be teaching them writing and thinking skills they could use in the future. “This course will open your eyes to the arguments that swirl around you continuously,” I wrote on the syllabus for my “Argument and Persuasion” course, “and give you the tools you need to understand, analyze, evaluate, and respond effectively to them.”

Students in my creative-nonfiction course got an even more specific version of that message: “Whatever writing you end up doing after you graduate—whether published books or essays, blogs or Facebook updates, advertising copy or notes to friends—I want you to understand what forms and techniques of writing grab the attention of readers, win them to your side, and inspire them to change in some way.”

If you have ever thought or told your students that you are teaching them “critical thinking,” for example, you are banking on the prospect that students will abstract some general cognitive skill from your course and apply it to future courses or even life situations.

But in practice, as How Learning Works makes clear, “far transfer” turns out to be a much more complicated process than many of us might expect, or that I might imply in my blithely hopeful syllabus talk.

“Most research has found,” the authors explain, “that (a) transfer occurs neither often nor automatically, and (b) the more dissimilar the learning and transfer contexts, the less likely successful transfer will occur. In other words, much as we would like them to, students often do not successfully apply relevant skills or knowledge in novel contexts.”

In short, the further we move students away from the very specific context in which they have learned some information or skill, the less transfer we should expect to see.

Students in my introductory literature course may learn to transfer the interpretive skills from the poetry unit to the fiction unit during that semester, but may not apply those same skills to an upper-level literature course they take the following year. And, at least according to this research, the chances of them applying skills they have learned in my literature course to a text they are reading in a history or political-science course are even slimmer.

To illustrate the difficulties of far transfer, Ambrose and her colleagues point to a fascinating study in which subjects read an article about a military maneuver that involved an army dividing up to conquer a fortress. After the participants had demonstrated their understanding of that challenge, they were given a medical problem which required a similar solution: attacking a tumor with laser treatments from multiple angles.

“Despite having just encountered the military solution,” they write, “the large majority of students did not apply what they had learned [from the military maneuver] to the medical problem.”

Ambrose and her co-authors point to two reasons for the failure-to-transfer that all of us see sometimes in our students. First, they might tie whatever knowledge or skill we are teaching too closely to the context in which they learned it. Thus, students can write innovative opening paragraphs in my freshman-composition course, but in their other classes they continue to rely on the same strategies they learned in high school.

Second, the inability to transfer a skill or information to a novel context might indicate shallow levels of learning. If students are capable of solving problems, writing essays, or answering questions according to some formula they have learned, they might not have grasped the underlying principles of our course content. Without that deeper knowledge of what lies beneath the formula, they can’t pick up what they are learning and put it back down in an unrelated context.

To dig a little more deeply into the problem, consider the work of James Zull, the author of The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. A biologist by training, Zull has devoted much of the latter part of his career to exploring the physical structures of the brain in order to better understand how teachers can facilitate learning.

Zull acknowledges our profession’s shared belief “that if we teach someone the rules for a particular kind of reasoning, they will apply those rules in a general way to everything else.” However, he also points out that “this does not seem to be the way the brain works.”

Cognitive skills of any kind depend on the growth and modification of neuronal networks in our brain, as Zull explains in his book. But because these are networks, they only grow and expand by connecting with other nearby networks. In other words, knowledge and skills obtained within the context of one network—say, my English- literature course—will not immediately float up into some brainy ether and plop down wholesale into unrelated networks.

“Neuronal networks grow by building on existing networks,” Zull writes, “so our entree to reasoning in one subject comes through the neuronal networks for the information in that subject. Often we don’t have the networks that connect one subject with another. They have been built up separately, especially if we have studied in the standard curriculum that breaks knowledge into parts like math, language, science, and social science.”

At this point you should be ready to raise an objection or two, since you are no doubt able to recount examples of students in your courses who have ably transferred content or skills learned in one course to another. I had a student last semester in an introductory literature course who gave a final presentation in which she drew on quotations from the Aristotle text she was reading in her philosophy course and applied them to the novel we had read.

And you could likely point to yourself as an example of a human being who has mastered the art of transfer. Most faculty members are capable of impressive feats of transfer when they are preparing for their courses or conducting research, pulling in examples, analogies, and ideas from a wide range of materials they have read or encountered and applying them to whatever novel context is at hand—a new course, lecture, article, or book chapter.

