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Sep 2 / Peter Hoffmann

Welcome back, faculty, to teaching and (hopefully) learning

The fall semester has begun and we are looking down a 15 week stretch of hope and fear. We are armed with the best intentions and an excitement for our topic. We have reviewed our notes and made them even better. We are going to be brilliant. But as in previous semesters, we harbor these nagging doubts: Are our students going to learn what we want them to learn?

At the beginning of every semester, it is worth reviewing what we really want our students to learn. The following wish list seems quite universal (Fink 2013):
• “Retain information after the course is over”
• “Develop an ability to transfer knowledge to novel situations”
• “Develop skill in thinking or problem solving”
• Gain motivation for further learning and a change in attitude towards learning

But many times these things do not happen – or at least not to the extent we hoped for. How often do we hear the lament: “But they should have learned X in course Y!” We are concerned about low motivation, bad attendance, low time investment and limited intellectual engagement in students. But, at the same time, while willing to tackle these issues, we often do not know how to overcome the obstacles. One thing is clear: A straight up lecture and homework course is not going to solve these problems. And another thing is clear too: While we may wish that our students were different, they are not. And it’s not all their fault if they can’t retain the material they heard in a lecture or read in a textbook. Yes, some come underprepared, distracted by their busy and complicated lives and often less than motivated. Yet, we know that there are good students coming to us and we feel that we should do better by them. So, let’s be honest: How much would we retain from a 45 minute colloquium on the “magnetic properties of manganese-doped lanthanides”? Especially, if we have no clue what that is to begin with. That’s how our students feel.

Speaking for myself, I used to just lecture and give homework. Then I started to think about the outcomes and spent some time (but not nearly enough) reading the educational literature. And it is just starting to sink in. Many of my colleagues (the current reader excepted, of course) do not read any educational literature. Which is curious: We spend 30-100% of our time teaching, but spend practically no time learning how to do it. If we would do the same with our research, we would be out of funding or publications very quickly.

A good start to tackle our problems with teaching is to consider how students experience their educational journey. According to Fink:
• Students feel they are not “self-directed learners”. “They [are] not confident in their ability to approach a problem and figuring it out on their own.”
• The students feel “they [are] not learning as much as they could or should be”
• Many students feel their college teachers “do not really care much about them or about promoting their learning or interacting with them.”
• As a result, students do not “fully or energetically” engage in learning.

What to do? A good start is to take the writing of learning objectives seriously. If we want students to learn how to apply what they learn to “novel situations”, then we should state that explicitly! Why? Because it defines a clear goal that should be reflected in the design of the class, the assignments we give, the feedback we provide, the feedback we solicit from the students and the assessments by which we measure learning.

As an example, can “applying knowledge to novel situations” really be taught by lecturing and giving homework? Think about it! Typically, students hear about a topic for the first time in a lecture, we give them homework or a paper to write, rush through discussing it, and it’s off to the next thing. No coaching or structured exercise, no case study or context-rich problem-solving, no working in teams etc. By contrast, we work completely differently with our research students. We coach them, we have group meetings, we adjust our teaching to meet their needs. And these students are already pre-selected. They already “know”. In our courses, which are full of novice students who do not know, we expect that higher skills, like thinking, transferring knowledge, or developing a thirst for more learning will “just happen”, as long as we assign enough homework.

It is true that the traditional approach seemed to have worked for us, but, then again, we were rather atypical students. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here as faculty. Most of us came into college motivated and with a thirst for learning. We had few distractions and studied at a residential college, surrounded by an intellectual culture many of our students don’t experience. We formed our own study groups and had long discussions with fellow students. We “survived” bad instruction, because of these things. We are the result of natural selection, a survival of the fittest. And, yes, we are stronger for it. But should we expect all our students to be the same? I don’t think we can afford to. Our students don’t come with the same backgrounds. They don’t always come for the intellectual adventure. Not initially. Hopefully that will change because of our efforts, not despite of them. Mostly, our students come because they see college as a path to a better life. Not everybody is a scholar, most of them are here to get a degree. And they pay a lot for it – in money, time and effort. They are not lazy, just overwhelmed and underprepared. Yet, we need them to value writing, science, philosophy and history. Once they are here, we owe them our best shot to teach them the thinking skills and love of learning they need. It’s not going to be asy, but it’s worth thinking about it.

Let me know what you think… Let’s talk about it.

To get started doing that I invite all faculty to this fall’s workshops in the Office of Teaching and Learning, where we will tackle these issues, starting with a talk by Nobel prize winner Carl Wieman on September 16 ( and a number of workshops and discussions that address these problems head-on, such as “Implementing Learning Objectives Through Classroom Work” on September 19 (where we will have a discussion on how we can change what we do in the classroom to teach students those higher level skills) and “Evidence-Based Teaching Methods” on September 23. See for the full list.

Maybe some informal groups will form that continue the discussions beyond these workshops, just like we formed our own groups in college tackling fun things like “conformal mapping” or Kant’s “Prolegomena”.

Reference: L. Dee Fink, “Creating significant learning experiences”, John Wiley/ Jossey-Bass. 2013.