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Read: How we learn

Carey tells, rather for the learner than for the teacher, an entertaining short history of the psychology of learning.

From the research of the past century he distills some sound advice on effective learning techniques and is, (maybe this was the only surprise for me) given the currently available technology and lifestyles with almost constant interruptions and distractions, rather optimistic about learning in the present and future.


Read: Learner-Centered Teaching

Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching is a bit of a disappointment. Praised as a “comprehensive introduction to the topic” with “up-to-date examples” I was expecting a more hands-on practical book: A book that may describe the author’s (and others’) experiences in as much detail necessary to learn from her success and, most importantly, failures. Yet, this detail is lacking.

The book can only serve as an appetizer to learner centered teaching, not a reference. Although, it really draws (the reader’s / my) interest to more progressive teaching methods, It offers too little detail to implement them right away. There is an extensive, rich list of references (that needs to be consulted for the hands-on advice), so Weimer’s book is not just representing her own opinion but is a summary of many others’ research and experience.

Maybe, if the appendices would have been (considerably) longer and detailed, the book could have been acting as a reference text. In its current form (and it’s already the second, revised edition) it is not more than a leaflet, an advertising brochure for progressive teaching methods.

Read: Make it Stick

I guess I will put Make it Stick on my students’ recommended reading list. It is rather brief (though it may even be shorter), includes extensive literature references, and illustrates the sometimes abstract research on effective learning strategies with real life examples.

The authors mention several times that they do not want to be prescriptive. Nevertheless, they are. And this is a good thing. Students, instructors, self-directed learners need concrete advice – even if not all of it will apply.

Of course, there is some wisdom that we all know all along, e. g., that the successful student is characterized by:

  • Always does the reading prior to a lecture
  • Anticipates test questions and their answers as he reads
  • Answers rhetorical questions in his head during lectures to test his retention of the reading
  • Reviews study guides, finds terms he can’t recall or doesn’t know, and relearns those terms
  • Copies bolded terms and their definitions into a reading notebook, making sure that he understands them
  • Takes the practice test that is provided online by his professor; from this he discovers which concepts he doesn’t know and makes a point to learn them
  • Reorganizes the course information into a study guide of his design
  • Writes out concepts that are detailed or important, posts them above his bed, and tests himself on them from time to time
  • Spaces out his review and practice over the duration of the course

Unfortunately, few (of my) students seem to ‘get’ this — even if they are told. Hence, I cannot point out these simple learning strategies often enough. On the other hand, there are institutional constraints, too, that we need to overcome in order to provide a better learning environment. Shorter, more frequent class sessions may be substantially better for the long term learning outcome than few long and exhausting sessions.

Read: How Learning Works

“Research based principles for smart teaching”: sounds great. The authors even start with a quote from Herbert Simon. And yes, the authors’ advice is research based.

The “bridge” between learning research and practice, however, is a rather superficial one. The research is mostly discussed in a way I would do it if the referee asks to add an additional reference. It’s mentioned without assessing its merits, its contribution, what was done well, and what was not. X found that in context Y, full stop.

Nevertheless, the advice seems sound, at least reasonable. Only one chapter seems a bit lopsided. “Student Development and Course Climate” is a bit too much “cuddle pedagogy”, advocating for a soft, making everyone feel comfortable approach. I, and I guess others too, think a little discomfort goes hand in hand with a necessary challenge. Without a little challenge students would not see that they can still improve, that there is more to learn.

The most helpful part of the book is, however, the appendix. Here are examples of rubrics, peer review question templates, learnings objectives, self-assessment tests, and an exam wrapper. Nothing original, yet, all apt to give inspiration for applying this and that in one’s own course.

Read: How to Read a Book

I believe you can get an idea on how to write well by reading. Not just by reading the “right” books that set an example, that provide you with a blue print for your own writing, but also by reading well.

Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book is a guide for reading well. Their main lessons are maybe to ask a certain set of question that your reading of a book, any text really, should answer and that every text deserves its own speed of reading. Some texts should be read carefully, slow, repeatedly. Other texts should be read fast, cursorily, or not at all.

The meat of the book covers analytical reading that should lead to answers to four crucial questions:

  1. What is book about as whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

and provides a set of 15 rules or recommendations that help in the process to discover the answers and judge the text. This is considerably more detailed than my own two guiding questions so far:

  1. What is this about?
  2. So what?

The book has a little bit too much meat, it tries to convince and justifies every little recommendation. This leads to some repetitions. (There were moments when I was reminded of Monty Python’s The Holy Hand Grenade.) Nevertheless I did not dare to skip any part. This is one of the books that deserve to be read well. (See http://sachachua.com for a nice visual summary and http://www. farnamstreetblog.com for a longer discussion of the book’s content.)

It deserves to be read well for some of the hidden gems that do not necessarily (only) relate to reading well. My attention was in particular caught by:

Discovery stands to instruction as learning without a teacher stands to learning through the help of one. In both cases, the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning and instruction passive. There is no inactive learning, just as there is no inactive reading.

This is so true, in fact, that a better way to make the distinction clear is to call instruction “aided discovery.”

Teachability is often confused with subservience. A person is wrongly thought to be teachable if he is passive and pliable. On the contrary, teachability is an extremely active virtue. No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgment- He can be trained, perhaps, but not taught.

Needless to say, How to Read a Book will make it onto my students’ reading list.