Biggs and Tang (2007) outline three common approaches to learning. The first is focused on the student and involves the one-way transmission of knowledge from the professor to the class; thus, the student is at fault if he/she does not understand the material. The second level shifts focus entirely to the teacher, who builds up an “armoury of teaching skills” to manage learning. The third level is student-centered and calls for teaching to support learning, which is somewhat vague, but suggests instruction that enables students to acquire a deep understanding of the subject matter and become self-directed learners. The question is how to best accomplish this goal?

Research on how to cultivate this “deep” knowledge presents, at times, conflicting results. For example, deWinstanley and Bjork (2002) warn against excessive use of visual aids such as PowerPoint during lectures, which can divide student attention and detract from the process of encoding information. However, they also insist that it is beneficial to expose students to the lecture material in several different ways, including the use of figures or images, to create more retrieval routes to the information. So, I guess conservative but purposeful use of PowerPoint slides is fine? Likewise, providing structure with an outline containing headings and subheadings helps students better organize their knowledge, but including too much text can also impede learning.

For other ways to enhance learning, the authors (deWinstanley and Bjork, 2002) discuss how the generation of new information, whereby students come up with the answer to a question or problem themselves from cues, and retrieval of information they already know both increase the chances of recall later, such as during an exam. The spacing effect they describe is interesting but also maybe the hardest to incorporate into courses. According to studies, distributing material across several lectures across several lectures rather than a mass presentation of information during one session improves retention. I appreciate how several of the readings (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006; Marzano, 2009; Ambrose et al., 2010) talk about the importance of specific learning goals as well as explicit expectations for activities and assignments. Rubrics are one option to ensure fairness and transparency in grading, although they can be somewhat general and do not always account for nontraditional or creative approaches. I think that giving students clear instructions and expectations, as well as examples of what to do and what not to do, sets everyone up for a better chance at success. The T.A. for a class I took last semester deducted points from assignments for very strange reasons that were not ever specified in the instructions (or that followed any logic or academic standard), and he would have been resented much less by everyone if there appeared to be some rhyme or reason to the red pen madness. Like, “if you want us to do this, why don’t you just say so?”.

Ambrose et al. (2010) start each chapter of their book with a fictional anecdote describing common situations in the college classroom. A few of the stories deal with students not being able to remember or apply knowledge they learned previously. The authors attribute this inability to surface learning, such as simple memorization of facts, instead of deep understanding of underlying themes and connections. While these reasons are likely accurate much of the time, I wonder if a lack of deep knowledge is always the culprit. I began thinking about people in general, outside of universities, who appear quite unintelligent in certain situations. For example, when I was a raft guide, the normal customer base consisting of rich, white people with college degrees and children (that is, a lack of proper education is not an issue for these individuals) asked me very silly questions: “Do we get out of the river where we put in?” (confusion over the river not going in a circle); “Are we going upstream or downstream?” (while in the middle of a rapid); “Man, those trees are really tall over there.” (thinking that the tops of the mountains are just really tall trees, and the illusion of the gorge is from trees getting taller as you move away from the river, i.e. not having any idea what topography is, although they had to walk downhill from the bus half a mile to the actual river); “Are the rocks stuck to the bottom of the river?” (well, they are certainly not floating); (while stuck on a rock under the Highway 76 bridge) “Wow, the river is low here, but I guess it does not rain under the bridge.” While one might be tempted to claim that mankind is careening toward ruin based on this evidence, I do think (and hope) that most of the adults that consistently ask me these questions actually know better. Perhaps they are tired from hectic lives and nervous because they are in an unfamiliar situation. Maybe they do not realize that common sense and their life experiences up to this point are still relevant and accurate in this new territory. The point I am trying to make is that students in college courses may experience something similar. The students may have a deep understanding of certain concepts but are busy and tired from school obligations, apprehensive about a new course, or unsure if their previous knowledge is applicable in a different environment. Or, they may have possessed a deep understanding of the material at one point, but a few intervening semesters have made the information less readily available. The authors mention that prompts and cues, even if only at the beginning of the course, can create links to access prior student knowledge, which I think can go a long way. In a geochemistry course my first semester at Virginia Tech, the professor had us work through a few basic chemistry problems involving molarity and molality during the first day of class. Even though I knew how to solve these problems, I had not done so since high school. I was grateful that the professor took the time to give us a chance to recall this skill; otherwise, I probably would have panicked if I encountered molarity on a homework assignment.