University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Key Statement: Anticipating and promoting attention, understanding, value, repetition, and elaboration will support dynamic class sessions that result in better student learning outcomes across the course.
Keywords: Fundamental Attributes, Learning, Awareness, Improvement
Throughout a teaching career, even within a given semester, faculty make many decisions about which teaching strategies to use. Choices include very structured approaches, such as team-based learning, service-learning, or problem-based learning. Teaching strategies that require moderate structure include the flipped classroom, jigsaw, or hybrid course design. More impromptu approaches, with easy implementation for those who teach more on the fly, include the likes of think-pair-share, muddiest point, or buzz groups. Of course, along with any engaged learning strategies, there is always room for a well-designed dynamic lecture (Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017). It is important to note that a teaching strategy in and of itself is neither effective nor ineffective. Effectiveness essentially depends on whether the fundamentals necessary for learning are present. A few of the most fundamental components necessary for learning are attention, understanding, value, repetition, and elaboration. Anticipating and promoting these attributes will support dynamic class sessions that result in better student learning outcomes across the course.
Are your students paying attention? Think strategically about ways to gain and then maintain attention. Start class with a story, newspaper article, YouTube clip, or research finding that has a direct impact on your community. Once you have students’ attention, you must work to maintain it.
You need not turn your course into a show or feel like you have to perform, but do make a concerted effort to create a learning environment where students are interested in what you are teaching.
It may also be engaging for students to be responsible for finding and bringing elements that are of interest to the class. Keep in mind that students are novices, whereas you are an expert in the field. Novices find it more challenging to see the interesting details of a topic about which they know very little. As a result, they may struggle to find something interesting. They may get there, but it will take time and learning on their part and patience and encouragement on yours.
Finally, think about ways to identify what interests your students. Consider creating a student survey to assess student interest; explain to students that you will use the responses to work at building course material that touches on their interests.
Do your students understand the material you are teaching them? We have all been confused by something at some time. Remember, when confusion sets in, attention shifts away from trying to understand the concept to focusing on the frustration of lack of understanding. As you present course material, monitor the audience for feedback – read the body language and tone in the room. As a group, does it appear that the audience is digesting the information at the same pace you are providing it? Novice learners are not able to easily differentiate the important from the less important or identify the connections between concepts (Hrepic et al., 2004). Be sure to call out key elements and highlight connections.
Comprehension may be checked using simple strategies such as the following:
· Stop class and ask some fundamental questions
· Give a one-item quiz question
· Ask students to take 2 minutes to explain the concept to their neighbors.
When small groups are set up, walk around the room to determine if students understand what they are to be doing. If multiple groups are confused, regain the attention of the entire class, clarify the muddiest point, and then restate the expectations for the group work. As students gain understanding of the topic, they will be able to build upon this knowledge for greater comprehension and deeper learning. But they will not gain understanding unless you are aware of the process.
Be sure to recognize and celebrate student achievement when they have conquered a problematic block of information.
Do your students see value in what they are being taught? Does the course content have relevance to them? Will students be able to make use of what you are teaching them? Much like a parent who says, "Because I said so," the temptation to tell students something is important because it will "be on the test" is not a good idea. Such verbiage sends the message that you are as frustrated as the students, and more importantly, it sends a message that the information is not valuable in and of itself. As you teach, look for ways to help students appreciate knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Reveal to students what you find exciting about the course or subject matter and how it relates to the foundation of other professions. Whenever teaching a complex concept, explain and encourage the class to stick with it. Reassure them that although it is a complex concept, it is manageable.
It may help to make text-to-self and text-to-world connections. Using small group discussions is beneficial in making such connections, and also allows students to share reflections about the value of the information. When lecturing, point out the value in such a way that a novice can see the importance of the information; do not leave this critical component up to interpretation.
Do your students have an opportunity to practice recalling information? Repeating information is essential to learning. When a neuron path "fires" repeatedly, it becomes more and more automatic, making it easier to recall information needed quickly. Being able to recall foundational material with ease is extremely important in freeing up cognitive room for more complex thinking. One cannot think deeply about complicated concepts if one cannot easily process the more fundamental aspects of that concept. For all the good that can come from a lecture, it is relatively difficult to give students space to practice recalling information.
Two strategies which allow for and encourage recall are:
1. Asking rhetorical questions
2. Giving students opportunities to ask questions.
Small group discussions, team-based learning, service-learning, think-pair-share, and other strategies that allow students to speak, providing students with an opportunity to practice recall. As you teach content, intentionally create opportunities for students to practice recall. If recall does not exist, learning will be limited at best, nonexistent at worst (Agarwal et al., 2012).
Do you help your students draw connections between new information and previously learned information? Connections are essential in establishing memories. Any time you think of something, your brain is primed to more easily recall related elements and rich details. The same is true for learning new information. Psychologists have long known that relating new information to something previously learned, particularly about oneself, is powerful. During the lecture, help students understand how the new information relates to and builds upon previously learned material. When possible, it’s also particularly powerful to illustrate how it relates to their own lives. This is one reason service-learning is so impactful: It allows students to easily see how course content relates to the lives of others, increasing examples of relevancy. You can increase student awareness through a simple writing exercise, in which students explain how course material applies to themselves and/or their families. Using small group discussions can also enhance students’ understanding and enrich student recall of material. Working together, students can generate an incredibly broad variety of examples that build on and connect to the new information.
Using These Strategies in Your Semester, Year, and Career
As you proceed through the semester, monitor student response, and evaluate the foundational elements of learning and memory. You will be able to tweak your course periodically as needed and enhance learning using any teaching strategy. Also critically, when a colleague suggests an interesting new teaching approach that is generating a lot of excitement, you can use these same dimensions to evaluate the potential effectiveness of the approach before implementing it in your own course. Always consider the extent to which a teaching strategy enhances attention, understanding, value, repetition, and elaboration. These elements are virtually universal when learning something new, in the classroom and beyond. The more you watch for these elements, the more you will see them, and the more you see them, the easier they will be to encourage. It is a fantastic learning spiral.