Over this past summer, a couple books that focus on the role of recall in learning came to my attention. Make it stick (Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014)) and Small Teaching by James Lang (2016) both claim that retrieval practice is essential for durable learning. The authors argue that practicing recall builds strong connections in the brain that lead to long-term retention, and they cite numerous studies to support their claims. Our students can often struggle with recalling material from their readings, our lectures, and classroom discussions, but we can take steps to promote recall by making small changes to our teaching. For example, we can open class sessions by asking students to remind everyone what we did in the last session or last week. Having students do this in pairs or small groups and then report out may help to them to overcome some inhibitions or recalling in a whole-group discussion. When introducing something new, Lang suggests having students retrieve previous related material or concepts that lead up to it. By providing students the opportunity to recall at the beginning of class, we help to prime the pump for learning and better participation. These are just a couple of the many suggestions and examples of how we can support our students’ learning and improve our approaches to teaching in higher education.
Before we initiated tutor training in our programs in the Learning Commons, it was common for peer assistants to do more explaining and less asking. Nowadays, questions increasingly play a major role in our peer assistance sessions. While our trained peer assistants may know by heart that the role of the tutor is to facilitate students’ development of active and self-regulated learning in a higher education setting, making the shift to deploying more questions takes time, observations, and debriefing. Our peer assistants are learning more than ever through their experience and training that inquiry can uncover the ways students think and the gaps in student learning.
One framework in this year’s training for using questions has been the “6PQ Method of Discovery Learning” (Tracy & Showers, 1986). The approach involves six phases, each of which includes a variety of questions that engage students’ recall of material, thinking, and the uncovering of misconceptions. The process also involves revisiting notes and materials, the tutor paraphrasing the students’ thinking, and the student paraphrasing the key takeaways of the whole session. This model may be useful to faculty in our office hours and with individuals and groups while teaching. Below is an outline of the method with sample questions that we use in tutor training:
1) Preface (Identifying the issues)
- “What is it exactly that I can help you with?”
- “What are you having trouble with?”
- “In what way can I help you?”
- Paraphrase what you heard the issues to be.
2) Pace (Caution! Take your time here.)
- “What can you tell me about ______________ now?”
- “What have you read about? What did the professor say about it in class?”
3) Probe (Spend most of your time here)
- “Why? Can you give me reasons?”
- “What makes you think so?”
- “Would you tell me more about ______________? Can you give me an example?”
4) Prod (Implications & consequences)
- “If you had to guess the impact of X on Y, what would you say?”
- “I understand that you don’t know, but what do you think it could be?”
- “What is your gut instinct? Why would that be true?”
5) Prompt (For dealing with uncertainty)
“You told me earlier that ______________, so how could ______________?”
- “Would it be ______________ or ______________?”
- “What is the first step in this process? Second step? Third step?”
6) Process (Connecting to other concepts)
- “Now that you understand this concept, how would you compare it to another concept?”
- “How do you see this concept fitting into the entire course?”
- “So, now, what can you tell me about______________?”
- Now have the student paraphrase the highlights of the whole session.
We can naturally substitute questions that fit the context at hand and one is not bound to this exact sequence. The key is to use questions that move through elements of Bloom’s Taxonomy (from identifying and explaining to applying, analyzing, and making connections to other concepts).
Sometimes students struggle to answer initial questions, but even here, we can use questions to direct students to resources (“Where in your book or notes might you find this out?”) and to support methods of retaining and recalling information (“What methods might you use to remember these concepts?”).
The 6PQ Method for Discovery Learning falls under the rubric of critical thinking approaches in teaching and tutoring alongside, for example, Socratic questioning. In our many interactions with students, whether in class or during office hours, we can intentionally use a variety of questions to further cognitive processing, learning, and critical thinking. As we move from explaining to questioning, we let students make their thinking visible to us, and from there, the deeper learning can truly begin.
Jeffrey White is an instructor of German and the Learning Commons administrator in Buckley Center 163. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome to the fifth week of the semester. By this time, students are dealing with the reality of just how much they have to do for their courses. Those who successfully navigate their busy course loads will likely have developed approaches to managing their time and learning. In the Learning Commons, we’re training our peer assistants, in addition to tutoring content, to support students’ relationship with time and tasks. As faculty, we can also address time management during office hours and at various points in the semester. Here are a few tips that I can share with you from our new tutor training program.
Direct students to the Shepard Academic Resource Center: Here they can pick up copies of the Time Budget Sheet and the Semester Planner. They can also meet with SARC staff to discuss their plans and use of time management. Asking students how they are going about learning for your class can reveal a lot about their management of time for learning. From there, you can also help them to manage their time better.
Use the study cycle
How students go about studying is also important. In their training, Learning Commons peer assistants also learn how to present students with Frank Christ’s Study Cycle model. This approach includes a preview prior to each class session, debriefing after each class, and the use of goal-oriented “intensive study sessions” that are short and that build in a break and reward. The Study Cycle model help students avoid “binge studying” on days when they have fewer classes. An excellent faculty resource for learning more about the Study Cycle, integrating it into students’ time management planning, and many other approaches to improving student learning is Saundra McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn.
Encourage social learning
The Learning Commons is built on the idea that learning is social and more accomplished peers can support individual and group learning of difficult and abstract material. Students who schedule in time for group learning can enhance the learning experience while making it more efficient. As faculty, we can help students to connect with each other and explicitly encourage group learning.