All hope is not lost, then, in spite of the considerable hurdles we face in helping students learn to transfer our course material from one unit to the next, or from one semester to the next, or from their education to their professional lives. We can help students develop that skill—or, perhaps more accurately, that habit of mind—with some deliberate thinking and activity at the level of the specific course, the larger curriculum, and the institution as a whole.

Teaching Resource for All

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I am a big fan of Maryellen Weimer’s work.  Check out her 2010 book, Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth (Jossey-Bass).  There’s something for everyone who believes that excellent teaching enhances student learning. 

Grading and Its Discontents

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

In his article entitled, “Grading and Its Discontents” (The Chronicle, July 11, 2012), Ahmed Afzaal reflected about grading in ways that you may find helpful when you are discontented with grading.  To find out how to minimize discontent, he asked his students for their thoughts on grading.  The responses led to several suggestions you can use in your teaching.  Below is the first of those suggestions.  More will follow in subsequent postings.

“The nature of grading.

Grading is a tool, I tell my students. And like any other tool, it is meant to perform certain specific functions. To explain those functions, I like to use a simple analogy.

Consider a car’s speedometer. It is a tool that performs two interrelated functions: (1) It measures speed, and (2) it communicates that information to the driver. In a somewhat similar way, grading is a tool that also performs two interrelated functions: (1) It assesses academic performance, and (2) it communicates that information to the student. When driving, you glance at the speedometer to determine the speed of the vehicle—if it is what you want, you try to maintain it; if not, you make appropriate adjustments. That is analogous to how students are supposed to use, and benefit from, whatever it is that their grades are telling them.

It’s perfectly normal to desire good grades since they serve as evidence that a student has demonstrated competence in a particular area. But problems arise when students assume that their primary goal in college is to earn good grades so they can achieve or maintain a certain GPA. That is like believing that the primary goal of driving a car is not to reach a particular destination but to achieve or maintain a certain speed.

Since grades have only instrumental value—rather than any intrinsic value—they must be treated as only means to some end, and never as ends in themselves. I tell my students: If your primary goal in college is to receive good grades, you will probably view the required work as an onerous obstacle and you’re not likely to feel very motivated to do the work. But you are most likely to receive good grades when you are so focused on learning that grades have ceased to matter.”

Making Meaning of Assigned Reading Reviews

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Do your reviews of assigned reading merely determine whether or not students have done the reading?  Would you like to make those reviews more meaningful for you and for your students?  Below is a Faculty Focus (http://www.facultyfocus.com/) article which was reprinted from “Making the Review of Assigned Reading Meaningful.” The Teaching Professor, 24.9 (2010): 2-3.

The typical college student dreads hearing, “Let’s review the chapters you read for homework.” What generally ensues is a question and answer drill in which students are peppered with questions designed to make clear who has and hasn’t done the reading. In reality, these exchanges do little to encourage deep thought or understanding of the assigned reading. They produce awkward silences during which students squirm in their seats, hoping to become invisible. Other times students decline to answer for fear of giving the wrong answer. Almost all the time a negative tone permeates the classroom during this review. I decided to restructure the way that I approached reviews of reading assignments, and found that by doing things differently, I could change both the tone and outcomes of the review activity. I’d like to share some of the ideas and techniques that I have found useful:

The Top Ten - Ask students to create their own “Top Ten List” of important concepts presented in the chapter(s). I encourage student collaboration in the creation of these lists. The activity provides a nice review of the material, and you’ll be amazed at what students consider to be most important. I use these lists as a starting point for discussions. They also let me know what areas of content need further explanation. For students who didn’t do the reading, the lists expose them to ideas in the text and that prepares them at least a bit for the subject of the day.

Secondary Sources - Gone are the days when the textbook is the only source of information available to students. With blogs, research articles, journals, informational pages, and news websites at the touch of a fingertip, students can easily learn more about the subject. After they’ve done the assigned readings, have students locate another viewpoint on the subject and bring it to class. In class, set a time limit (say 15 minutes) and have partners/groups discuss the reading material and their secondary sources. As you circulate around the room, you may hear some good examples that you can use later in the period. Interestingly, students often (without being asked) continue to bring in outside resources on the topics we study, which makes for rich and healthy discussions.

Journaling - For the ideas presented in the readings to become relevant, students need to articulate thoughts about what they are reading and they need to hear how others responded as well. I encourage my students to write journal notes, which I describe as what the brain is thinking while reading. Example: “Wow! I never considered how George Washington must have felt during this turbulent time in the nation’s history. I always thought of him as liking his role as president.” Students can share their journaling with a partner or small group. This exercise helps students get past initial impressions, and it connects what they already know to the new information.

