Teaching Tip: Why aren’t you teaching us?

If you are using active learning methods in your classes, you may have gotten negative comments from your students along the lines of  “s/he should do her job and teach instead of just making us (fill in whatever active learning methods you are using here).”   Helping students understand WHY you are asking them to engage in activities that they may not think of as “teaching” during class time can improve their attitudes and willingness to engage in class activities.  Thinking about the brain processes behind active learning can help you plan more effective activities too.  Here’s an explanation you can share with students and use to think about how you incorporate activity into your classes.

As it turns out, both listening/reading and doing are important for you to learn something new. Your brain, like all human brains, learns in four processes if it is to learn deeply so that you will remember and use what you have learned throughout your life.  Here is a very simple overview of how the brain works (Zull, 2002).

Process 1:  In classes you may get important information (for example, concepts about history, biology, or sociology) when you are listening and seeing.  Often listening comes to you through lecture and seeing comes through the written word on the board or screen.  Your outside reading assignments also are part of Process 1.  This kind of content input is important, but it is just the beginning of the learning process.

Process 2:  Next in your brain’s cycle of learning, you need to think (also called reflecting) about the information.  One way to do this is to think about your own experiences that are connected to the lecture or reading so that you can make sense of it personally.  In class you may be asked to free write or discuss the information you have received with your peers.   This process helps move information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory because it is repetitious, more active, and more personal (Zull, p. 21).

Process 3:  Next, your brain needs to make plans to use the information in some purposeful way.  This is not unlike what you do in your everyday life when you make plans for a party, road trip, or another event.  Now you may be asked to figure out how to apply information to a problem or question, analyze a case using the new information, or plan an inquiry project or an essay.

Process 4:  Last, your brain needs to actually take action, which is to do it, to implement the plan to see how it works.  This is the heart of inquiry learning.  If you are successful, GREAT!  But don’t be surprised if you fall short the first time.  Learning takes practice, and rarely do any of us achieve one-shot success on our initial actions. That’s why practicing problem solving techniques, writing drafts, trying different approaches and taking risks is so important to good learning.

Here are three key points about learning activities that you might think about the next few times you are in class:

Key point #1:  When you are doing a learning activity in class (thinking, discussing, writing, drawing, or performing), you are using more of your whole brain and, therefore, learning more deeply.

Key point #2Deep learning is remembered better than the shallow learning that is typically gained through only listening to a lecture and recording lecture notes.

Key point #3:  Lecture-only learning means that you may be using only one-fourth of your brain’s power.

Reference (available at the CTE):

Zull, J. E. (2002).  The art of changing the brain:  Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Thanks to Dr. Cynthia Desrochers of the Institute for Teaching and Learning at California State University for most of this tip.     http://www.calstate.edu/itl/index.shtml

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