Thoughts on achieving good learning at third level

Author: Greg Foley, Lecturer in the School of Biotechnology and currently serving as Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Science and Health. This post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog at educationandstuff.wordpress.com

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Here are a few thoughts, by no means comprehensive,  on what drives good learning at third level.

I strongly believe that third level education involves a partnership so some of these points are aimed at lecturers while some are aimed at students.

For Lecturers

A lot of good teaching is done before you enter the classroom

Choose between need-to-knows and nice-to-knows and pitch the material at an appropriate level. Find the goldilocks zone, i.e., the zone where the level of the material will challenge students fairly, and appropriately, without demoralising them. Getting into this zone can be tricky, though, because the standard of the student intake varies from year to year and you don’t want to get into dumbing-down territory. It may also be the case that your programme is subject to professional accreditation and you may not have much room for manoeuvre.

Explicit instruction is essential

In any given discipline there will be concepts and methods that students will find difficult. To be a good lecturer/teacher you need to have an extremely good grasp of your discipline and, to put it simply, you need to be good at explaining stuff. That requires you to be reflective and to constantly re-evaluate what you are doing and how you are doing it. You need to be your own worst critic. Be wary of philosophies of teaching and learning that de-emphasise your role. Most of them are unproven, at least in my view. Make it your business to keep up to date with developments in education and cognitive science. I’d start with this book by David Didau.

Pass on your wisdom

Despite what many educationalists will say these days, you are the expert, the so-called sage on the stage. You are not a ‘co-learner’. If you are, then you are in the wrong job. As a lecturer you have superior knowledge and experience and you should pass that on. If, for example, you have developed particular problem-solving strategies that work for you then let your students know about them. They don’t have to follow your exact approach but the chances are that if it works for you it’ll work for them. Remember that your role is to give your students a start in life and career, and with you as their guide that goal will be reached. Left to discover and reinvent everything for themselves they will make bad choices. In time, they will probably develop their own strategies but for now they need lots of guidance.

Teach actively

You need to be extremely gifted if you want to lecture effectively using Powerpoint or even with no visual aids. The average student (or anybody!) cannot concentrate for 50 minutes. A good way to pace a lecture and to highlight key ideas and concepts is to write on the blackboard, whiteboard or a digital equivalent. Writing on the board also keeps your adrenaline up and keeps you focused – at least that’s what I find! Where appropriate, mix things up a bit. For some disciplines, and if the class size is not enormous, that might mean doing a little bit of hands-on problem solving or maybe a bit of group work.

Teach students how to study

Most students study ineffectively. They mainly use methods like reading, re-reading and highlighting, methods that have been proven to be ineffective. Show and discuss with them the evidence for good study methods.

Be supportive to students

Students who go to the trouble of seeking your help should be rewarded for doing so. Respond quickly to student queries.

For Students

Attend

You will forget much of what you hear in lectures and tutorials. That’s ok. In fact it’s good because we know that when you revise the material (and you should do this more than once) you will remember it for longer and your understanding of it will improve each time  – see David Didau’s book mentioned above for the evidence.

Practice

It is well know that to learn to speak a language fluently you must immerse yourself in it. A lot of learning is like this whether it involves becoming fluent at mathematics or at writing English. Use sport as your inspiration and think about how practice is used to attain excellence in sport. Practice is often quite different from what happens on match or competition day. Practice for team sports, for example, often involves individuals working on their own individual basic skills. Practice for individual sports often involves working on drills that develop core skills that will be employed during competition. In other words, practice does not have to (and probably shouldn’t) mimic the ‘real life’ situation. Accept that.

Ask questions

Your lecturers are paid to support your learning so use them by asking questions either during class, after class or by email.

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