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Contrary to a common assumption, “expertise in one’s field can be detrimental to teaching,” according to Susan Ambrose, co-author of the recently published book How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching (2010).
Ambrose, Carnegie Mellon University Associate Provost for Education and Director of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, led a lively discussion on that subject and other teaching- and learning-related topics with some forty University of Pittsburgh faculty on October 7.
Advocating learner-centered approaches, Ambrose asserted that effective teaching entails a reorientation from the question, “How do we teach?” to “How do students learn?” Ambrose cited her mentor, Herb Simon, who said: “The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” Teachers who strive to apply a learner-centered approach face an additional challenge: “A lot of our students are not like us in terms of motivation, persistence, and innate interest in a particular subject.”
According to Ambrose, knowledge of learning research provides a critical rationale for classroom teaching. “While teachers often sense that something they have done works well, it is important to know why it worked and how to use language to describe the learning. In fact, learning to teach by trial and error can be damaging to both the teacher and students,” she advised.
Ambrose and her co-authors have provided guidelines grounded in research and practical experience, which can easily be applied, across multiple disciplines. “The idea is to understand learning at a deep enough level to apply it in different contexts. It’s the same goal we have in our classes: We want students to understand information at a deep enough level to apply it in different contexts.”
Ambrose summarized the seven principles explained in the book:
- Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. Prior knowledge impacts what we do with the information we take in. Knowledge that is inactive, insufficient, inappropriate or inaccurate hinders learning. Teachers should not assume that students remember everything they learned from previous courses or that their knowledge is activated so it can be used in other contexts. Therefore, “We need to find out what our students know and then teach them how to activate the knowledge to our advantage.”
- How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. To be useable, knowledge needs to be cognitively organized in a way that can easily be retrieved from long term memory. University teachers need to explicitly share their organizational knowledge structures with students. The structural forms can range from hierarchical to scattered, but students need to understand them in order to be able to retrieve and use information.
- Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. All aspects of learning are contingent on students wanting to learn the material. Motivation, an effect of learners’ beliefs and perceptions, determines, directs and sustains what students do to learn. Therefore, it is important for teachers to establish the value of a particular task or goal for students. Furthermore, students need to believe they have a reasonable expectation of attaining success, and this requires an appropriate balance between challenge and successful performance.
- To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned. “Expertise can be detrimental to teaching. The more we are an expert, the more we tend to think things are intuitive and to skip the steps,” Ambrose said. Mastery of a subject can be described along a continuum, ranging from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence, the level of highest expertise. To teach, we need to mentally move back to the level of conscious competence and think about the importance of acquiring the factual base and procedural skills. As students gradually gain competence within a domain, they first gain conscious awareness of the skills and capabilities they are exercising. It takes time and effort to help students move to a state of conscious incompetence and then to conscious competence, but only then can they do what we want them to be able to do.
- Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. Learning is best fostered when practice focuses on a specific goal or criterion. Ongoing questions that face teachers include, How much practice and feedback is needed? How do we do it? How do we maximize feedback that’s individual to students?
- Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning. Studies have shown that the social and emotional gains that students make during college are considerably greater than their intellectual gains over the same span of time. We need to acknowledge the impact of their social/emotional experiences and to be even more explicit and clear about our content expectations and how students can reach those expectations. For example, a teacher might recognize that students need structure in the form of regular quizzes to help focus their attention.
- To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. Experts spend a lot of time thinking through a project before we begin work; however, novices tend to overestimate their strengths and underestimate their weaknesses. We should integrate activities that require students to assess a task, evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses, plan, apply strategies, monitor their performance, reflect, and adjust if necessary. Metacognition can be promoted as teachers encourage students to think about their own thinking so they can be self-directed learners.
During wide-ranging discussion addressing workshop participants’ classroom challenges, Ambrose suggested several strategies based upon the seven principles. She recommended rubrics as a way to motivate students by clearly defining expectations. She advocated multi-modal communication of information to provide redundancy and reinforcement. And Ambrose also emphasized the need for regular course and program review to prioritize information and skills that students really need to learn, rather than including content for the sake of coverage.
Quoting well-known educator and author Parker Palmer, Ambrose concluded, “Teachers possess the power to create conditions that help students learn a great deal or to keep them from learning much at all. Teaching is the intentional act of creating such conditions.”
The event was sponsored by the Center for Instructional Development & Distance Education (CIDDE) with support from the Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence (ACIE).
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The Teaching Times newsletter is devoted to the support of teaching and learning at the University of Pittsburgh. The Teaching Times shares faculty teaching experiences, strategies and techniques that can be applied in classrooms across the University. The Teaching Times welcomes letters and articles from faculty about any topic affecting University teaching and learning.
Carol DeArment, Editor