Saturday, October 25, 2014

Engaging Students

Some of my summer beach reading (ok, it was really reading done sitting at home in my upstairs office but I was thinking about the beach…) included books on pedagogy that had been recommended on a mailing list for faculty developers. 

One book, Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors by Linda B. Nilson, presented a thought-provoking list of principles that researchers have discovered about how people learn and the teaching strategies that build on those principles.
If you glance at this list, you’ll see that the ideas are not new to any of us—learning takes place when students are actively involved, learning something that has relevance to them and is within their “zone of proximal development.”
What stood out for me, as I thought about the concepts on this list and those presented in other books like Elizabeth Barkley’s Student Engagement Techniques and Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do, was the importance for student learning and retention of emotion (“affect is just as much a part of the brain’s neuronal network as cognition,” Barkley, p. 34) and metacognition (“You don’t learn from experience; you learn from reflecting on experience,” Bains, p. 163).  

I realized that I am probably not giving these two things the attention I should if I design my courses focusing primarily on the content.
I would love to hear some examples of assignments or activities you have used that get your students emotionally involved in their learning, and/or  improve your students’ metacognitive skills, helping them understand what they learned, how they learned it, how they could learn it faster/easier/better next time.


  1. The claim that "We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience" is almost as old as philosophy and is part of the ongoing debate between rationalists and empiricists. To get students emotionally involved in their learning and improve students’ metacognitive skills, I use videos of current events on the news and ask students to think deeply and critically about them and discuss them.

    Safro Kwame

  2. My Botany class really engaged with the gardening project this semester. We visited Longwood Gardens and a plant nursery to purchase plants that we then planted outside the science building. I was excited when the students, without my prompting, applied information from the classroom to explain things that they saw at Longwood or needed to use as they planted the garden - it is so great to hear them actually talk about plants even when they don't know that I'm listening. After each visit or practice, I also asked them to write reflectively about something they learned, liked and something that should be improved for next year's class. I never know if the students really learn more/better this way - all I know is that we all have fun when we do these types of projects. As icing on the cake we presented our "service learning" project at the Science Fair yesterday - which meant putting together a poster and actually taking shifts standing by the poster to explain the project to other faculty members, students and judges. I should have them all reflect on this experience tomorrow in class!

  3. Kwame, I think reflecting on current events (made vivid and memorable by videos) is a perfect example. How do you then help them learn how to think "deeply and critically" in their reflection, getting beyond the immediate emotions and moving to more critical thinking?

    Anna, what a great project, with its combination of hands-on and reflective learning! If you do ask students to reflect on what they learned by putting together and presenting the poster session, please share the common threads that emerge. It would be interesting to see what the students value. (It's a shame we can't time travel as well and check in on them 10 years later. I would bet that this project is one of the learning experiences that would stay in their minds as important.)