Effective Learning

A number of posts this week have discussed various themes that have emerged since beginning this class, its readings and discussions. For me, each week, I consider balance to be the theme applied in different contexts.

I think the idea of engaged and mindful learning is noble, but like this post I also acknowledge that we can’t always do that. I think we, as educators, need to spend meaningful time examining our course content and finding the places where we can effectively engage technology, mindful learning and other more innovative methods of education, to balance out the places where we might have to give a basic lecture.

This post mentioned GTAs who are thrown into teaching without adequate preparation, and I agree that’s a huge problem and likely contributes to the less effective (mindless) learning that we see in some areas more than others. My department has a really great teaching apprenticeship program, wherein the semester before GTAs become instructors of record, they shadow and act as TAs for the course they will eventually teach. Our introductory course uses an online textbook with integrated quizzes, as well as other helpful resources, such as flash cards, glossaries and interactive material, that students are required to read. When preparing my first guest lecture, my apprenticeship supervisor told me that students, on average, only retain 10% of course material in a lecture that goes broad but not deep. He advised me to go over the material from the book, find the concepts that would be most challenging to students and focus my lecture on 20-30% of the textbook material, then work on ways to engage students so they might take away 90% of the content from my lecture. I still won’t be covering everything, but I’ll hopefully engage their learning, build on their previous readings and help them to come away with more than if I had just done a lecture that covered everything in the textbook over again.

9 Replies to “Effective Learning”

  1. Diana, I think you are really lucky to have such a great program in your department. I think that your supervisor’s advice works really well in a semi-flipped classroom style, although it relies on students reading and being engaged outside of class. My own Master’s advisor used a similar approach for his Introductory Soil Science course. The students were supposed to read the chapter before coming to class then he would try to explain the 3 things he thought most students would have trouble with, and then they took an online “test” every week on the chapter they just covered. I taught the lab portion of that class and every semester I had students complain about having to show up for an 8am lecture when he didn’t even cover everything. They were so used to the lecture model where everything was shoved at them as quickly as possible in 50 minute periods that they didn’t appreciate the benefits of a different style of lecture. I am curious to know how your style of lectures work for you.

    1. Hey Diana,
      Echoing Sarah & Sabrina here but I am excited by your department’s shadowing program. That’s a great way to ease folks into their new position by giving them an orientation. I hope that teachers are allowed freedom to teach the course in new ways once it is theirs! Would love to know more about what y’all are doing over there.

      1. Hi Sara,

        I think it is one of the best aspects of our program!

        We have relative freedom once we are instructors of record, but we are required to use a departmentally-selected book and have a midterm and final exam, which I understand to have continuity across different classes of the course.

        I’m lucky that my supervisor is very open to discussing teaching philosophies and different strategies, so I can build ideas and resources for when I am an instructor at another institution, rather than a GTA.


    2. Hi Sarah,

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      Our students have interval quizzes with the online textbook that are only open for a certain amount of time and they have to complete for a grade, so we have had success so far with them reading the material before class!

      I have noticed that students are usually so intent on copying down everything written on the slides that they’re not paying attention to what their professor or I am saying during lecture, so I am trying to think of ways to redirect their attention in that regard.


  2. Your department’s program sounds amazing.

    Sarah- that’s interesting that that students didn’t like the new format. I suspect it’s because they expect just to be able to show up to class and never have to do work aside from studying for the tests. I think that technically classes are supposed to have 3 hours of work outside of class for each course hour each week. I find that most classes have 0-3 hours, and students are often resentful of actually expending more than that.

    1. Hi Sabrina,

      Thanks for continuing this conversation!

      There are, of course, areas where my department can improve, but the apprenticeship program is definitely a strength!

      I think the issue for some students, at least with this course in particular, is that it’s a Pathways course, so a lot of students enrolled aren’t necessarily engaged in or prioritizing the content, so they feel like it’s a waste of their time to do work out of class. One of my goals is to try and impress upon them the versatility of the concepts from our class to different areas of their lives.


  3. Hi Diana,

    Thanks for sharing your story. The program in your departments sounds great. I have never been a teaching assistant before, so I am very curious about the relationship between teaching assistants, teachers and textbooks (including those material used in the classroom). As far as my past experience is concerned, the role of teaching assistants is not great. What makes me even more dissatisfied is that some teachers even let the TAs score the students’ assignments. Do you think this is reasonable?

    1. Hi Ruixiang,

      My program is different than others, I think, but the apprenticeship program is only for grad students who will become Instructors of Record.
      Some students in our program are just teaching assistants (only for faculty teaching classes of 100+ students), and in those cases they are primarily responsible for grading and holding office hours.

      Our instructors of record have to use the book chosen by the department and have to offer at least two exams over the semester, but have relative freedom over all other aspects of the course, which I think is great.

      I think the role of TAs depends on what both the faculty and grad students want out of the experience. When I was a TA for another faculty member, I asked if I could give guest lectures and she allowed me to do that, but other grad students who are more research focused don’t want to spend the time in class and prefer to do just grading. I think that especially in large classes, it’s reasonable for TAs to handle grading, but I understand that a lot of programs don’t have the resources and focus on career-building for future educators that mine does!

      1. I agree that there is a spectrum of different experiences when it comes to TAs. For example, I have seen universities bragging about the fact that they don’t assign grad students to teaching position , sort of a PR position targeting undergrad students. But I don’t know how else grad students looking for academic jobs would gain the necessary experience in teaching. As everybody pointed out in comments you are lucky to have such a structured and goal-oriented department when it comes to training GTAs. Our department considers TAs teaching full semesters as fill-in and temporary subs for faculty who want to take a break from teaching to focus on research.

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