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Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level
Date Reviewed: October 1, 2018
The word “magic” appears several times in this book for students on how to succeed in college and university courses. Co-authored by Saundra McGuire, director emerita of the nationally acclaimed Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University, and her daughter Stephanie McGuire, the volume is laced with stories of seemingly “magical” immediate and dramatic improvement in student performance after the application of the learning strategies described here in ten short chapters.
The metacognitive learning strategies described draw on Bloom’s taxonomy and the neuroscience of learning, such as the work of Mark McDaniel (Make It Stick, 2014). They include strategies on reading textbooks, taking notes in class, reviewing, doing homework assignments, time management, and studying for and writing tests and exams. A handy little learning strategies inventory in Appendix C allows students to “predict” their grades based on the strategies they use.
More important than these specific learning strategies for this reviewer are the sections of the book devoted to fostering in students a growth mindset that challenges the deterministic view that intelligence is innate (“I’m just not good at math”), and encourages students instead to believe that they can succeed and motivates them emotionally to do the effective work necessary for success. Monitoring self-talk and attributing results to one’s actions rather than external factors are powerful mental tools for improvement.
In order to succeed, however, students need more than just a belief that they can do it and a set of effective strategies; they also need to know as specifically as possible what is expected of them. This is where this book addresses not just students but also instructors. Instructors put obstacles in the way of student success by not clearly articulating their expectations (and by creating unsupportive and discouraging classroom experiences and course structures). The book includes a very helpful section in chapter seven on how students should read a course syllabus. Notably, if a syllabus does not seem to clearly lay out expectations, students are encouraged to meet with the instructor for clarification. In fact, one of the strategies is to make regular use of instructor office hours.
The book promises that if students use these strategies they can “ace” any course. Will students be disappointed? While the results may be magical, the method is not – hard work using effective strategies is required. Even reading the book may be a stretch for some students, although it is short and largely written in a very accessible style. It will also likely profit students in sciences and technology, where memorization is important, more than those in the humanities, such as religion and theology majors. The book does very little to address strategies for successful research and writing of papers, for instance, and the anecdotes of student success are drawn overwhelmingly from the sciences.
However, much can be gained from this book by both students and instructors in all fields. My biggest take-away is the author’s insistence, “Now hear this: All students are capable of excelling” (65). This book shows how.
Teach Like the Mind Learns: Instruct So Students Learn to Think, Read, and Write Critically
Date Reviewed: June 23, 2017
This volume is the most recent of a triumvirate of interrelated works Maiorana has recently published. Teach Like the Mind Learns builds off Fixing Instruction: Resolving Major Issues with a Core Body of Critical Knowledge for Critical Instruction (2015) and Preparation for Critical Instruction: How to Explain Subject Matter While Teaching All Learners to Think, Read, and Write Critically (2016). Maiorana’s larger project is an ambitious one. He takes aim, with broad brushstrokes, at rote-learning styles of instruction, a specter he calls “serialism” and describes as the “teaching profession’s weak default instructional strategy” (4). He contends that this pervasive style inhibits “our innate ability to think critically” (155).
As an antidote, Maiorana offers his own unique instructional framework. He argues that subject matter is universal and critical in nature across disciplines. He also argues that one can teach how the mind learns, and as a result, promote teaching that gets students to write, speak, and observe critically. One can do this by utilizing “mind grammar,” which he defines as the “innate, systematic, and patterned way that the human mind encounters the world and all its subject matter” (6), At the core of mind grammar instructional techniques are what he calls “subject matter displays.” Much of the practical approach involves formal concept mapping and displaying the explanation of a certain term or concept with related activities. The book unfolds in two main parts: part one provides an overview of Maiorana’s theoretical basis for critical instruction, and part two offers numerous examples of activities and instruction sets using this framework.
Teach Like the Mind Learns is a tough nut to crack. This is largely because it is a closed intellectual loop. The only other instructional literature Maiorana cites in footnotes and references in passing are his own two earlier works on the topic. He even instructs the reader to purchase his previous books so one can better follow the self-referential citations that abound in each chapter. The first-time reader must further master Maiorana’a distinctive vocabulary, from mind grammar to “Itechniques” and “Imethods.”
