― Jeanne M. Slattery
Recently, my colleague, Mark Mitchell asked me to review a project that he and Janina Jolley (both in Psychology) had been working on to help their students use flashcards more effectively. Truth be told, I have never used flashcards, either as a student or a faculty member. I was able to learn well as a student without them and have generally, and probably wrongly, assumed that my students have the skills to learn independently, too.
Over the last several years, however, in large part due to Mark and Janina’s influences, I’ve been more consciously thinking about how to help my students develop stronger learning and study skills. I now talk with students about the mindset they use to approach learning: many use a fixed mindset and give up prematurely when they hit a difficult task (Dweck, 2006). I want them to persevere, even when the going gets tough. I’ve also been assigning Stephen Chew’s videos on developing more effective study skills, which are well-worth the viewing, whether you are a student, faculty member, or parent (the first of five videos is below). Mark and Janina, however, go well beyond me in terms of thinking about how to best help our students learn well.
Last semester, when I observed Janina teaching, I paid attention to how she helps her students learn. Her PowerPoint slides were exceptionally clear, organized and attractive. Her lecture was aimed appropriately at her students, yet smart, asking them to think differently about the material. She encouraged her students’ development of a number of academic skills, including building their vocabulary and learning to make connections with other ideas. As part of a semester-long project, she encourages students to further develop their learning and study practices.
During my class observation, Janina actively and effectively engaged students in the material (e.g., asking students verbal questions or questions by clickers, omitting critical words in PowerPoint slides, using Think and Jot prompts, discussing real experiments, and using in-class demonstrations). Such pedagogies can easily become glitz, but she seemed to use these primarily to help students learn and understand the material better, as well as to help them identify current deficits in knowledge. Doing so probably had the added benefit of helping her students come to class prepared.
Students offer mixed reviews about such strategies. Janina makes her students work ― and if that doesn’t match students’ beliefs about what good teaching should be, they may react poorly. This is where we faculty need to come in, to remind them that learning is often challenging ― just like fitness training; however, when we remind them, not everyone will appreciate the challenge. That lack of appreciation is one reason why teaching effectiveness always needs to be judged on a variety of criteria, and not only student evaluations.
Nonetheless, there are some students who really do appreciate the way Janina helps them succeed and who take every course they can from her. On the day I observed her, for example, she had a large number of students thoughtfully responding to questions, asking questions, and responding accurately to clicker questions. If you don’t know what an clicker is, imagine a class tweeting answers to a question, which are tabulated for and presented to the class. Instant feedback about their understanding! What she did worked. (For more on why you might want to use clickers, check out Darla Ausel’s article.)
Sometimes I hear faculty saying that they can’t waste class time focusing on study skills or other academic skills; instead, I saw Janina be more effective as a result of this focus. As I usually do after observing her classes or talking with her, I walked away thinking that I will spend even more time focusing on helping my students learn and holding them even more accountable for coming to class prepared.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Thanks to Melissa K. Downes and Mark Mitchell for their thoughtful and insightful comments on earlier drafts of this piece.
Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org