By Judith V. Boettcher
My granddaughter, a rising sophomore, is buried with assignments. She shared, somewhat despairingly, that rarely can she get anything done in advance—only work due ‘tomorrow!’ I felt her stress and realized she hardly has time for practice and review, to reflect on meaning, or question more deeply.
In our rush to ensure that we cover all the necessary course material, it’s easy to lose sight of how learning actually happens. When planning your courses and use of class time, here are some questions to keep in mind:
- What learning experiences will increase the odds that students will actually use the content to enrich their lives?
- What types of experiences actually support the learning process?
- How can students create rich concept structures that encourage use of knowledge rather than a focus on accumulating facts?
The teaching and learning research should guide our thinking:
- We know that learning takes time. This is a core principle. It means we need to make time for students to do something meaningful with the content for lasting learning to occur (Bloom, 1976; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014; Boettcher & Conrad, 2016).
- We know that learning is a constructive activity, meaning that students must develop the knowledge within their own heads (Piaget, 1953; Bruner, 1977; Vygotsky, 1978). As instructors, we can’t do it for them. We can structure, illustrate, explain, and provide examples of the content. But we also need to create opportunities for students to inquire, explore, think, self-test, write, and use the content for themselves.
Let’s look at how we can spark active reflection and curiosity in two areas: lectures and readings.
Despite efforts to kill the lecture format, we’re often expected to teach classes that are scheduled in large halls with lots of students. Some even have stadium-style seating! Fortunately, there are proven ways to deliver an effective lecture and use active learning techniques in large classes.
For example, the calculated use of “pauses” can deepen learning. Before launching into a new topic, first ask students to reflect on what they already know about it. Students should think about and record their existing, sometimes called “prior,” knowledge, which helps to establish connections to the new knowledge that you’re about to introduce.
Take a moment for students to share their initial thoughts, such as through a tried and true “think-pair-share,” and listen carefully. You’ll be able to better link existing and new ideas and address any initial misconceptions.
Once you’re into your presentation, use examples from the students’ initial reflections and, as you go, turn the content into relevant questions. We know that listening to declarative statements can quickly get boring, whereas questions open students’ minds to inquiry, suspense, and potential links, connections, and patterns. This is also a good opportunity to leverage words from critical thinking practice, such as “accuracy, relevancy, patterns, relationships, perspective, and background.” (See Boettcher, 2009, Tip 67 for more trigger words.)
It’s also important to plan multiple pauses during your lecture—timed to reinforce key points or when building ideas on ideas. Otherwise, our brains simply stop paying attention when working memory begins to “overload,” and we don’t have time to process information.
During these mid-lecture pauses, you can increase reflection power and promote curiosity by asking students to:
- Summarize what they just heard in a sentence or two
- Connect, link, or think about the similarity or contrast of the content with what they already knew
- Predict what might come next or what they want to know more about
- Consider the contexts in which this information might be useful
- Identify patterns and relationships in the material
- Situate the new knowledge into case studies or common problems
“Test and Retrieve During Reading”
In their 2014 book, Make It Stick, Brown, Roediger and McDaniel describe a number of testing and retrieval techniques that promote successful learning. The cited research made me rethink the positive role that testing can play in learning. In particular, self-testing while studying is a powerful way to learn because it gives students more meaningful time to engage with new content. It creates neuronal pathway connections that increase mastery and build student confidence.
A few techniques you can recommend to your students to use when they’re completing reading assignments or preparing posts for discussion forums include:
- Pausing regularly during reading an assignment (chapter, article, etc.) to self-quiz by asking themselves: What did I just read? What do I know now that I didn’t know before? How does this connect to what I have known before?
- Creating questions from the headings or illustrations, writing down their answers or observations, and telling a patient friend who will let them verbalize their thoughts
- Sending a text question or answer to themselves or a study buddy
- Reflecting on how the new information might be useful in solving a problem or creating a new idea.
What are your favorite reflection techniques? For your own learning or for your students? I’ve shared these ideas with my granddaughter, and she plans to use some. I reminded her that it may, at first, feel like her studying is taking even more time. But not to stress. She’ll find new joy in learning as she reflects and sees how things connect. Trust grandma.
|What to read next: “3 Ways to Enhance Your Online Instruction”
by Judith Boettcher
Just announced: Judith and Rita Marie’s book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide is now available as an audio book. It is available from these three sites:
More information on this version is at
Association of College and University Educators. (2019). ACUE’s Effective Practice Framework. Retrieved from https://acue.org/?acue_courses=acues-effective-practice-framework. (Module B: Module 3b: Using Active Learning Techniques in Large Classes.
Bloom, B. S. (Ed.) (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain. Boston, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Company.
Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016). The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2 ed.). San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.
Boettcher, J. V. (2009). eCoaching Tip 67: Developing Rigor in Our Questioning: Eight Intellectual Standards. Retrieved from http://designingforlearning.info/ecoachingtips/ecoaching-tip-67/
Bransford, J. D., Brown, Ann L. & Cocking, R. (Ed.) (2000). How People Learn. Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Expanded Edition ed.). Washington, DC: National Academy Press
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. I., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. S. (1977). The process of education (2 ed.). New York: Harvard University Press.
Piaget, J. (1957). Construction of reality in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249-255.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.