Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below is a review by Jennifer Berg, assistant professor of Mathematics at Fitchburg State University,of the book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. By Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman and is from CURRENTS IN TEACHING AND LEARNING VOL. 3 NO. 2, SPRING 2011, http://www.worcester.edu/Currents/default.aspx, Worcester State Colleg. Cppyright © WSC, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA 01602. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Principles to Teach By - Review
Review by Jennifer Berg of the book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. By Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman, with a foreword by Richard E. Mayer. Jossey-Bass, 2010, 336 pp., $38.00 (HC), ISBN 978-0-4704-8410-4.
A number of books published in the last five years have made use of research in cognitive science to improve the teaching we do by describing how students learn. In the last year alone three such books have ended up on my shelf. One reason for this surge is the relatively recent development in cognitive science, which draws from the fields of psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, linguistics, and anthropology. A second reason is the increased call for accountability in education and the related need to identify, as scientifically as possible, "best practices." How Learning Works aims to leverage the research on what factors influence learning into principles that faculty can use to make choices in their teaching. The authors, who are from the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University, distill decades' worth of research into seven such principles.
The principles are derived from the authors' own research in cognitive science and hands-on work with faculty. The book thus manages to balance the academic and the practical. The principles comprise the belief that prior knowledge can help or hinder student learning; that the organization of knowledge influences learning; that student motivation determines, directs, and sustains learning; that mastery requires the development and integration of component skills as well as knowing when to apply those skills; that practice of skills must be both goal-directed and coupled with targeted feedback; that students' level of development and the climate of the course influence learning; and finally, that self-sustained learning requires reflection and modification.
Each chapter considers a principle and begins with a description of two situations-typically classroom dilemmas-that highlight the prin- ciple at stake. This is followed by a brief overview of the principle, which is then developed in detail when the research behind the principle is explored. Chapters end with practical strategies for the application of the principle in the classroom.
The dilemmas described at the opening of each chapter will be familiar to many faculty and are used as touch- stones throughout the chapter. This lends a case-study feel to the text. The summary of the research is more varied. In some chapters ideas from a wide range of fields are discussed (keeping the practical implications always in sight), while in others pedagogical theory is developed beyond what is useful. The chapter on student development and course climate, in particular, devotes a large amount of space to describing a model of student development, while the connections to teach- ing strategies never emerge. The strategies presented in each chapter are quite extensive, which means there are many ideas that faculty can choose from depending on their discipline or teaching style.
The seven principles, while presented linearly, are often cross-referenced, and this interdependence cre- ates a web of principles that faculty can use to support student learning. For example, a late chapter that dis- cusses how students become self-directed learners con- nects to the first chapter on activating students' prior knowledge. In the earlier chapter the focus is on how faculty need to be aware of how much and what type of prior knowledge students bring to the class in order to leverage that prior knowledge into further learning. In the later chapter the authors refer to the idea that students need to develop the skills of assessing their own prior knowledge and of applying that knowledge to new tasks.
Similarly, the chapter on student motivation is linked to the chapter that addresses how the students' level of development and the course climate influence learning. Here we learn that student expectations of success are influenced by the climate of the course. The dilemma that opens the chapter is that of the well-intentioned faculty member who avoids calling on female students so as to not "put them on the spot," which unintentionally lowers the female students' own expectations of success. The authors often strike the
correct balance: they develop the ideas generated by the research while not getting lost in details that will obscure their practical value for faculty.
Refreshingly, the book ends with a review of the seven principles as they apply to faculty seeking to become better educators; this review serves as a good summary of the principles and a reminder that, like our students, we should aim to be life-long learners.
As a mathematician, I'm keenly aware that books providing advice on teaching are often aimed at those teaching in the humanities; but not so with this book. Almost all of the suggestions are discipline-indepen- dent, yet without being so general as to lose their util- ity. The structure of the book, both at the chapter level and as a whole, displays a comprehensive approach to effective teaching, and the authors do an excellent job straddling theoretical and practical considerations.
There are, however, occasional cracks in the coher- ence of the book, especially when conflicting research and pedagogical strategies are proposed. This occurs most notably between chapter two, which treats the importance of teaching students organizational struc- tures for knowledge, and chapter four, which is focused on what students need in order to develop mastery. In breaking up the principles as they do in these two chap- ters, the authors are silently taking sides in a contro- versy in cognitive science. The controversy is between the primacy of organizational structures for knowledge and the primacy of factual knowledge. That the authors dedicate an entire chapter to providing organizational structures for students hints at their preference.
More telling is how the authors approach chap- ter four, where one of the steps outlined for students developing mastery is acquiring component skills. For example, to graph a function by hand accurately, students must use the component skills of factoring, taking the derivative, taking limits, and solving equa- tions. The strategies proposed in this chapter focus on how faculty can become aware of the component skills required for a task, but the author avoids examining the unfashionable idea that students may need to practice rote skills before they are able to develop deep organi- zational structures for their knowledge.
A similar book by Daniel T. Willingham (2009), Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for Your Classroom, has the same goal as How Learning Works-that is, to use research in cognitive science to improve teaching. Notably, Willingham uses some of the same research that is presented in How Learning Works to support the principle that "factual knowledge must precede skill." While such conflicting perspectives should be expected when looking at the complex process of learning, I was disappointed that the authors of How Learning Works chose to avoid mentioning the disagreement.
The thoroughness of How Learning Works, which is drawn from the extensive experience of the authors inside the classroom and in working with college fac- ulty, as well as the breadth of research explored in the text, make it an excellent resource for faculty who are interested in developing their teaching. Faculty who are in the early stages of their development may find the abundance of practical suggestions overwhelming, but they would benefit from using the principles developed here to frame their teaching. More experienced faculty will benefit from the extensive suggestions, as they are more likely to know how to select a few sugges- tions and integrate them into their teaching toolkit. These same faculty will also find that the seven prin- ciples are useful categories of analysis when thinking through course activities or reflecting on challenging classroom situations. --
Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don't students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Jennifer Berg is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Fitchburg State University, where she has just completed a term as Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. Her research interests include representation theory and mathematics education.