Photo: Original by Whispertome via wikimedia.org; released to public domain; clumsy modification by yours truly.
Last fall I was 1/3 of a “teaching triangle”. This meant I teamed up with two other instructors for reciprocal classroom visits – not for assessment, but as an opportunity for observation and then discussion of different personalities and different teaching approaches working with different students in different classrooms. I picked up some useful ideas from seeing differences among my colleagues in how they approach teaching. But much more importantly, the experience crystallized for me something I now realize I’ve been seeing for years: the astonishing differences among students in how they approach learning.
In my triangle, I went first to a non-majors’ astronomy course. I love teaching non-majors. So, it was obvious, did the colleague I was observing. She was animated and enthusiastic, and hopped nimbly from lecture to “active learning”* segments to mind-blowing imagery of the astronomical topic of the day. And the students? They were engaged, which sounds great, until I tell you they weren’t engaged with the material – they were engaged with their iPhones and their laptops, checking Facebook and playing video games. A few paid attention; fewer answered questions; none asked them. It was painful.
Next, I went to a 3rd-year heat-transfer course (in chemical engineering). It was like stepping into a wind tunnel of equations, and the information transfer rate (all by conventional lecture) was prodigious. The students? Engaged (with the lecture this time) as I’ve rarely seen. They listened, they took notes, they asked questions, they brought up connections to previous lectures and to their other courses. The inescapable conclusion was that here was a room full of professional learners. They knew why they were there and they knew how to take advantage of their presence (and the instructor’s). Other than my aching fingers (because for reasons I can’t quite explain, I took notes too), the experience was 50 minutes of joy.
So here’s my question. How do we turn those astronomy amateurs into those heat-transfer professionals?** Or, more broadly, how do we make students into professional learners? Because of course, this contrast isn’t non-majors vs. majors, or astronomy vs. engineering, or 1st-year vs. 3rd-year. In my own 3rd-year population ecology course, I see both kinds of students. I love having the ones who are there to work and to learn. The others drive me nuts – the ones who aren’t there at all, or who are there but who haven’t even brought paper on which they might hypothetically take some notes. How do we convert the latter into the former?
I can tell you how we can’t do it (and you can set this beside these three posts in the litany of Dumb Things Steve Has Done). We can’t simply tell them. I decided, last year, to take 20 minutes about a week into the semester to explain to my students how they could do well in my course (and as a happy byproduct, in all their other ones too). I told them, for example, that if they just came to class routinely, listened and took notes, and re-read those notes the next day, I’d be astonished if they didn’t end up with at least a B. The result? Nothing. Nada; goose egg; bupkis. The same students who stared at me glassy-eyed from an empty desktop before did the same afterwards; and (of course) the ones who weren’t there to hear my spiel still weren’t there to act on it.
At this point, I realize, some of you are judging me. I’m talking about grades rather than learning, “taking notes” betrays that I lecture, and above all I’m whinging about how students should change their behaviour rather than asking how I should change my teaching. But while you absolutely should be judging me, that isn’t the reason. Grades vs. learning and lecture vs. not are just distractions from my point, which is that (I’ve become convinced) the most valuable thing we can achieve in education is not conveying content but giving our students the tools they need to take advantage of every learning opportunity – whatever shape it takes and whenever and wherever they encounter it. Those tools to a large extent involve student behaviour, and yes, they include how to learn from a lecture – and from a textbook, and from the literature, and from observations and experiments, and from think-pair-share and all the rest. The reason you should judge me? For having little idea, after 20 years as a university professor, how to give students these tools. I know how to make a professional learner into a biologist; but I don’t know how to make the average student into a professional learner.
I’m not alone here. What I think is regrettable is that not enough of us – indeed, hardly any of us – spend any significant amount of time thinking about how to make professional learners. When we revise our curricula, we worry mostly about content. We may consider how content in one course sets up content of the next, and we may stretch to a planned ascent of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but we rarely think much about how one course can shape student behaviour to allow success in future courses. (By ‘we’, I mean the hoi polloi of instructors who actually deliver the bulk of our courses.)
How could we make students into professional learners? I’m not sure anybody knows. There’s no doubt that it’s difficult. Most universities offer students opportunities to pick up professional-learner skills and behaviour, but I don’t think many of these have the desired outcome. My Faculty, for example, offers SCI 1001, a zero-credit course intended this way. Our experience is underwhelming. Because the course is zero-credit, students (understandably if wrongheadedly) give it low priority. Worse – the very students who need it most seem to be the ones who pay it the least attention***.
So perhaps we’re doing the wrong things. What do experts suggest? Well, I’d love to answer that question, but I’ve struggled to find much other than opinion-based prescriptions – often with one contradicting another. Ideally, I’d look in the peer-reviewed literature; and there must be studies out there deploying interventions in well-designed experiments with quantitative, longitudinal follow-up (and finding successful ones). I hope some of you will know about them, and leave citations in the Replies. There is some such literature on the delivery of content, and some on which student behaviours make for effective learning. What I’m surprised about is how little I can find on how to effectively shape student behaviour. (Of course, I may be missing a useful body of work, as it’s very far from trivial for instructors to access and understand the teaching-and-learning literature. Here’s a short book that may well cover some of what I’m after, although I’ve just discovered it and haven’t managed to read it yet.)
In the end, I have no answer to the question I posed in my title. What I do have is an increasing belief that it’s an important question – more important than “what should I put in my course and what should I leave out” and more important than “should I lecture or flip the classroom”. It deserves far more attention than I’ve ever seen it given. Or that I’ve given it myself – for I have, I now realize, spent the bulk of my career barking up the wrong educational tree. I think I’ve found the right tree now. If only I knew how to bark effectively.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) September 6, 2016.
Thanks to Dawn Bazely for comments on a draft version of this post.
*^Which I still maintain is a horrible, deceptive, and damaging piece of terminology. Nonetheless, the use of these techniques is often a good sign of a passionate teacher – even if the techniques themselves are (of course) not a panacea.
**^I can tell you roughly how that Engineering class wound up full of professional learners, but it won’t help. Engineering programs worldwide are notorious for culling their students ruthlessly until only the professional learners are left. That’s finding professional learners, not making them.
***^Students skip the library-skills session because they’re sure Wikipedia is enough. With blinding irony, many skip the time-management session because they’ve left a lab report to the last minute. I could go on.