Increasing Student Learning By

Using Student Ideas, Using My Experiences as a Student and Teacher, Using Psychological Research Knowledge, and Using Experts’ Views.




Dr. Jim Bell, Professor of Psychology


Howard Community College




Each year some students wonder about the thinking that went into creating General Psychology, Social Psychology, or Logic and Critical Thinking.  This handout explains the thinking behind the basic structure of these courses.


If you have further questions, please come by to talk with me during an office hour or make an appointment.





These Courses Are Different!


By now you are aware that this course is very different from high school courses and most other college courses.  You have noticed that there are no closed book multiple choice tests, no research papers, no lectures, and no competition for grades.  You also have noticed there is emphasis on class attendance, active participation in small group discussions, short written assignments for each class which are guided by learning objectives and study guides, and mastery learning with quick feedback on your homework.  Cramming does not work and procrastination is not productive.


My role as a teacher is to provide an environment for you to learn in rather than just be an expert who tells you what he knows.  Your role involves being much more actively involved in your learning than in other classes.


Why Are These Courses Different?


There are 4 major reasons why this course is different:  (1) Use of student ideas, (2) Use of my experiences as a student and teacher, (3) Use of the ideas of experts, and (4) Use of psychological knowledge about learning.


(1) Use of student ideas.  In traditional education students sometimes are asked to record their reactions to the course at the end of the course.  Because these reactions are often stated in a general way, it is difficult to know exactly what to do to improve the course.


In my courses for the past 35 years I have regularly collected student reactions from all students to the class activities and homework.  Students comment on the first class, every three weeks, at midsemester, and twice toward the end of the course. 


Also, each semester between three and eight students serve as evaluators. They record their reactions to homework and class activities and also collect reactions from classmates.  Each week I discuss with the evaluators their reactions, the reaction of the class, and my reactions.  We then brainstorm ways to improve the course.  Each semester over 100 ideas are developed.  For example, I used to measure student learning through closed book tests.  After extensive class discussion, we decided to try using short written assignments instead of tests.  In evaluating this change, students reported they liked not having tests but found writing good answers took more time than memorizing.  They felt they were learning more useful information and retaining it better.


For a few years General Psychology students could choose to either write essays or take tests. Out of six hundred students, no one chose to take the tests. Consequently, I made the test taking option one of the “A” options in General Psychology and dropped tests from Social Psychology.


Another example is that students reported that writing an essay for each article was taking too much time.  We then came up with some short answer and multiple choice learning objectives in place of some of the essays.  We also worked to sequence the writing assignments from simple to complex.


An idea that we tried but dropped involved oral examinations.  Students reported very high anxiety when explaining course concepts to me.  For several years we had no individual explaining of concepts. In recent years, the Unit Reviews in General Psychology have been modified to include some explaining of concepts in small groups.  Students are allowed to have brief notes on their concepts during these discussions. Recently concepts were added to help students recall course concepts.


Only a few courses across the country actively collect and use student ideas.  The Nursing courses at Howard Community College are an example.  I have found that each week talking with evaluators has helped me to know what student reactions are and I have been pushed to be more creative in my solving of course problems.


(2) Use of my experience as a student and teacher.  As a student, I found that I learned quickly and long remembered those things which I found interesting and used several times.  I could recite for hours the smallest details about my favorite baseball players.  I could read a baseball story in half the time it took me to read assigned books in school.  My students agree that things they feel are important and they use, they remember.  Less important things which are not often used are quickly forgotten.


As a student, I found that my grades were sometimes the result of luck in that I had guessed what the professor felt was important.  I had a "B" at midterm in my freshman religion class.  I was determined to get an “A”.  I read and reread the textbook a total of six times. At that time I thought reading was studying.  I thought I was ready for anything.  Unfortunately, I was asked a question that came from the Table of Contents, which I had not studied.  I knew that I did not know the answer.  I started getting hot, and my palms got sweaty.  I looked around, expecting a miracle (it was a religion class where such things were discussed).  No miracle happened and I did not get an "A."  I am sure I would have gotten an "A" if I had known what to study.


I can tell you that almost all students will ask for specific objectives called learning objectives if they have ever had them in a course.  Consequently, I try to take all of the guesswork out of what to learn.


