Linda B. Nilson, Ph.D.

Linda B. Nilson, Ph.D. is an Internationally-Known Keynote Speaker, Workshop Designer/Leader, and Author on College Teaching, Scholarly Writing, and Academic Career Development.

The Top Ten Reasons Why We Have to Teach Our Students How to Learn

Reason #10: Our students didn’t learn how to learn in the public K-12 system.
In general, they didn’t get much homework, and the standards they were held to were quite low. Furthermore, the No Child Left Behind Act has forced teachers to teach to the test, and the tests in no way assess the ability to learn. Memorize, maybe; learn, no.

Reason #9: Our students were told all their lives that they’re brilliant as they are.
According to report The American Freshman, published by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (2004), 70% of entering college students rated their academic ability above average or within the top 10% of their cohort. Both parents and teachers have conspired to perpetrate this belief to build their children’s self-esteem. But self-esteem without achievement is only a comforting illusion, and achievement is all about learning.  

Reason #8: Our students won’t otherwise be able to maximize their intelligence.
Most students think they were just born intelligent (see Reason #9), and, therefore, learning, if even necessary, should be effortless. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007), Dweck called this kind of thinking a “fixed mind set.” It was universal up until about 15 years ago, but neurological research has since found that we can increase our intelligence by learning. Of course, if students don’t know how to learn, their intelligence willbe fixed.   

Reason #7: Our students don’t understand that achieving excellence in any realm, including college, requires major effort and hard work.
And why should they? Just showing up got them through their primary and secondary education with flying colors. Of those entering college, two-thirds claimed to have spent fewer than six hours a week on homework in their senior year in high school, and almost half graduated with an A average (The American Freshman, 2004).  
Our students need to know that real excellence requires eight uncommon values – hunger, effort, process, quality, consistency, leadership, time, and perseverance, according to Buyer in Working toward Excellence: 8 Values for Achieving Uncommon Success in Work and Life (2012). These are the ingredients of greatness, whether in sports, music, architecture, law, medicine, science, engineering, business, or learning.    

Reason #6: Our students are not ready for the kind of reading material we are assigning.
We already know that they didn’t get much assigned reading in high school (see reason #7). The National Endowment for the Humanities (2007) reported that only 4% of high school graduates and 31% of bachelor-degree holders test proficient in reading prose, and both figures represent declines from 1992. No doubt today’s college students fall somewhere in between. While many are avid readers of social media and non-academic material, they spend only about 37% of their reading time on college reading assignments, which they describe as “tedious” and “time-consuming.” In fact, they often skip the assigned readings unless their grades depend on it. These are the findings that Huang, Capps, and Blacklock presented at the 2013 meetings of the American Educational Research Associate last April. 

Reason #5: Our students see no connection between their learning during college and their success after it, so they don’t try to learn how to learn on their own.
Many believe that it’s not what you know but who you know that gets you ahead. Besides, they expect their future employers to teach them what they need to know. It’s time that we disavow of these misconceptions by bringing “real world” representatives of various lines of work into our classes and tying our material to their prospective occupations and personal lives. Once we do that, students should be quite open to learning how to learn. Many already know that their current strategies don’t pay off. They know that they can’t interpret directions, solve problems, write clearly, or retain what they read. They also know that when they cram for a final, they forget the material within days. We need to convince them why they should care.

Reason #4: Our students desperately need practice focusing. 
When we look around our classrooms, we usually see students juggling their attention among texting a friend, watching an Internet video, finishing homework for another class, and listening to us. As a result, they don’t do any of these tasks well. But this is how they are living life. The first rule in learning how to learn is to concentrate on the learning task at hand. When our students learn how to learn, they learn how to focus.

Reason #3: Our students won’t learn our course material, even if we “cover” it. 
They won’t know how to learn it. And then what are our professional lives worth? What is higher educationworth?  

Reason #2: Our students will have to keep learning throughout their lives.
Of course, they will have to stay abreast of their ever-evolving specialization to work effectively. But think about the broader consequences of their not continuing to learn—the economic and technological stagnation and disruption that will inevitably result.  

And the #1 reason why we HAVE to teach our students how to learn: If we don’t teach them, then who will?  
Their employers won’t. The buck stops here, at the college level.

Originally published in 2013 as an invited blog posting on StylusPub. Available at Stylus Publishing

Metacognition and Specifications Grading: The Odd Couple?

More than anything else, metacognition is awareness of what’s going on in one’s mind. This means, first, that a person sizes up a task before beginning it and figures out what kind of a task it is and what strategies to use. Then she monitors her thinking as she progresses through the task, assessing the soundness of her strategies and her success at the end.

So what does this have to do with specs grading?

In specs grading, all assignments and tests are graded pass/fail, credit/no credit, where “pass” means at least B or better work. A student product passes if it conforms to the specifications (specs) that an instructor described in the assignment or test directions. So either the students follow the directions and “get it right,” or the work doesn’t count. Partial credit doesn’t exist.

For the instructor, the main task is laying out the specs. A short reading compliance assignment may have specs as simple as: “You must answer all the study questions, and each answer must be at least 100 words long.” For more substantial assignments, the instructor can detail the “formula” or template of the assignment – that is, the elements and organization of a good literature review, research proposal, press release, or lab report – or provide a list of the questions that she wants students to answer, as for a reflection on a service-learning or group project experience. Especially for formulaic assignments, which so many undergraduate-level assignments are, models and examples bring the specs to life.

The stakes are higher for students than they are in our traditional grading system. With specs grading, it’s all or nothing. No sliding by with a careless, eleventh-hour product because partial credit is a given.

