CTLT Dialogues

The Blog of the Center for Teaching & Learning with Technology

What the Best College Teachers Do

Posted by ctlt on May 22, 2009

The Keynote Address for this year’s TNT Institute was delivered by Dr. Ken Bain, Founder and Director of the Research Academy for University Teaching at Montclair State University. Ken spoke about his research on the teaching methods of the best college teachers.

An important guiding question for Ken’s research has to do with the differences among surface learners, strategic learners and deep learners. Research has shown that often people’s understanding of some more complex concepts (such as the modern concepts of force and movement in physics, in contrast with the corresponding Aristotelian concepts) do not change during courses that address those concepts (such as physics courses). People whose understanding does not change when taking a course must be considered surface learners at best. Why do some people become surface or superficial learners, while others inquire more profoundly and become deep learners?

Ken invited participants to speculate on the question, and then discusses his view that at least some of the difference may be attributed to differences in the “diet of assessment” that people face as students. That is, if we only evaluate student performance using superficial problems or tasks, then we will nurture more students to become superficial learners.

What the best college teachers do is to find ways to present their students with situations in which their expectations (based on the mental models they bring to their problem-solving) fail to anticipate outcomes correctly. Ken discussed several examples of these efforts, including the case of a faculty member who found a way to get her students engaged in studying post-reconstruction race relations in the South by asking her students to explain what happened in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. Students found the problems of post-reconstruction, presented in a way that connected them with current issues, to be engaging enough that they insisted on traveling to New Orleans to study the problems on site.

It might be said that the key then is to challenge the casual or informal (or incorrectly learned) mental models students bring with them, and to encourage students to devote the time and energy necessary to change those models.thec

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