Prescription for procrastinators
Break the procrastination cycle with the Pomodoro Technique. We use this short snappy video as part of our tutor training program so that our peer assistants can help students start tasks that may seem daunting. It may even help you to jump start work on your research projects.
Focus explicitly on the changing brain
As students are developing a better sense of time for learning and how to use time, they can also improve their learning by thinking in terms of what Stanford researcher Carol Dweck refers to as mindset. We all can believe at times that our learning potential is fixed, but we can also believe that we possess the ability to grow and learn. Such a growth mindset seeks challenges and considers difficulties as revealing that we have not yet learned how such obstacles are to be overcome. As faculty, we can also remind students that challenges commonly take time and learning how better to learn is an ongoing process for us all. Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and Janet Zadina’s Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain are both helpful resources for faculty who wish to find ways to support positive changes in student beliefs about learning and their own brains.
These are just some of the topics that we cover in our eleven hours of peer assistant training, and, of course, there is much more to learning and supporting student growth. In the Learning Commons, we will continue to develop our training and use of observation to grow our own potential to overcome challenges inherent to the work we do. I invite you to encourage your students to come to the Learning Commons to work with our peer assistants, and our door is always open for you to come see our peer assistants in action or to talk with me about student learning and how peer assistance can help student learning in your courses.
Jeffrey White is an instructor of German and the Learning Commons administrator in Buckley Center 163. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Last year 1,180 UP students worked together with peer assistants in the Learning Commons to support and improve their learning for a total of nearly 4,600 visits. Wouldn’t it be great if even more students came early and often to the Learning Commons to support their thinking, learning, and the application of new concepts in the classes we teach? Imagine students engaging even more in our classes with more authentic questions, presenting course material with greater depth, and more actively working together in groups on projects after visiting one or more of the following programs in the Learning Commons in Buckley Center 163:
- The UP Writing Center
- Math Resource Center
- Speech and Presentation Lab
- Group Work Lab
- Chemistry Assistance Center
- Biology Assistance Center
- Nursing tutoring
- Language Assistance (for French, German, Mandarin, and Spanish)
- Economics, Finance, and Business Law tutoring
The Learning Commons’ peer assistance programs not only support students; they can support faculty by increasing student awareness of learning processes involved in mastering course material.
Our students write many papers, give presentations, and work in groups on projects during their undergraduate careers, and mathematics spans many disciplines on our campus. In addition to supporting students in content areas, we are now training our peer assistants to work with students on general study skills such as time management, reading difficult texts, and note taking. Greater student use of the Learning Commons can increasingly lead to positive consequences for you as a faculty member:
- More frequent student engagement with thinking and writing about the course material;
- Improved quality of written assignments, presentations, and group projects;
- Enhanced retention and recall of course material through added practice with peer assistants;
- More genuine questions during discussions and during office hours.
- A greater sense among your students of belonging to a community of academic.
- So what can you do as a faculty member to support student learning through use of the Learning Commons? The following list is just a start:
- Model how your students can find the Learning Commons online though the UP website and on Moodle via the Learning Resources link;
- Recommend that your students use the Learning Commons early and often as a habit of mind.
- Encourage or require struggling students to visit the Learning Commons;
- Focus your messaging about the Learning Commons on the positives: the excitement of learning together with a peer, saving time by learning to approach assignments more effectively, improving grades through a social learning interaction with a more accomplished peer;
- Personally recognize the effort that any students put into working with peer assistants in the Learning Commons;
- Invite students who have benefited from using the Learning Commons to explain how the experience supported their learning.
By taking such steps in your class, you will also gain the satisfaction of knowing how you are supporting students’ active efforts to learn more outside the classroom for your course.
As you encourage your students to improve their learning through work with peer assistants in the Learning Commons, it’s important to avoid:
- Requiring that all of your students use a specific program for the same assignment. This can overload the system, as we have only so many peer assistants. Requiring visits should be used judiciously.
- Equating peer assistants with TA’s. The role of the peer assistant is to support the development of active and self-regulated learners. Our peer assistants are trained not to teach the material beyond the selective use of explanations. They will use questions and seek to have students use resources from classes (books, notes, Moodle page, etc.) to learn the material.
The vision of the Learning Commons is one of an evolving community of active learners at UP. To help fulfill our vision, the Learning Commons has initiated 11.5 hours of general tutor training of all peer assistants who work for us. This is on top of the content-related training that peer assistants receive from their discipline-specific coordinators. We are also applying to be able to certify our peer assistants through the College Reading and Learning Association’s International Tutor Training Program Certification process. We are piloting our Level 1 training this year. Our goal is to certify all of our peer assistants in the Learning Commons and to provide training and certification for peer tutors who work in various departments and schools within UP. I invite you to learn more about how the Learning Commons can support your students by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (503) 943-7141 to arrange a time to discuss how best to make the Learning Commons work for you and your students. The Learning Commons’ trained peer assistants can also come to your classes to present how the Learning Commons can support your students’ learning.
Many thanks go to our discipline-specific coordinators and collaborative partners: Dr. Cara Hersh (Writing Center), Dr. Carolyn James (Math Resource Center), Dr. Dan Foster (Speech and Presentation Lab), Dr. Vail Fletcher (Group Work Lab), and faculty and staff in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, the Pamplin School of Business, the School of Nursing, and the Shiley School of Engineering.
Jeffrey White, M.A., M.S., is the program administrator of the Learning Commons within the Shepard Academic Resource Center, and he teaches third-year German, Maximizing Study Abroad, and training courses for interning foreign language peer assistants in the Department of International Languages and Cultures.