The research is unmistakable: more engaged students learn more. Students as passive “receptacles” is out, active learning and NSSE are in (National Survey of Student Engagement). Build your teaching options and find the strategies, methods, or SET’s (Student Engagement Techniques) that suit your context and your strengths as a teacher.
Lambert, Terenzini and Lattuca, (2007) show that the improvement of student learning cannot be reduced to the identification and implementation of a ‘silver bullet’ or single best practice. A multitude of different factors have been shown to affect student learning and academic development. Faculty decisions about curricula and participation in professional development focused on teaching excellence have positive effects on learning, in addition to key decisions about programs and the structuring of student experiences both in and out of the classroom.
With the paradigm shift in higher education from providing instruction to producing learning (Barr, 1995), the best teaching practices reflect the well-researched tenet that when students are properly engaged in coursework, they tend to learn better – so it’s helpful to look at the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE, http://nsse.iub.edu/html/about.cfm), a valid, reliable instrument of 82 questions divided into 5 major benchmarked areas (explained further at: http://nsse.iub.edu/pdf/nsse_benchmarks.pdf) :
- Level of Academic Challenge
- Active & Collaborative Learning
- Student / Faculty Interaction
- Enriching Educational Experiences
- Supportive Campus Environment
While the fifth area is not specifically within your control, the first four areas are, and hence provide the foundation for the subsequent teaching practices that focus on the most powerful, evidence-based ways to engage students. NSSE areas / benchmarks are also reflected in CMU’s SOS / EOC instruments. While hundreds of practices exist, research and experience across the country demonstrate the strength and efficacy of the following eight evidence-based teaching practices, listed in approximate order of typical usage from the beginning of a semester (and useable at any point):
Teaching Methods & Learning Goals
An effective method when attempting to help students make meaning of new concepts is a constructivist approach where the focus is on the learner becoming active in his/her own learning, making use of their previous knowledge and experiences to help them understand new concepts and achieve learning goals (von Glasersfeld, 1987). The role of the teacher shifts from a traditional lecturer who “transmits” knowledge to that of a facilitator, advisor, coordinator, coach, or a guide who structures the tools or substance for discussions and activities (Gergen, 1995). These discussions and activities not only stimulate deeper, long-term learning, but enable the teacher to witness how the instructional activities are being interpreted or absorbed, and to choose the next course of action that will provide the most benefit to “this particular class at this particular time” (Gergen, 1995). In this approach, the teacher is learning about the class and understanding how they learn best.
Adapting teaching methods to reach learning goals is best done by first developing a clear idea of what you would like your students to gain or understand after attending class or taking your course. Pratt (1992; 1998) developed five different teaching perspectives based on empirical research and his own conceptual work. The five perspectives are defined and labeled (Transmission, Apprenticeship, Developmental, Nurturing and Social Reform) where instructors have the versatility to adapt their teaching styles to match the learning objectives of a given class session or course.
For example, if one of the learning objectives in a Chemistry course is to learn the chemical formula for steel, then the instructor may choose to employ a transmission teaching style where the information is transmitted from instructor to students (Pratt, 1998). If one of the learning objectives in an Engineering course is to be able to construct steel, then the instructor may want to employ an apprenticeship teaching style where the class will actively work in the lab to construct steel. Learning objectives that involve stimulating new modes of thinking or reasoning about particular topics may be best taught through a developmental teaching style where instructors facilitate discussions, give pros and cons, hold debates, or ask students to reflect on particular issues or events. If the learning objective is to develop and prepare students for graduate level work, then instructors may choose a nurturing teaching style where students are supported to set and achieve challenging goals for the future. If the learning objective is to increase awareness and understandings of key issues or agendas in societies/organizations then the instructor may choose a social reform teaching style where they enlighten students in regards to values and ideologies that can promote social change. Pratt, Collins & Selinger (2001) explain the importance of aligning teaching practices, intentions (like learning objectives), and beliefs or attitudes to provide high quality, consistent instruction when using various teaching styles.
Employ Advance Organizers
Sending a clear message to the class about the content to be covered during the session can be instrumental in outlining the direction and focus for the class. Employing advance organizers, either written or visual, online makes it easier for instructors and students to attend to and reach desired learning objectives (Ausubel, 1968). Setting such an agenda or providing visual cues before the start of class enables students to prepare for learning and stay focused on relevant discussion. Advance organizers may also be employed to help instructors better manage the flow of content covered and ensure that discussions remain relevant to the session objectives (Lagerwerf, 2008). Ausubel (1968) also notes that advance organizers help learning because they activate relevant pre-existing knowledge within a student’s cognitive structure.