Consequently, the learning curve for reading Teach Like the Mind Learns is steep. It is largely predicated on the assumption that the reader has read and embraced Maiorana\'s earlier works. There are some helpful insights throughout, including the example teaching exercises that make up the second half of the book. But as Maiorana’s approach avoids engaging with any other instructional literature beyond his own, it is ultimately not clear how one might use this approach in combination with other pedagogical styles and resources to improve classroom instruction. Further, he suggests a remarkable universality to his framework, regardless of specific context – from elementary through college-level instruction – a bold one-size-fits-all approach.
In a world of opportunity costs, limited time, and limited energy, someone looking to explore “how the mind learns” would be much better off diving into the established science of learning literature. There are numerous accessible works on its foundations and praxis, and several that are specifically about improving instruction at the college level, such as James Lang’s Small Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016) and Donelson Forsyth’s College Teaching (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2016).
Contemporary Views on Comparative Religion
Date Reviewed: November 14, 2016
During his time on the editorial board of Teaching Theology and Religion Tim Jensen brought a distinctive, and often provocative, sensibility to that group’s discussions. Rooted in his own experience as a teacher in secondary schools and in universities, and based on his research into systems of “religion education” both in Denmark and throughout Europe, Jensen’s position vigorously argued for a strictly secular (and scientific) study of religions throughout the educational curriculum. Even when they did not carry the day, Jensen’s arguments were always “good to think with.”
Although they do not focus as directly on Jensen’s teaching as they do on many of Jensen’s essays (the volume includes a bibliography of his writings), these essays honoring Jensen on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday address many of his persistent concerns. As an ensemble, the essays present a vision of the field of the study of religion that will challenge teachers in North America to articulate their own understandings of what the study of religion entails. More importantly for this context, several of the essays link their broad considerations of the study of religion directly to issues concerning teaching.
Gustavo Benavides offers an essay that stands out in linking theoretical concerns to the classroom. He argues that whatever the subject matter may have been, at the end of the term students in any course in the study of religion “will have thought, however intermittently, about the various but nevertheless recurrent ways in which what we call ‘religion’ is generated and kept in place” (223). Beyond that broad learning goal he proposes – convincingly in my view – that “Ideally, anyone teaching a course that has to do with any of the aspects of what is generally known as ‘religion’ should be engaged in the elaboration of a theory that could accommodate – however provisionally, however tentatively – most of the topics being discussed in any given class” (225). Benavides shows clearly how conceptions of what is – and should be – involved in the study of religion is not simply the concern of a handful of scholars specializing in “theory and methods.” One’s conception of the nature and purpose of the field has a direct and pervasive impact in the classroom.
Several other contributors propose interesting links between their scholarly concerns and their practice as teachers. Russell McCutcheon discusses his use of popular music videos “to illustrate the unexpected appearance of religion” (157) where it is least expected. Drawing on a thorough reading of Jensen’s own work, Wanda Alberts carefully maps out not only what “Religious Studies-based Religion Education” looks like in K-12 curricula but also how it contrasts to other, more confessional, understandings of “Religious Education” and what is at stake in the competing understandings. Satoko Fujiwara provides a persuasive account of why the “world religions” paradigm has persisted in Japanese education, linking it to a particularly Japanese understanding of Max Weber.
Though this volume does not focus directly on teaching, it nonetheless provides the interested reader with both some very pointed suggestions about classroom practice and an array of essays about the state of the field that will provoke and perhaps even inspire careful rethinking about what we are teaching when we teach about religion.
Methodological Challenges in Research on Student Learning
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The central aim of this edited monograph is to present new techniques for dealing with methodological challenges to sociological research on student learning. The book is organized into a brief preface, seven chapters that each deal with distinct methodological approaches to student learning research, and an eighth chapter that provides an outline for how the preceding chapters can be applied to or help shape future research.