As a student, I found that most of my teachers thought students learned only from listening to lectures.  I found that I learned much better from books, films, discussions, and projects.  Students have told me that at the beginning of the course they were very used to lecture classes and thought they would have difficulty learning from discussions, films, and readings. My lecture comments are distributed in the handouts.  By the end of the course, less than 10% of the students feel there should be more lectures.  It is clear that students learn in a wide variety of ways, so a variety of approaches are used in this class.


As a student, I seemed to be either ahead of or just behind the class.  In math, I was the first one done while in German I was just about the slowest student who ever attempted to learn German.  Students have requested that most of the graded assignments be done outside of class, so that if more time is needed, they can put in more time.  By doing the homework out of class and open book, each student can decide how much time they need to put in.


As a student, I found I learned best those things I chose to learn.  When I think back about what I have learned, I remember the topics I selected and the special projects I was involved in.  I was forced to study Latin and German and I remember almost nothing.  In art, I had to memorize the names of the great paintings and painters.  I hope that you won't test me!  But even now, I can answer many questions about the Supreme Court of the United States.  In high school we had to read ten books during the semester. I started with the book, Nine Old Men, which was about the Supreme Court, and I found it fascinating.  In college, our debate team had to debate the topic: “Resolved that Congress should have the power by a two-thirds vote to overrule decisions of the Supreme Court.”  I spent a lot of time on that topic and still read almost everything in the newspapers and Newsweek on the Supreme Court.  In General Psychology, student evaluators help select the readings and topics.


As a teacher, I continue to learn.  Psychological knowledge is rapidly expanding.  New hypotheses are being supported and old psychological facts are reinterpreted. Educational experts continue to debate the importance of the various skills that should be taught in college. Researchers are doing increasingly useful work on how students learn.  In reflecting on how I learn, I learn best those things I find interesting, useful, and important.  I learn best when I know what I need to learn.  I learn best by being active rather than passive.  I work best when I set my own pace, and I have the necessary skills I need for being successful.  I learn best when I am able to decide what I feel that I should learn. Many students report similar observations.


As a teacher, I have learned from the experience of teaching. I have built into my courses opportunities for students to let me know what they are thinking.  However, I have found that the single most important thing that students learn I cannot teach.  It is the decision that they wish to become a self-directed learner, that they are to be in charge of their own education, that education is a process of change self which is for the learner, not for the teacher.


Because of the explosion of knowledge and the rapid pace of change in our society, it is no longer possible to take a course and then stop learning. The course information is not sufficient for future use.  Thus the desire to want to be a self-directed learner is extremely important.  The single most important thing to help a student who wishes to become a self-directed learner is for me to help them learn how to learn.  Learning to read critically, learning effective study skills, learning to communicate through talking and writing, learning to find information, and learning to think about information are some of the skills of learning to learn. Developing the skill of applying critical thinking to your own learning (self reflective assessment) is also very important.


(3) Use of the ideas of experts.  A large number of experts have been writing about the purpose of education and how to best educate students.  I have used my study of these sources to give over 100 workshops to full and part-time faculty.  Let me share with you a few writers who I think have gotten to the essentials.


“Effective education must involve the past, the present, and the future.  Too little of modern education properly prepares students to deal with the future.”(Author unknown)   Seif (1981, pp. 73-74) said the following: "It is not hard to reach the general conclusion that, in the United States, most schools do not educate students for today's and tomorrow's world.  The implications of a changing society and world are all around us, yet educational institutions have barely begun to address new issues, problems, and challenges.  Many students are still memorizing large amounts of information in a society where knowledge has exponentially exploded.  Trends in computer retrieval and home computers make it possible to pull together information for specific purposes, yet students continue to learn bits and pieces of trivial information, often useless to them and the society in which they will live.


“Schools are not preparing students to live in a complex society with job opportunities primarily related to service and information-oriented careers.  Complex issues require new, important skills, such as general thinking and problem solving skills. Yet little time is spent in helping students practice using these vital skills.  It is no wonder that many students and parents feel lost, bewildered.