Using advance organizers in these ways provides a framework for the brain and a jump-start to learning before a word is spoken. Getting students to think about the topics to be discussed ahead of the actual discussion can provide time for students to reference and question their own pre-existing knowledge as “personal facts,” and generalizations are more easily learned and retained when related to pre-existing frameworks of meaningful knowledge (Gagne 1988), thus tending to improve the overall quality of a session through added inquiry and well-considered commentary. Gagne (1988) explains that retrieval cues such as advance organizers are most effective when introduced at the time learning first occurs or at the start of class.
Advance organizers can be as simple as writing an outline of today’s course topics on the board or e-mailing the class a presentation outline that students can print and use to take notes or follow during class. Whatever method is used to organize the class time, the key is to do it before class begins so that structure is in place for you and the students to reference, address, and consider throughout the session.
Plan for various learning preferences, especially visual & active learners
The best instructors are sensitive to how students learn in different ways. A versatile teacher incorporates a repertoire of methods and techniques to vary instruction when delivering content, appropriately matching learning objectives to ways that optimize the learning experience, whether through concrete visualization, imagery, concept-mapping, simulation techniques, or small group discussions and focused activities that require the learner to engage (Davis, 2009).
Studies have shown that hands-on simulation exercises can bridge the gap between theory and practice. This is done by elaborating the difference between the ideal behavior in theoretical models in education and the true behavior of the actual systems in industry (Scemakula, 2001; Verma, 2003 as cited in Elbadawi,et.al. 2010). Pictures are excellent means of encoding what is to be learned. When used in conjunction with text, students can retain the new information in the form of an image and this image will then serve as a cue to encode the text that accompanies it or reference another defined or abstract concept the student is familiar with (Gagne 1988).
Whatever the preferred method for learning is, perhaps the most important notion for educators to recognize is that the deepest learning occurs when based on natural curiosities or when students are motivated intrinsically to learn something (Bain, 2004). Interest has been shown to diminish in the face of extrinsic rewards (to get a good grade or because it will be on the test) or punishments that can affect their focus. Students are most likely to become more productive if they are empowered or in charge of their decision to learn. Bain (2004) also suggests that some teachers may engage their students with good lectures, while others engage with case studies, problem-based learning, facilitating discussions, or creating service-learning projects. Continuous assessment of learning preferences, along with periodic demonstrations of understanding from the class, will by design ensure that learning is taking place before the semester is over and it is too late to make crucial adjustments to lesson plans.
Use active, cooperative/collaborative learning
Learning from peers through cooperative and collaborative learning can contribute to community building and can impact student attitudes and values positively (McKeachie, 2011). Challenge students to actively engage in tasks that involve analysis, application, synthesis, evaluation, and/or reflection during class. When students elaborate on content to their peers by relating it to other knowledge or points of reference, students may experience a change in values in addition to learning.
Students who have opportunities to work together will benefit from structured assignments that encourage interdependence, the designing of interactive processes, and accountability (Maculay & Gonzalez, 1996). Empowering students to take an interactive role in their learning, giving students opportunities to make choices and decisions on particular assignments will help them to take ownership of their education and make lessons more engaging for everyone (Rhem, 1995). Intrinsic motivation remains bound to some level of choice, challenge, and control. Courses that remove these take away the sense of ownership and diminish the strongest elements that contribute to lasting learning (Czikszentmihalyi, 1990; Rhem, 1995).
Infuse critical and/or creative thinking components/skills, and make sure your students are learning-how-to-learn in your course/discipline
Developing students’ abilities to think critically is perhaps one of the most important skills instructors of any discipline can impart to their students. When thinking critically, we evaluate the outcomes of our thought processes, i.e., how good a decision is or how well a problem is solved (Halpern, 1996, 1998). Students have been shown to develop critical thinking skills through a variety of ways in the classroom; argument analysis (Kahane, 1997), decision-making (Dawes, 1988), problem-solving (Mayer, 1992), and other cognitive processes (Rabinowitz, 1993). Critical thinking has been shown to be a skill students can develop and use across academic domains (Halpern, 1998). Teaching students to be critical thinkers can be done in several ways. Halpern (1998) proposed the use of a four-part model of instruction for critical thinking:
- instruction in the skills for critical thinking,
- addressing student dispositions to employ critical thinking,
- structure training to improve the probability that students will know when to use a particular thinking skill, and
- metacognitive monitoring or self-determining how knowledge can be used to improve the thinking and learning process.
