“Telling is not teaching, and listening is not learning.” -adage
If you’re finding that many students in class aren’t learning, one remedy is to make sure you’ve taught them how.
Imagine being given a book to work with – before you’ve been taught to read. The book will serve well as a doorstop or seat booster, but little else.
A university with a liberal arts core like ours requires students to sample a variety of fields. In most cases, these are entirely new to them, or if not new then at least taught at a level they hadn’t experienced in high school. That’s why it’s vital to build into our classes some advice at the “meta” level – on learning how to learn within that field.
For perhaps we’ve forgotten how within our discipline only some forms of knowledge get rewarded – and how so much of the rest we’ve been taught to dismiss as irrelevant. This discernment is essential to advancing in our specialized fields, but it can feel bewildering to a student trying to understand five different academic cultures each semester. Your majors may get into the swing of things after a handful of your field’s classes – but newbies will feel lost.
Here then are two ideas, drawn from others, for how we can build in to our course some learning about learning, using transparency to foster student success:
1.) Early in your course, distribute a one-page “thick description” of your field.
As a graduate student at UCLA, I was among a handful of students selected to design a seminar course for the university, under the tutelage of a gifted sociology teacher, Peter Kollock. A practicing Buddhist, Kollock approached pedagogy from a variety of surprising angles and unconventional questions that stuck with me (which made it hard to hear of his death in a motorcycle accident just a few years later).
One afternoon, Dr. Kollock folded his hands, peered soulfully around at his cross-campus group of grad students, and asked: “What counts as knowledge in your field?” It sounded like a silly thing to ask (“my field? Duh – books!”) But within a few years I came to recognize the cognitive value of that question. I created a handout with eight qualities explaining the approach, habits, and excitements of English professors (see What Counts as Knowledge in the Field of English). It aims to make a “thick description” (as Clifford Geertz would call it), providing context for students to understand my field’s culture and mindset.
Across the past decade, I’ve distributed the handout to help students see what’s unique to this discipline, so they might be more aware of the implicit frameworks for directing their energies.
2.) Start all your assignment handouts with three short explanations of “Purpose”, “Task”, and “Criteria.”
This idea comes from Mary-Ann Winkelmes at the U. of Nevada, Las Vegas’s Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Project. Winkelmes has documented the value of adding transparency to the design and expectations of assignments, to ensure they’re accessible and relevant to students. (Info. can be found here and here).
In short, Winkelmes suggests that before we get into the nitty-gritty of an assignment, we should start our handouts with this:
PURPOSE: explicitly states the skills and knowledge they’ll gain from the assignment, along with its relevance to the course and beyond.
TASK: details the steps to take in efficiently completing the assignment (what to do and how to do it).
CRITERIA: provides a list, checklist, or rubric of characteristics the assignment will be evaluated on for high quality.
Too often this vital information gets buried in the details or – worse yet – goes unspoken. Putting this first helps not only students but us as well when the grading begins. Having used this strategy for several semesters now, I find I’m continually refining the phrasing of my purpose, task, and criteria. This refining most often happens when grading papers, for that’s when I become most conscious of how I need to be even more precise – and concise –in articulating my expectations in next semester’s handouts.
Winkelmes has documented how simple additions like these have had proven success, particularly for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented college students.
By making space within our classes and assignments for teaching how to learn, we’ll save our students time, confusion, and frustration. We owe it to them to aim for the explicitness and transparency that Kollock and Wilkelmes model.