Each chapter presents various solutions to distinct methodological challenges through concrete case studies. Chapter one provides an overview and case study of how structural equation modeling (SEM) can be used to conduct empirical research that tests hypothesized influences on student learning. The authors contend that previous research has not been able to fully address the complex multi-variable character of students’ approaches to learning. The strength of SEM is not only its ability to test for multiple variables such as these, but also to examine the pattern and strength of the relationships between these variables. Chapter two explores challenges to research on students in dual programs composed of both university classes and internships. The goal of such research is to take into account the different perspectives, discourses, and research instruments (for example, focused in-depth research and large scale qualitative research) used to study dual program student learning, including workplace learning and the transitions between contexts of learning, learning in higher education and its specific learning activities and patterns, and longitudinal professional development. To study such complexity, the authors propose the use of multilevel analysis for dealing with nested data and methodological triangulation for testing the use of the multiple research instruments. Chapter three outlines a method for using neural network analysis techniques for assessing the predictability of how much influence cognition, motivation, and learning approaches have on academic performance. Chapter four provides a model for addressing the failure of previous research to address implicit preferences for specific types of learning environments by using conjoint analysis, a method developed and employed in marketing research. Chapter five proposes exploratory-grounded research as a way of developing theories rather than solely testing them. The first case study provided in this chapter analyzes data from semi-structured interviews on students’ motivational orientation through various processes for identifying, verifying, and revising themes in the data. The second study then analyzes another set of interviews using the categories developed from the first study. A strength of this approach is its ability to develop innovative theories that are not limited to any pre-established or hypothesized number of categories. Chapter six addresses emotional dimensions and their measurement in research on teacher education. In addition to providing a thorough rationale, outline of theoretical perspectives, overview of the phenomenological method in social science research, identifying themes in the data, and discussing methodological challenges, the chapter provides a helpful survey in the form of a table of previous research articles that address emotional dimensions. Chapter seven explores challenges to longitudinal studies and provides a model and short list of best practices.
Though interesting conclusions and/or corroboration and challenges to previous theories regarding student learning are discussed throughout the book’s varied chapters, the overarching focus is indeed on methodological challenges and proposed solutions to these.
Tell Me So I Can Hear You: A Developmental Approach to Feedback for Educators
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The question, “Can you give me some feedback on this,” is incredibly problematic. It is what some leadership theorists call a “landmine question.” Giving constructive feedback can be a tricky wicket. We may call feedback “honest.” However, it almost always comes across as critical, perhaps even mean. The idea is to focus on the negatives or how others can improve themselves, so we address it in what I call a “combatively collaborative” fashion. However, because of the possibly aggressive or even bullish nature of the one giving the feedback, it can have the reverse effect.
Tell Me So I Can Hear You is a helpful volume for educators and leaders. Rooted in the cognitive-developmental theory of human development as espoused by Robert Kegan, the authors base their entire argument firmly in the “four ways of knowing – instrumental, socializing, self-authoring, and self-transforming” (40). The authors convincingly argue that feedback to colleagues and peers works best when it is understood to be part of the continuing education or professional development process. For them, this results in primarily offering feedback in a way connects with our learning styles. For example, if you are an instrumental learner, you will focus on offering feedback that adheres to the rules, regulations, and expectations of an employee of that organization. Since this approach relies heavily on rubrics, it will positively help colleagues understand where they stand professionally, based on the commonly-accepted careerist markers. However, it does not take into account more abstract qualities, such as emotional health, creativity, or one’s personal background.
Those in administrative educational leadership often offer constructive or critical feedback and tend to process feedback differently than the faculty colleagues and students who are recipients of that feedback. The one receiving feedback may become confused, angry, or withdrawn because they interpret the administrator’s comments differently than the intended meaning.
The benefits of this volume are in the consistent and thorough explanation of the “four ways of learning,” as the authors ground their entire discussion on showing how these ways of learning can work together through feedback settings to build a healthy and collaborative environment. To this end, the chapters on how we receive feedback (chapter 4), give feedback (chapter 5), and build a culture of trust in the organization (chapter 6) are certainly worth the price of the book.
The reader should, however, be aware of two minor concerns: First, this volume accepts Common Core Standards as its operating model for understanding competency rather than seeking out a more integrated model of content comprehension and skills application. Second, the authors seem to interchange the concepts of “colleague” and “adult learner,” which causes some confusion as to whether this handbook is for the quad office or the adult-learning classroom. If you find yourself being required to offer more and more intense feedback or are in a leadership position, read Henry Cloud’s extremely practical volume Necessary Endings (New York: HarperBusiness, 2011) before diving into this volume.