5 Teaching Tips From ‘How Humans Learn’
The soon-to-be-released How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching (West Virginia University Press, 2018) is an unusual book. Its author, Josh Eyler, who directs the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University, is not a scientist: His doctorate is in medieval studies. But he looks to science — particularly human evolution and early-childhood development — to understand the conditions that foster or impede learning, and he applies it to college students.
Each chapter of the book is framed around a theme, like authenticity or failure. Eyler takes scientific insights on each theme and turns them into practical tips — “small steps,” he writes, that professors “might take right away.”
After explaining how evolution has primed human beings to be curious, for instance, Eyler describes how an instructor might reframe discussion questions to better draw on that curiosity. Each chapter also unpacks the techniques of college teachers who excel at addressing the theme at hand, and ends with a list of key takeaways.
Despite its wide-ranging consideration of research, How Humans Learn is eminently practical. Here are five of Eyler’s takeaways:
Don’t Be Scary
“Anxiety of any kind,” Eyler writes, “reduces levels of student curiosity.” When instructors come off as intimidating — whether in their teaching style or the kinds of assignments they give — it actually makes it harder for students to learn.
So what can professors do to encourage student curiosity? Be a bit more approachable, Eyler advises. They might, for instance, share what attracted them to their field and describe any obstacles they overcame to get to their current position.
When it comes to coursework, Eyler writes, giving low-stakes or even ungraded assignments can help engage students’ curiosity. “Scaffolding,” or presenting difficult new material in stages, can also reduce the intimidation factor.
Use Group Work Wisely
Collaborating with others helps students learn. But not all group assignments succeed. They work, Eyler writes, only when students actually “build knowledge together.” Group work that can be completed by “dividing and conquering” doesn’t achieve that goal.
It may be easy to blame students for poor group dynamics, Eyler writes, but how instructors form groups and structure assignments makes a big difference. Students learn best when they’re in groups of five, Eyler writes, and when those groups expose them to peers with different backgrounds and worldviews. And real collaborative learning, he adds, is more likely to happen when students face assignments with no set answers.
“An archival project or one that draws on fieldwork,” he writes, “would be good options because students must rely on each other to gather evidence.”
Show Students You Care
Positive emotions can enhance learning, while “unregulated negative emotions” impede it, Eyler writes. As a result, he argues, “perhaps one of the most significant things we can do as teachers is to care for our students as learners.” That doesn’t mean expecting less of students, he writes.
The idea is, instead, that professors “be present for our students as fellow human beings,” Eyler writes, and “invest ourselves in helping them to succeed.”
How can instructors show they care? One simple way is to learn and use students’ names, Eyler writes. He also describes several practices used by a professor he observed, Kimberly Shaw, a physicist and professor of earth and space sciences at Columbus State University, in Georgia. Eyler saw Shaw signal her concern for students by asking after one who was sick and drawing out several others.
Don’t Lecture for Too Long
While Eyler is careful to explain that he’s not coming out against lecturing, period, he does take issue with prolonged lecturing, the style sometimes known as “continuous exposition.” The reason? This instructional method, Eyler writes, is “one of our most inauthentic teaching strategies.” That’s a problem because the brain gives more attention to situations it deems realistic.
Long lectures, Eyler writes, are “artificial insofar as they do not resemble in any way the natural circumstances under which human beings have learned for much of our history.” The human brain, he writes, will “detect” and “ignore” such “contrived scenarios” — unless forced to do otherwise when a grade is on the line. “Could you imagine our ancestors holding lectures about hunting and gathering?” he writes. “Me neither. How about a colloquy for infants on the intricacies of speaking? Nope.”
Learning environments that get students closer to the work that scholars in a particular field actually do — such as undergraduate research opportunities — are particularly promising ways to make learning more authentic, Eyler writes. Still, short lectures (and lectures interspersed with opportunities for authentic engagement), he writes, remain a perfectly fine way to transmit information to students.
Get Rid of Grades (Or, at Least, Emphasize Feedback)
Failure can be a valuable learning experience. But students often arrive at college conditioned to avoid failure at all costs. And the grades they go on to receive, Eyler adds, do nothing to help: “No matter how much we try,” he writes, “grades consistently communicate to students that they fall short of an ideal, regardless of the degree to which they may have improved.”
Despite that pattern, Eyler recognizes, individual professors usually don’t have the power to simply stop awarding grades. Instead, he writes, “we will need to work from inside a structure that places a high value on grades.”
What might that look like? Eyler suggests giving students low-stakes assignments that attach less of a penalty to taking risks. Another idea? Giving lots of feedback — which, unlike evaluative grades, does help students learn.