Guiding Students into Doing the “Work” of Learning

One of the gifts that great teachers often have is the ability to make the learning of their subject seem easy. After we do the hard work of organizing ideas on a topic, weighing various arguments, and developing lines of reasoning, we then share these insights with our students, thinking that they will readily glean understanding from our presentation. In reality, educational research and cognitive science strongly suggest that transmission of information intact from one person to another is highly unlikely. We all construct knowledge on our own, sifting what we hear through our own beliefs and our prior knowledge and experience. We fit any new ideas into existing frameworks of understanding, however naïve or limited they may be, and reject what doesn’t fit or doesn’t interest us.

There’s no way around it, “deep learning”—learning for understanding, applying new knowledge, integrating new ideas—is hard work. As teachers, our greatest talent may be in guiding students into doing that work. Whether you’re teaching a large lecture or a small seminar there are strategies you can employ to help students engage more deeply with the ideas you’re presenting or discussing.

  • Find out what students already know, or think they know, and build on it. As you begin a new topic, poll student ideas, or ask them to write short summaries of concepts. This activity gets their prior knowledge out in the open before you begin presenting new ideas. If you uncover student misperceptions or naïve beliefs, take the time to pose a question that makes them reflect on the issue from another angle, or give them additional information that won’t fit within their prior frameworks. Have them talk through these new conceptions in class with a neighbor or in a small group. Talking about ideas makes us articulate what we think we know in ways that listening does not.
  • Share your thought process. During a lecture, when you are making a particularly demanding observation or drawing a conclusion based on evidence, pause and share with your students what they should be asking themselves, how they should be dealing with or even arguing with this information. Ask rhetorical questions such as, “How can I make a claim like that?” “Where could I find conflicting ideas about this topic?” “What’s another way to make this argument/test this hypothesis?” 
  • Engage your students during lecture. Listening to a good lecture can lull students into a false sense of security, letting them think that your brilliant ideas are flowing productively into their memory banks for future use. Pausing periodically, asking students to write down an answer to a question or explain the last concept you introduced to their neighbor helps them encode that information and immediately test their understanding. Putting students in the role of teacher with their peers requires them to integrate and connect knowledge in ways that listening does not. 
  • Assign and collect a “one-minute paper” at the end of class. Ask students to write down an idea they learned or a point of confusion they still have from the day’s class. Many faculty find this strategy useful for uncovering student misperceptions or points in the lecture that still aren’t clear. But it also provides an opportunity for students to retrieve information on the spot, a task that aids in long-term memory. And it provides you with potential topics for student discussion.