The literature on teaching and learning is enormous; indeed, one can easily become lost in its superabundance. And while all academics are trained to read and process huge volumes of knowledge, the majority of us are already short on time and chronically behind in the literatures of our own fields. A deep dive into recent work on pedagogy is something we can scarcely find time for during the semester, while summers are often reserved for what might be called “academic R&R” (research and revising).
For the many among us who face such exigencies, the following represents a short list of great (and thin!) books on topics like active learning, rubrics, teaching first-year and first-gen students, course journaling, and meaningful writing projects.
This list has six books on it, but if you can read only one, read Lisa M. Nunn’s 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-by-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students (Rutgers, 2018). Many of your students will be new to the university setting simply because they are first-year students; others are new to it in a more profound sense, being the first people in their families to attend college. Both these groups – and, ultimately, all of your other students — can benefit from the teaching strategies outlined here. It’s a slender volume, but packed with great, easily implemented ideas to make both your classroom and your office hours more inviting and engaging.
To take one example, Nunn recommends not only broadening the diversity of scholars included in syllabi but also subtly highlighting these inclusions by inserting a picture of the scholars in PowerPoint presentations so that “students come to see female scholars and scholars of color as a normal, routine aspect of academic life.” Other excellent tips — often simple to implement — involve changing one’s own habits of speech and student-teacher interactions. When my students come to my office hours, I make it a point to avoid referring to how busy I am so they don’t feel like they’re bothering me.
Nunn also suggests noting at regular intervals during your course that the material or concepts you’re teaching are difficult. This is especially true (and this can be counterintuitive) if it’s an introductory class in which students aren’t building on past knowledge but entering into unfamiliar territory. Nunn’s recommendations are interspersed with anonymous, pithy quotes from students who make it clear in their own words that often unseen stumbling blocks can hinder their learning.
In Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2016), James M. Lang sets out from the same premise mentioned in the introductory paragraph: no instructor has time to fully immerse themselves in the latest literature and radically reinvent syllabi from one semester to the next. Lang’s solution is what he terms “small teaching.” Rather than a wholesale change, he proposes techniques that you can read about in the evening and implement the next morning in your lecture class.
An example is using predictions in class. Students are given some evidence of what they will encounter in the next week’s class and asked to make their best guess about its meaning. When they are exposed to it and asked to reflect on it at greater length the following week, they remember the material more confidently.
Drawing on Lang’s suggestion, I often ask students to look at four or five short excerpts, images or objects drawn from the forthcoming reading and then to make an argument about how they relate. One of the most distinctive and stimulating aspects of this book is that Lang introduces each of his techniques with a brief overview of the research supporting them.
Rubrics often generate about as much enthusiasm as the department newsletter — until you use them. Dannelle D. Stevens and Antonia J. Levi’s Introduction to Rubrics: An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback and Promote Student Learning (Stylus, 2012) will convince you to give them a try. The concept is simple: rather than having students guess what they need to do for a good paper, give them a simple, straightforward outline. Even better, have them participate in creating the rubric. Stevens and Levi argue persuasively that involving students in the generation of a rubric results in a greater sense of buy-in.
Rubrics are also especially helpful for three groups of students: first-generation college students, students who didn’t come from elite high schools and students who aren’t majoring in your field. In other words, the majority of your classroom can benefit from a clear, comprehensible statement of what makes for an A, C or F paper as far as sources, arguments, mechanics and the like. And of course, rubrics needn’t be limited to paper grading, but can be employed for a variety of other assignments or even participation grades. Other potential benefits include reducing grading time by avoiding writing the same thing dozens of times, as well as keeping a large teaching staff on the same page.
Most historians consider personal journals as excellent primary sources, but few of my colleagues are familiar with using them as a core component of student assessment. In Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight and Positive Change (Stylus, 2009), Dannelle D. Stevens and Joanne E. Cooper lay out the argument that course journals give students not merely a place to put notes, but they also create a space for instructor-directed reflection on learning. Current research makes it clear that taking knowledge and connecting it with one’s own experience significantly improves retention of that knowledge.
Stevens and Cooper discuss a wide range of possible uses: asking students to write out summaries of the main points of each lecture at its conclusion, writing five-minute reflections after discussions, logging progress on class projects, going back to earlier entries and annotating or updating with new ideas, and so on. They also suggest a number of ways to make journal grading a breeze.
I used course journals this semester, and while the students were not unanimous in their praise, this student’s words were broadly representative: “I really liked the course journals. The idea of keeping a journal for a class put me in a different mind-set for the class, I think. It opened up a space for me in my own thinking to reflect on what we were learning and discussing as we were learning it, which really enhanced my class experience.” Inevitably some students will do the bare minimum, but many others will create beautiful, richly annotated records of their learning, as the example below shows. And the authors of this book argue persuasively that all students benefit from this kind of processing.
Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller and Neal Lerner — professors at the University of Oklahoma, St. John’s University and Northeastern University (respectively) — undertook a multiyear project in which they surveyed more than 700 students from their institutions. The professors asked if students had ever completed what they considered to be a meaningful writing project, and if so, how the project had been structured and why it had been meaningful. Their results are presented in The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching and Writing in Higher Education (Utah State University Press, 2017) as well as in a stand-alone website (here). The authors discovered that the projects students found meaningful shared three common characteristics: 1) students had choice for the topic but also thorough, clear prompts, 2) the projects were connected to the students’ lives and interests, and 3) they were relevant to what the students planned to do after college.
Some readers may want to skip the chapters on the study’s methods, jumping straight from the introduction to the conclusion. The book’s last chapter functions as a powerful blueprint for shaping writing assignments that build student motivation and make for memorable and meaningful learning experiences.
The last realm of learning research, digital pedagogy, can seem forbidding, with its steep learning curves and unfamiliar language. Luckily, there are helpful and cogent guides to the digital realm. Michelle D. Miller’s Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology (Harvard, 2016) presents a variety of ways to engage students both inside and outside the classroom.
Miller’s argument is essentially twofold: judicious use of classroom technologies means better learning for students and less work for instructors. Her book gives excellent suggestions for making better use of learning management systems like Canvas, Moodle and Blackboard; experimenting with real-time polling; and encouraging digital-born projects for course assessments. Like Lang’s book discussed above, each suggestion is reinforced with recent pedagogical research.
Before I read Minds Online, I used my Canvas sites mainly as repositories for PDFs of readings. Then I read how the testing effect — which shows that students asked to recall information remember it better — embodied in low-stakes quizzes could help students internalize course material. I made simple quizzes online that asked students about the core ideas from their readings. They could retake these quizzes as many times as necessary, while only the highest grade counted. Because the quizzes were on Canvas, I never had to do any grading; students were pleased because they could always get a perfect score as long as they took the time to retake the quiz.
In a sense, all academics are jugglers — we have to keep yellow (teaching), blue (research) and red (service) balls in the air at the same time that administrators are lobbing us ever more balls. These books have had a transformative effect on my teaching. Each presents research about learning and suggests easily implementable ways to change up pedagogy for the better, giving instructors an edge without distracting from the perpetual juggling of our academic careers.
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