This fall, faculty will face an increased range of preparation in their students. If you’ve been teaching awhile, you have a sense of the degree to which your students are differently prepared: some know the conventions of citation better than others; some have greater spatial abilities than others; some are sophisticated discussants, while others consistently dominate. Those differences will be more profound this coming year because of pandemic learning disruption, and unless we adapt to this greater range of preparation and experience, we risk losing a generation of student learning. What can we do?
I think the short answer is to become even more deliberate about incorporating what is known about how learning works into our daily contact with students. This is the moment to double down on our commitment to using educational practices demonstrated to support learning rather than to rely on either “what has worked in the past” or personal intuition. Recommitting will not only help close the learning gaps that have occurred but also help students make gains in learning how to learn for the future.
You no doubt have several favorite books that support your use of evidence-based practices in the classroom; I encourage you to refresh your memory of their contents. How Learning Works (2010) and Small Teaching (2nd ed., 2021) are two that I return to frequently. But I also want to highlight several reports from the often-overlooked publication arm of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).
For those not yet familiar with the National Academy Press, it generates more than 200 publications per year on topics ranging from transportation to nutrition to global policy and, of course, education. The commissioned reports are fantastic because they (1) are free to download, (2) can be easily searched, (3) are authored by experts in the field, (4) begin with an executive summary, (5) compile extensive research, (6) identify areas for future research, and (7) intentionally translate research findings into practical suggestions.
How People Learn (2001), Education for Life and Work (2012), Reaching Students (2015), and How People Learn II (2018) are among my favorites. I’ve pulled together five evidence-based strategies that appear across these publications that not only can help you manage your students’ increased range of preparation but will also help accelerate their learning. Each strategy includes reference to a chapter in one or more of the above reports for further information and a discussion of the evidence.
1. Shake up the format.
Many faculty incorporated new tools into their courses when classes moved online: quizzing, discussion boards, videos, annotation software, white boards, polling, and so on. These are definitely worth keeping and even expanding. Expansions do not have to be labor intensive or time consuming. Some ideas include asking students to fill in drawings, involving them in a brief role play, and having them google an image that represents a concept.
Diversifying the representations of material aids learning in at least two ways besides simply breaking up a 50-minute lecture or discussion. First, it provides multiple on-ramps to engage a wider variety of learner preferences and readiness. Students who struggle with a reading may benefit from watching a video. A well-chosen image can provide a connection that oral explanation doesn’t.
Second, varied representations of material engage a single learner in multiple cognitive ways (listening, drawing, reading, integrating, summarizing). This can make learning more robust because multiple neural pathways are engaged and reinforce each other, retention and recall are improved, and students will be better able to use their learning in new contexts.
See Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills for the 21st Century, Chapter 6.
2. Make students explain the material to themselves or others.
The think-pair-share technique is the emblematic version of students engaged in explanation. But there are endless variations, including well-designed group work, annotation software, group note-taking, completing worksheets, coming to consensus about the main points in a video, and writing a mock dialogue.
What is happening cognitively in these moments isn’t just about practice and repetition, which themselves strengthen the neural pathways encoding the incoming information. Students also (1) become aware of gaps in their understanding, (2) make neural connections with their existing information and experience, and (3) benefit from the intrinsically social nature of learning. These cognitive bonuses mean greater learning than a lecture- or discussion-only format provides.
One of my favorite ways to incorporate explanation in my teaching is to ask the what if, how, and so what questions. For example, “Can you say more about that?” “Can you point to evidence for that statement?” “Is there an example you could provide?” and “How does X relate to Y?”
See Education for Life and Work, Chapter 6, and Reaching Students: What Research Says about Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, Chapter 3.
3. Get students to organize what they are learning.
Outlines, concept maps, compare-and-contrast tables, linear progressions, and storyboards provide relatively straightforward structures for organizing material. Tasks like finding an example, identifying themes, sorting content by categories, and prioritizing also aid in organizing content. Most faculty can do a great deal more with such tools.
Again, these cognitive tasks don’t only provide opportunities for practice and retrieval. They also deepen understanding of the material by establishing the connections among what is being learned, providing context and texture to the content. Organizational tasks also make what is being learned more likely to be transferred to new situations. One advantage of this approach is that it helps move students more quickly along the novice–expert continuum. Where novices recall individual units of information, experts have a depth of understanding of the relationships and patterns among that information. Where novices focus on superficial similarities to connect information, experts focus on underlying principles. Having to organize incoming information aids students in developing these more sophisticated, expert-level skills.
See Reaching Students, Chapter 3, and How People Learn II: Learners, Context and Cultures, Chapter 5.
4. Explicitly help connect new information with what students already know.
This practice is similar to helping students organize what they are learning in that the goal is to provide context and connections for the information. It differs in that the focus here is on building neural connections to previous knowledge and experience. My imagery for this topic is a group of islands. One island is the content from a 101 course, another is the content from a course in another discipline, and still another is the experience from a summer internship or a study away semester. Students also have rich familial, community, and cultural islands of knowledge and experience they can connect to new content.
But unless we prompt students to actively interconnect these islands (e.g., via bridges, ferries, kayaks, cell phone towers, and airports), the information on any one can remain unconnected, inert, and inaccessible. It is literally neurologically isolated. We all have examples of students missing how the readings or chapters across a semester relate to each other or of how a prerequisite course is relevant.
When we take time to help students establish a rich network that interconnects new information with prior knowledge and experience, the information gains meaning and relevance. We support student motivation for learning. Retention and retrieval of that information are enhanced. So is the ability to use the information in new contexts.
Questions such as “When have you seen this pattern before?” “Is there an example of this concept in your previous experience?” and “How does what you learned in a prior course relate to what we’re learning now?” trigger students to build connections. So do prompts that explore meaning and relevance. “Why is this important in your life?” “Are there example of people you know facing these issues?” “How might this skill be important in your future?”
See How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School: Expanded Edition, Chapter 10; Reaching Students, Chapter 3; and How People Learn II, Chapter 5.
5. Prompt students to think about their learning process.
There is incredible power in being metacognitive—in having an awareness of yourself as a learner and using that awareness to improve learning. Yet many of our students (and some faculty) are unaware that learning is a process they can observe themselves doing and about which they can make conscious choices.
Prompts asking students to consider how it feels to not understand something or what alternative strategies might be useful when the first approach isn’t working can help students begin to become metacognitive. Other strategies include talking aloud about your own strategies for reading a complicated text or solving a difficult problem, asking students to assess their own performance against a rubric, including reflection questions about what students might do differently for the next exam or paper, and mapping the course of a discussion (e.g., from interpreting a text to connecting it with personal experience to exploring different analytical strategies to identifying evidence).
See Education for Life and Work, Chapter 6; Reaching Students, Chapter 3; and How People Learn II, Chapter 5.
In summary, the new normal in our classrooms is that our students as a group have a greater degree of variability in knowledge and experience than they had before the pandemic. Now is the time to expand your own pedagogical toolbox to include two or three new techniques so that students find diverse and supportive entries to content, skill development, and learning as a process.
Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.