What’s the best way to study? To teach?

Two interesting articles about learning that I’ve read this week come from the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Both question our assumptions about how students learn, and make suggestions for change.  The Chronicle suggests that there is a purpose to quiet time for students in class – they don’t speak up because they are being thoughtful about the question, they don’t want to be perceived as wrong by either the professor or the other students, and/or speaking in class simply isn’t part of their style of learning (this was being juxtaposed with an apparent assumption that silence means students didn’t do the reading).  My eloquent response to that article is somewhere along the lines of ‘Well, DUH.”

I do expect my students to speak in class.  I recognize the fear of being incorrect, yet I believe a lot can be learned by working through a topic as a group.  Science generally improves through collaborative discussion and debate – it is through this process that we are shown alternative ways to view the topic at hand.  Trying to convince students of this benefit, however, is difficult.

To achieve classroom discussion, my general practice is to begin with ‘safe’ questions.  These are questions that simply have the students reiterate the facts of what they read, or information they would already know.  Most students are willing to answer these questions.  I then more onto opinion questions – where there is no right or wrong answer. Then I lead into more thoughtful discussion of the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’.  Ultimately, I am trying to build rapport with the students so they feel comfortable exploring new ideas outloud. Having heard frightening stories of faculty members who have ridiculed students in class, I recognize the need to build a safe space for students to have these conversations. In general, I have found this works in my classes. I’d be curious to know what others do.

The New York Times article was focused on effective study habits.  It stated that recent studies have shown that students who study in one place, or who study one type of material at a time, have less retention of material that those that move around and work on different types of problems in one sitting.  As someone who is always resettling in new study spaces (I’ve already scoped out the coffee shops and restaurants of Alma, along with several sections of the college library), I found this interesting.  As a teacher, it has me in a contemplative state.  I certainly ask students for a variety of types of information on exams – there are synthetic essays where they must apply their knowledge to new case studies, short-answer definitions where they must go beyond the definition and  explain how terms relate to anthropology, and basic multiple choice questions.  I’m not sure I ask my students to study in this fashion on a regular basis, though.  I don’t give my students problem sets for homework like you would in math. So how do I get them to study their anthropology notes and books in a way that mixes up the type of information they are learning? Should I give them writing assignments that cross sub-fields of anthropology on a regular basis? I’m open to ideas on this front, I’m not sure where to go with it.

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