Although all of these methods for teaching critical thinking can be applied across multiple disciplines, evaluating the most effective methods for any given discipline or course is the key to ensuring that students are learning course objectives most effectively. Creative thinking is also an important way to approach problem solving when students are challenged with proposing solutions (Ennis, 1996). Thinking critically simply involves the application of some criteria to make reasoned and reflective assessments of the proposed solutions. Infusing creativity with critical thinking in this manner will not only help students understand how to apply concepts learned in the course but it will help prepare students for professional endeavors in their respective disciplines as well.
Excite the neurons
Student engagement begins by stimulating the brain; specifically, neurons, or specialized cells that conduct nerve impulses and fire when presented with specific external stimuli creating moments of alertness, excitement and high energy. Providing such moments can supply instructors with windows for engagement.
Neuroimaging brain research indicates students learn best when they are given opportunities to have an active voice in their classroom experiences (Willis, 2007). Positive motivation impacts brain metabolism--the conduction of nerve impulses through the memory filters, and the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive function and attention. When curriculum is relevant to students' lives, interests, and experiences, and students feel that they are partners in their education, they are engaged and motivated (Wunderlich, Bell, and Ford 2005 as cited in Willis, 2007).
When students experience periods of high stress or anxiety, MRI studies show an increase in blood flow to the amygdala, an “emotional” portion of the limbic system. “When the amygdala is in this ‘hyperexcitable’ state neural activity through the amygdala to the higher learning and association centers in the rest of the brain is profoundly reduced” (Xiao and Barbas 2002; Pawlak et al. 2003 as cited in Willis, 2007, p.34). This state of anxiety can occur when students feel alienated from their academic experience or have a lack of understanding. “In this state, there is reduced stimulation of the neural pathways from the amygdala to higher cognitive centers of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, where information is processed, associated, and stored for later retrieval and executive functioning” (McGaugh et al. 1990 as cited in Willis, 2007, p. 34). Hence, projecting a calm and positive demeanor with students can help to reduce potential moments of anxiety where clear thinking is inhibited.
Engaging students by giving them choices, opportunities to have a voice in the class, hands-on exercises, entertaining presentations/videos and changing the venue (field-trips) can have positive effects on the mind that will engage students (Willis, 2007).
“Drive” student success
A teachers’ ability to drive student success is not something that should be measured quantitatively with a beginning and end point based on the amount of material transmitted to them. A more appropriate measurement of a teacher’s ability to drive student success would be through more qualitative means on a continuum where students either:
- develop multiple perspectives,
- develop an ability to think about how they think,
- attempt to understand ideas for themselves,
- attempt to reason with new concepts and information,
- use the material widely in multiple contexts and applications,
- relate to previous experience and learning, and/or
- think about assumptions, evidence, and learning (Bain, 2009).
Being mindful of these different but interconnected aspects of student success, the best teachers continually encourage students to achieve meaningful learning by providing the tools, resources and insight students need to achieve their learning objectives.
Pursue Deep Learning
In the book “What the Best College Teachers Do”, Bain (2009) studied teachers who had a sustained influence on their students. Identifying how to pursue this result, Bain references a concept developed by Swedish theorists Marton and Saljo (1976, as cited in Bain, 2004) known as “deep learning.” Bain found evidence of deep learning in the language students would use to describe their academic experiences with particular teachers. The contrast between students who spoke about “learning the material” versus those who were “getting into it” and “making sense of it all” spoke volumes about the teachers who gave them a lot to remember versus those who helped them to truly understand – and, as a result, remember and apply long-term.
When students show evidence of deep learning they typically develop an authentic interest that stays with them as they strive to understand and make meaning from content (Millis, 2010). The learning goals above (1 through 7 under 'Drive Student Success') become intertwined with teaching methods and techniques that students incorporate into their learning endeavors in which they have a genuine interest.