Welcome back to a new term! As we get our collective feet back under us and find our rhythm, I would like to challenge each of us to think about new ways in which we can ensure our students are learning.
In our New Faculty Learning Community, we are reading the book, What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain. If you haven’t read this book, I highly encourage you to do so (our library has at least one copy in the Teaching Excellence stack). The second chapter is about how our teaching should change the way students think. Bain describes a study done in the 80’s by Halloun and Hestenes that sought to determine whether their teaching actually changed students’ long held beliefs about motion in a physics class. The results were astonishing; even the high-performing students continued to think about motion like Aristotle rather than like Newton. In essence, they interpreted what they learned about motion through the framework that they brought to the first day of class. The authors wrote, “students held firm to mistaken beliefs even when confronted with phenomena that contradicted those beliefs.”
The research around metacognition, or “thinking about thinking”, is not concerned with whether students can pass our exams but rather about whether their education has a sustained and significant impact on the way they think, act, and feel. Through Bain’s research, he concluded that the BEST teachers have both a keen understanding of the histories and controversies within their disciplines, and the ability to effectively use that understanding to reflect deeply on the nature of thinking within their fields. They understand the foundational concepts upon which knowledge is constructed and where learners get stuck.
Did you have a teacher or professor who challenged your way of thinking about your field or about the world? When you teach your students, are you thinking about helping them construct a new mental model? I can pinpoint a specific NOVA documentary that determined my entire career path because it challenged a mental model so harshly that I simply HAD to know more. An outstanding professor in Bain’s study said she asks herself, “why would anyone want to remember particular pieces of information. What does this fact help you understand? What problems does it help you address?” In my experience, we need to be very explicit about these things. Ask these questions. Have your students struggle a bit. Case studies or problems that require students to evaluate scenarios and defend their analyses are great for helping students get there.
Understand that mental models change slowly and involve taking our students from “surface” to “deep” learning. Whether they can do this is often evident in the methods they use to study. This post talks more about deep learning and contains suggestions for our students to move them in the right direction.