To be successful in a specs-graded course, students have to be aware of their thinking as they complete their assignments and tests. This means that students, first have to pay attention to the directions, and the directions are themselves a learning experience when they explicitly lay out the formula for different types of work. Especially when enhanced with models, the specs supply the crucial information that we so often gloss over: exactly what the task involves. Otherwise, how should our students know? With clear specs, they learn what reflection involves, how a literature review is organized, and what a research proposal must contain. Then during the task, students need to monitor and assess their work to determine if it is indeed meeting the specs. “Does the depth of my response match the length requirement?” “Am I answering all the reflection questions?” “Am I following the proper organization?” “Have I written all the sections?”

Another distinguishing characteristic of specs grading is the replacement of the point system with “bundles” of assignments and tests. For successfully completing a bundle, students obtain final course grades. And they select the bundle and the grade they are willing to work for. To get a D, the bundle involves relatively little, unchallenging work. For higher grades, the bundles require progressively more work, more challenging work, or both. In addition, each bundle is associated with a set of learning outcomes, so a given grade indicates the outcomes a student has achieved.

If students fail to self-monitor and self-assess, they risk receiving no credit for their work and, given that it is part of a bundle, getting a lower grade in the course. And their grade is important for a whole new reason: because they chose the grade they wanted/needed and its accompanying workload. This element of choice and volition increases students’ sense of responsibility for their performance.

With specs grading, students do get limited opportunities to revise an unacceptable piece of work or to obtain get a 24-hour extension on an assignment. These opportunities are represents by virtual tokens that students receive at the beginning of the course. Three is a reasonable number. This way, the instructor doesn’t have to screen excuses, requests for exceptions, and the like. She also has the option of giving students chances to earn tokens and rewarding those with the most tokens at the end of the course.

Specs grading solves many of the problems that our traditional grading system has bred while strengthening students’ metacognition and sense of ownership of their grades. Details on using and transitioning to this grading system are in my 2015 book, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Sterling, VA: Stylus).

Originally published in 2015 as an invited post on the Improve with Metacognition blog. Available at Improve with Metacognition

Latest and Greatest Books on College Teaching

We can’t keep up with our own discipline’s research, so how are we supposed to stay abreast of the college teaching literature? Let me make it a little easier for you. Here are six recently published books that capture what I think are the latest and most important developments and trends in college teaching and learning. If you’re new to teaching, start with the how-to basics in my book Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors 3rd ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Susan A. Ambrose et al., How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010). We just can’t find out too much about how the mind learns. The authors derive research from anthropology, sociology, organizational behavior, and cognitive, developmental, educational, and social psychology to distill seven learning principles: the effects on learning of students’ prior knowledge, their organization of the material, their motivation, and their level of development and class climate, as well as the importance of practice and feedback, the prerequisites of mastery, and the role of self-regulation in self-directed learning. The book provides teaching recommendations for each principle.

José Antonio Bowen, Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2012). While I really dislike the primary title—it misrepresents the book’s material and purpose—Bowen’s best-seller gives directions, reasons, creative ideas, software, and resources for flipping your classroom. Games merit his special attention because students find them so engaging. Although the evidence that technology actually increases learning is thin, the value of active learning is indisputable.

James R. Davis and Bridget D. Arend, Facilitating Seven Ways of Learning: A Resource for More Purposeful, Effective, and Enjoyable College Teaching (Stylus, 2013). This book offers a fresh, overarching organization of how we should be teaching, depending upon our student learning outcomes. The authors relate seven categories of outcomes (e.g., building skills, developing thinking and reasoning processes, practicing professional judgment) to different ways of learning (e.g., behavioral, learning through inquiry, learning through virtual realities) and to different teaching methods (e.g., tasks & procedures and practice exercises, question-driven inquiries and discussions, role plays, simulations, games, and dramatic scenarios). Their recommendations make solid sense.

Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek, The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain (Stylus, 2013). If I may quote from my review printed on the back cover: “This is a path-breaking book. . . . More sophisticated and empirically-grounded that any study skills manual, [it] addresses all the major research findings on how the human brain learns. It does so using language and examples that students—in fact, anyone with a mind—can understand and immediately apply to enhance their attention, depth of processing, retention, retrieval, and far-transfer abilities. It deserves to be required reading for all college students—really, anyone interested in learning.” And this includes faculty! Consider assigning this book to your students as well.

Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student (Jossey-Bass, 2012). The authors assemble compelling survey evidence for the generalizations they make about Millennial students. You can gain a nuanced understanding of how the generation’s unique experiences and demographics have shaped their values, aspirations, politics, social lives, family lives, and attitudes about education.

John D. Shank, Interactive Open Educational Resources: A Guide to Finding, Choosing, and Using What’s Out There to Transform College Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2014). This is a valuable reference book on free, high-quality, digital resources for teaching and learning at the post-secondary level. These resources, some of which are interactive, span simulations, games, multimedia tutorials, demonstrations, virtual labs and experiences, animations, videos, and audio recordings. Useful in traditional, flipped, online, or hybrid courses, they can serve as engaging homework assignments, in-class activities, supplementary lessons, or lecture enhancements.

Since all these books come from two major publishers, Jossey-Bass and Stylus, your campus library either has them in their collection or can get them for you quickly through interlibrary loan. However many years you have taught, you will surely learn new tools-of-the-trade. And if you are feeling burned out, you’re likely to find a fresh approach, perspective, or resource that will refuel your passion for teaching.

Originally published in 2014 as an invited blog posting on Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed. Available at Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed.