Great Teaching Hinges on How Students Learn

Humboldt State University’s Institute for Student Success (ISS) has put together a storehouse of practical tips for strong teaching.

These handy suggestions stem from advances in cognitive science that reveal how learning actually takes place.

Last May’s ISS workshops focused on the transmission of knowledge, in contrast to what Princeton Professor Anthony Grafton calls “the ongoing transformation of all fields of knowledge,” which, in his view, often relegates undergraduate instruction to a secondary role.

The ISS workshops dealt with new teaching methods and course design, the special needs of first-generation college students and the social psychology of stereotypes in university settings.

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HSU Instructional Technologist Kimberly Vincent-Layton

“This coordination supports a campus culture that encourages continuous collective, and individual, improvement towards inclusive student success,” says HSU Instructional Technologist Kimberly Vincent-Layton. “When we come together to share and learn how we can work together to improve the student experience, this is transformation.”

One workshop was based on one of the institute’s Spring Book Circle texts, How Learning Works. It is a book-length primer by specialists in the field that contains a bevy of practical tips for college teaching.

Faculty are encouraged to:

One of the top classroom strategies is bridging the “expertise gap.” The term refers to the faculty expert’s natural tendency to take for granted how much students know.

How Learning Works illustrates the problem like this: a master chef instructs novice cooks to “sauté the vegetables until they are done” or “cook until the sauce is a good consistency” or “add spices to taste.” These instructions are clear to the chef but not to the novices, who may not know what “done” means, what “good consistency ” is or which spices would produce the desired flavor.

Like the chef, a teacher may unconsciously skip steps or take shortcuts that leave students in the dark. He or she is making leaps that learners cannot follow.

“We see the unconscious competence of the expert meeting the unconscious incompetence of the novice,” How Learning Works points out. Students may muddle their way across the divide, but “it is unlikely that they will learn with optimal efficiency or thoroughness.”

There are manifold ways to bridge the expertise gap. Among the book’s recommendations:

How Learning Works also underlines the importance of feedback, which it says should be practical and concrete. Students need to know exactly where they stand relative to course goals, the book argues, including specifics about how they can improve academic performance.

One effective method is showing learners an example of a past student’s work that met all of the course criteria. Students can then form a clear idea of what success looks like, whether in a well-written paper, a model design or a novel solution to a problem.

Faculty should also feel free to explain what they do not want. Sharing samples of the misunderstandings or misinterpretations of past students will help current ones distinguish high quality work from mediocre effort.

Feedback should cite the specific areas where students are making progress. Often they are unaware of the strides they are making, research shows. Communicating their progress is just as important as identifying their lack of understanding and need for improvement.

Also, students should be encouraged to share constructive feedback about each other’s work, provided they have clear guidance on how peer feedback works and the rationale for it.

Another technique is requiring students to demonstrate how they have used feedback to buttress their latest work. Learners assigned to write multiple drafts of a paper can include a paragraph in a subsequent draft stating how they incorporated faculty or peer feedback from the prior one. This exercise helps students to recognize the connections between or among multiple assignments, projects and exams. It also provides them an overarching view of where the course is headed.

One of the precepts of How Learning Works is that effective teaching requires constant adaptation—to new students, changing technology and advances in academic disciplines. “New students” often means the rising number of first-generation undergraduates nationwide.

The First-Generation Student Experience, another of the canonical texts of the ISS’s Spring Book Circle workshops, examines the special academic needs of such students, their psychological make-up and their cultural needs. (Neither parent has a college degree.)

Published in 2010 by Sonoma State English Professor and academic counselor Jeff Davis, The First-Generation Student Experience was written when more than 40% of incoming freshmen nationwide were first-generation students. Today, about 50% of HSU’s incoming freshmen are in that category. Their weighty numbers impose enlarged demands on universities in a number of ways.

Proportionally, first-generation students need remediation in higher numbers than their non-first-generation counterparts. But their remediation needs extend well beyond routine remedial math and English. They also include specialized academic advising, intensive instruction in study skills, full participation in study groups (supplemental instruction with students mentoring students), mandatory enrollment in a “University 101” course and greater personal involvement in campus life, both curricular and extracurricular.

Davis traces these needs in part to what he calls the internal psychology of first-generation undergraduates. Some of their first-timer anxiety and disorientation is like that of all freshmen in their early months of enrollment. But it may take first-generation students longer to acclimate to, and feel at ease in, campus surroundings.

Davis writes that in his experience and that of his Sonoma State colleagues, it is very easy to tell a class of first-generation students from that of non-first-generation learners. Research indicates, for example, that first-generation students speak less frequently in class, volunteer less frequently for class presentations, feel less like “real” students and experience feelings of being an “impostor.”

The sense of being an outsider manifests itself in all realms of campus life. First-generation undergraduates not only answer fewer questions in the classroom, Davis says, they are also less likely to engage in conversation when passing a professor in the hall or chatting with a group of new friends in an impromptu get-together.

Intriguingly, impostor psychology can hold sway with first-generation college learners regardless of their academic standing. “They suffer from the impostor phenomenon when things are going badly and [emphasis in the original] when things are going well,” according to Davis. “If they receive a high grade, for example, they cannot believe their good fortune. If an instructor makes a positive comment on a paper about a particularly cogent insight, they think the instructor is just being kind or is disingenuously practicing positive reinforcement as a strategy for managing the class.”

Davis calls for both staff and faculty training to deal with the problem. Portions of his text echo the tips in How Learning Works. One of the best ways to reassure first-generation learners in the classroom, he says, is putting a premium on clarity. Faculty should be concrete about what is expected: “About how papers are turned in and about how to format a paper,” for example.

Further, Davis argues, faculty should hold mandatory office hours, no ifs, ands or buts. Mandatory office visits make it easier for first-generation students to dismiss their feelings of inadequacy and fears of wasting a professor’s time, he says.

The First-Generation Student Experience underscores that staff and faculty alike should be alert to the fact that first-generation individuals are unfamiliar with the very culture of college. They are “new to the insider knowledge, the special language and the subtle verbal and nonverbal signals that, after one has mastered them, make one a member of any in-group, community or subculture.”

This is not just a matter of campus tours, orientation programs and expert introductory advice, he cautions. These undertakings are essential but insufficient. They lack cognizance and understanding the first-generation college student’s personal experience.

First-generation college aspirants are playing catch-up; hence their need for specialized academic advising and the other supports Davis recommends.

The First-Generation Student Experience rejects the stereotype that first-generation status is synonymous with low-income status. This is simply false, Davis says. Too many post-secondary educators take this stereotype for granted, he says, when in fact first-generation student families represent the entire range of U.S. income levels when they are compared with all American families, rather than with non-first-generation student families alone.

The broader issue of stereotypes is dealt with in another building block of the Institute for Student Success, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, by the eminent social psychologist Claude Steele, dean of Stanford’s School of Education and former provost at Columbia.

The keynote speaker at the May ISS, Steele contends there is now a preponderance of evidence that shortfalls in academic performance stem far more often from stereotyping than was previously understood. Personal fear of being stereotyped, as for gender or race for example, can translate into anxiety and stress that becomes a Catch-22: fear undercuts academic performance on tests and exams and perversely reinforces the negative stereotype.

Steele says “narrative interventions” can help combat debilitating stereotypes. As an illustration, his book recounts the story of a frustrated freshman who is informed of the results of an upperclassmen survey that summarizes, in a narrative format, their social experiences during their collegiate life. Like the alienated freshman, they too felt they would never belong, never be happy. Over time, however, thanks to the school’s resources and advantages, they came to fit in and enjoy collegiate life.

Minor as it may seem at first glance, this narrative equips the freshman with the assurance that his difficulties will fade and open the way to a fulfilling university experience.

Test results at a northeastern university bore this out, according to Steele. Black students who received a narrative intervention of the kind Whistling Vivaldi describes averaged one-third of a letter grade higher the following semester than those in a control group who received the results of a survey of political attitudes.

“Think of the long-term effects that a narrative intervention like this might have,” Steele muses. “If it improves black students’ grades in an early college semester, then those better grades could further increase a student’s sense of belonging and that augmented sense of belonging could further improve grades—in a mutually reinforcing spiral of a trusting narrative fostering better grades and better grades fostering a trusting narrative.”

Steele believes that providing stereotyped students with positive narratives with which to interpret their experience makes the case for a narrative intervention strategy. One linchpin of this strategy can be shared experiences across race and gender lines. For example, the pressures of academic life—a subpar test grade, a verbal clash with a roommate, a chronic shortage of cash—afflict everyone regardless of race or gender. If stereotyped groups are made aware of this reality, through chat sessions and informal cross-group conversations, their race or gender becomes far less central to their personal lives. The awareness of mutual difficulties frees more of their mental energy and motivation for academic pursuits—and the achievement of higher grades.

Narrative interventions offer a profound lesson, Steele asserts. They are a tool that can address and manage group underachievement with immediate success. A student’s troubles can be reduced and the likelihood of his/her graduation can be increased. It does not matter that narrative interventions can do little or nothing to correct pre-existing and deep-rooted conditions: socio-economic disadvantage, limited access to good schooling, inadequate parental support and meager involvement in the social networks that fortify the development of critical thinking skills and cultural capital. Narrative strategy helps people to understand that they can live safely from stereotyping on campus and this “is immensely valuable—academically valuable.”

Steele’s research reverberates in one of the key predicates of How Learning Works: it is best to educate human beings holistically, in all of their dimensions. “Many of the problems students encounter in learning stem from an interaction of emotional, physical, intellectual and social factors,” the book declares. “Teaching solutions must address all these factors at once. The emotional, physical, intellectual and social climate of the classroom interacts with those same elements in the makeup of the individual student.”

That is why, the text adds, “When it comes to teaching, most of us are still learning.”