Divide and Conquer - Divide up the next reading chapter among small groups of students. Student A reads the first section in the chapter, Student B reads the next section, and so forth. The next day, students meet in small groups and report on the section they read. Or you can have groups of students that read the same section meet with students who read different sections. Students become dependent on one another to create the full picture of what was in the reading material. My students seem to enjoy these group discussions, which are a way to become familiar with the material before being graded on it.

Using these and other strategies has really made a difference in my classes. More students are engaged in and contributing to class discussions, and they are moving beyond a simple repetition of facts and details. Students are digging deeper and connecting their world with other viewpoints, and that gives them a richer understanding of the content.

These new approaches are having an effect on me, too. I am more calm and confident in my role as a teacher and a learner. I find it easier to be more patient and thoughtful with my students. Most important, I have noticed that the classroom feels like a safe and positive place. Students show greater respect for one another and more appreciation of the material. In my opinion, all these responses make these changes worthwhile!

Dr. Sarah K. Clark is an assistant professor of elementary education at Utah State University.

I told the students to go to the writing center!

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Are you seeing completed assignments that don’t match what you expected, but you told the students to go to the writing center?  It’s a common complaint among faculty.  Faculty may give very detailed instructions to students about the required assignments, including encouraging students to make use of campus support centers.  But, writing center and other learning support staff can assist students only in so far as the assignment instructions are provided to those support staff – and, the earlier the better.  Support staff can best help students when there is sufficient time to review the assignment, assess where individual students need the most assistance, and then meet with students to improve the products.

Fleeting Patience?

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

In April, 2012, Mark Bauerlein wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how digital tools have downsides when it comes to needing to slow down.  He wrote that “sometimes, slow understanding is a necessity.  Take, for instance, those sequences in the history of film which are slow and deliberate, but which are nonetheless central expressions of the art form.”  He considers habitual switching and hurrying as learning deficiencies.  He recommends that academics work to “insert into the curriculum exercises and experiences that cultivate a different habit, a slow-down of apprehension.”  Slow down for a moment and consider the speed with which your students access information.  Is there time for retaining and using the information?

Does “cover” equal “learning”?

Monday, August 6th, 2012

In the July 9, 2012 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Berrett described role- and game-playing pedagogy being used in college courses.  Mr. Higbee, an Eastern Michigan University faculty member, reported that on nongame days attendance is lower:  “You can cover things, but there is tremendous evidence that coverage does not equal learning.”  What exactly are we doing when we “cover” material in class?  If when we are “covering” we merely repeat what is in a text or can be read online, there is no point for students to attend class.  By experiencing what we want to “cover,” students have a better chance of actually learning.

Making the Most of Your Office Hours

Friday, June 29th, 2012

To turn office hours into learning opportunities for students, Margaret Walsh, sociology professor at Keene State College, offered seven strategies:  teach, advise, collaborate, offer books, listen well, mentor, don’t ask for feedback on your course or department.  The last strategy can “put students on the spot … in a difficult position.”  You can access Walsh’s article here: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/how-to-make-the-most-of-your-office-hours/.

Try Learning Something You Don’t Know How to Do

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Maybe you think that because you have learned a lot about your discipline, you can easily learn something that is totally new for you.  Have you ever considered what your students are going through when they attempt to learn material that is totally new for them?    In a personal description of what it was like to learn to swim, Stephen Brookfield “recounts his own efforts to master a daunting new skills and the many lessons he learned about teaching and learning in the process.”  The article, Through the Lens of Learning: How Experiencing Difficult Learning Challenges and Changes Assumptions About Teaching, is readily available on the internet:  http://www.biochem.wisc.edu/faculty/weibel/lab/education/Brookfield_Through_the_Lens_1996.pdf.  Read it and then decide about how easily you might learn your discipline if you have no prior knowledge or experience with it.

CITL Answers – March 2012

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Question: I prefer electronic means for obtaining information. Although I would like to find out more about teaching and learning in higher education, there is too much on the Inter­net to manage. I would like to dip one toe into the pool and then figure out where I want to plunge deeper. How can I get started?

CITL’s Answer: The CITL’s webpage has several links to helpful resources on a variety of topics about teaching and learning in higher education. The resources range from sites offering teaching tips and strategies to ones providing essays and scholarly treatments of current issues in higher education. To get started, visit the CITL’s web resources page: http://www.emerson.edu/about-emerson/offices-departments/citl/faculty-resources/web-resources.