Monday, April 15, 2013

Review: Idea-based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding

Hansen, E.J. (2011). Idea-based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding. Stylus Publishing.

Reviewed by: Alice Cassidy,
                       In View Education and Professional Development

This book is of equal value to someone brand new to teaching and designing a course for the first time as it is to someone who has been teaching for many years and is looking for some new ideas to “tweak” an assignment or class activity just a bit.

Glance at the 10 chapter titles in the Table of Contents and you will find that each one is subdivided into small well-described chunks (much like good course design!) In fact, I found the sub-titles so interesting that first I started picking and choosing various places in the book to read based on that alone. It is also a book that you can ‘browse’ through, coming across specific course and discipline examples, as well as clearly laid-out charts and figures that you can easily apply to your own context.

So what is idea-based learning?  Think about a course you currently teach, or are planning.  Whatever the discipline, sub-specialty, class size or level, ask yourself, “What are the big ideas in the topic of my course?” Hansen helps you to think about this:  it could be a major theory or a core concept, but it also could be a core skill, value or attitude. It is something essential to the discipline and in your course. Once you have come up with one or more big ideas, Hansen guides you through what he and others call ‘backward design’ but what I call plain old good course planning (!). You will identify learning outcomes based on the big ideas and associated “enduring understandings” and “essential questions” – the latter may help you think about a big idea for your course – what is a question with which you hope to engage students?  You will also consider student background, assessment tasks, class activities and in doing so, will create rubrics and practice opportunities, and consider sequencing and packaging.

Not only does Hansen explain each step of the way in very clear language with lots of examples to draw from, but also he adeptly explains why you would want to do these things through reference to the literature to show us the theory behind it and/or efficacy based on empirical evidence.

From my reading of this valuable book, the “big ideas” are that it is most definitely not content-based learning, and it emphasizes the big picture to help students keep focus. An “endured understanding” is that conceptual understanding and deep learning is a result of the technique. An “essential question” is:  How can I have students “do the subject” and explore the issues of the course, which brings us back to the big ideas in Idea-based Learning.

I have incorporated some of Hansen’s ideas into online seminars I have led for Magna, on motivating students and on alternatives to lecturing. Might some of Hansen’s ideas and examples help you to enhance your course and your teaching practice? I am sure they will.

Review: Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners

Daloz, L.A (2012). Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners. Jossey-Bass.

Reviewed by: Melanie  Rideout-Santarossa,
                       Project Coordinator, Faculty & Curriculum Development Centre,
                       OCAD University

In Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners, Laurent A. Daloz reminds us of the power mentoring holds to change the teaching and learning landscape for students and instructors. Laurent proposes that in the mentor-mentee relationship, mentors assist their students along their educational journeys, but that in doing so their lives are altered as well. Laurent explains that these transformations inevitably filter into the classroom. For instance, being privy to the personal and professional objectives of the mentee, the mentor is able to envision more ways in which the course should align to the students’ world. Similarly, having placed his/her trust in the mentor, the mentee revises the role of instructor from content guide or authority to advisor or friend. Looking at one another in this new light obviously alters the exchanges that will occur in the classroom, and arise in assignments. Having occupied the role of mentor for many years, Laurent eloquently communicates the influence this relationship has on an instructor’s process of development, and it is these anecdotal accounts that may sway readers to open themselves to the possibility of mentoring their students. However, in reviewing this book as a “how-to” guide for teachers who may find themselves in a mentoring role, two shortcomings must be noted. First, Laurent makes the assumption that his readers are seasoned educators. For those of us coming to this resource as novice instructors who might find themselves in a mentoring role, it is difficult to parcel out concrete advice or explicit questioning techniques. Moreover, while Laurent does a good job of emphasizing how effective storytelling is to the mentorship process, the anecdotes contained within reflect ideal mentoring relationships, which do not help new instructors understand how to deal with mentoring situations that are difficult, awkward, or emotionally jarring.  

Review: Understanding Undergraduates: Challenging our Preconceptions of Student Success

Popovic, C., and Green D.A. (2012). Understanding Undergraduates: Challenging our Preconceptions of Student Success. Routledge Publishing.

Reviewed by: Shannon Murray,
                       Professor and 3M Teaching Fellow,
                       University of Prince Edward Island

Understanding Undergraduates adds to the literature on “millennial” students by examining assumptions: assumptions that university teachers make about successful students and that students make about themselves.   Popovic and Green survey thirty-eight university professors in four universities – two in the US and two in the UK--, and they survey 1241 students in first-year classes.  They compare those assumptions with the findings of appropriate research, determining which are upheld by the research and which aren’t.  The most useful thing about the book is the practical suggestions they offer for dealing with those assumptions, either correct or not. 

They find that both UK and US professors, for example, believe that successful students expect to develop new study skills, are punctual for lectures, keep up with assigned reading, and prefer to sit at the front of class (50) – and the research supports those assumptions.  They also, however, assume that successful students perform volunteer work, belong to a particular gender or ethnic group, talk to their teachers and ask questions, and form their own study groups, assumptions that the research suggests are false.  Some assumptions are particular to the US context – the unsupported beliefs that good students use writing centres or are unmarried, for example – and some to the UK context – that successful students attend full time or feel they belong at university. 

As I read, I found myself less surprised by the results of the research and more by the sometimes shocking assumptions that professors admitted to having.  Also surprising is the general conclusion that Popovic and Green come to about student assumptions; in their surveys, students suggested that they already have a pretty sound idea of what behaviours and attitudes make for a truly successful undergraduate experience, but there is a disconnect between understanding what works and altering behaviour to meet that understanding.  For professors, then, the book insists that we first acknowledge our assumptions and then test them against the evidence before we bring them into the classroom.  When helping our students become more successful, we need to spend less time on telling them what makes a successful student – they already know – and more on helping them alter habits to make use of that knowledge.

The intended audience for Understanding Undergraduates is explicitly university teachers, though there are some suggestion near the end for what one can do to curb stereotyping at various levels in the university.  Moreover, Popovic and Green are careful to locate their study in two specific contexts, the US and the UK, and even in those two, there are differences.   A Canadian audience, then, may find the specific findings less applicable than the general and surely sensible general conclusion: that trying to understand undergraduates based on hasty generalizations and anecdotal evidence is more likely to do harm than good.