“Factual knowledge can no longer be taught in and of itself, but must be used as a vehicle for focusing on fundamental, significant ideas and choices.


“Knowledge and ideas, however, are not enough.  Today’s lifelong learners need skills and attitudes that will enable them to continue learning through their lives.  The ability to communicate in many different ways -- through reading, writing, speaking, and effective use of language -- is even more critical in a service-oriented society.  Personal reflection and interpersonal skills are valuable in a society where psychological survival is difficult and personal relationships often confusing...


“But perhaps the most important, critical set of skills on which schools and educational institutions must focus are thinking skills.  Thinking comprises a particularly important need in a society with rapid change, many alternative futures, and numerous individual and collective choices and decisions.  Thinking enables students to continually confront issues and problems with skills that will aid them in developing new ideas, making sound choices, making better decisions, and understanding the world around them.  Thinking aids forever – ‘Give me a fish and I eat for a day, Teach me to fish, and I eat for a lifetime.”


What are some of the facts and trends that we should pay attention to in order to plan an effective environment for learning?


1.                     The rate at which new information is being produced is dramatically increasing.  “. . . 25% of all the people who ever lived are alive today; 90% of all the scientists who ever lived are alive today; the amount of technical information available doubles every 10 years; 50% of what we now know about chemistry has been learned since 1950; approximately one-hundred thousand journals are currently being published around the world in more than sixty languages. . .”  (McInnis, 1971, p. 49). 

                        “Today, the number of media-produced words available to Americans doubles roughly every decade.  Some 60,000 science journals are available now, and according to the National Science Foundation, there are 1000 key, especially significant articles published daily.”  (Matosky, 1985, p. 23).  “. . .a hundred books are published daily. . .”(Tompkins, 1982, p. 85).  “The student starting first grade this year will face double the current amount of knowledge by the time he reaches tenth grade, and four times as much by the time he finishes graduate school.”  (Borton, 1970, p. 69). (Since I found these quotes change has become more rapid.)


2.         Rapid technological changes are producing rapid changes in the types of jobs available and the requirements for ongoing jobs.  When you pay for a college education, what should you expect to get?  Should you get training so that you can move directly into a job?  Or should your education do more for you?  To train you for a job, it is essential that we know what is important to do well in that job, and that the job, will be there when you finish your education.


To expect a college education to primarily train you for a specific job is to expect both too much and too little.  The culprit is change.  Changes are taking place so fast in the job market that colleges can't keep their faculty up- to- date and have the latest equipment so that students can move right into doing a competent job.  Seyler (May 6, 1984) points out:  “In a world in which change is as certain as death and taxes and usually more rapid, schools cannot hope to train students for specific jobs.  All too often, equipment or techniques are obsolete before training is completed.  The minimum of three years needed to turn an idea into a textbook renders most technical manuals and other texts out of date before they reach the classroom.” Naisbitt, writing in Megatrends (1982), reports that “scientific and technical information now doubles about every 5½ years but will soon increase at a rate of 40% a year or, put another way, will double every 20 months.”  When we add to this the almost incomprehensible rate of change, the special needs and idiosyncrasies of particular businesses, and jobs of the future not yet imagined (space colony gardener?), educators must accept the uselessness, if not  the impossibility of, specific training for a specific career.”


Job training is moving toward a lifelong process.  U.S. News and World Report (May 9, 1983, p. A25) asserted that few workers will hold one job for life.  Most workers will be changing jobs every 10 years or so.  Training for the new jobs will continue throughout life.  Matthews (May 5, 1985, A13) summarized the results of 13,000 workers in blue-collar occupations.  “Of full-time 1979 employees in the study, 57% of men versus 55% of women had left their jobs within a year.”


A college education should be helping you prepare to handle an ever-changing job market and prepare you to deal with issues outside of your job.  Seyler (1984) comments: “Students who cannot read with understanding, write clearly, perform basic computation with ease, understand geometric and statistical relationships, know their culture, human history, and world geography and reason logically from facts to inferences or from principles to applications, will find themselves severely limited in job opportunities and in the quality of their adult lives. . .”


3.         Rapid change across society is one of the most significant factors of modern life.  What aspects of education help people to better deal with rapid change?


4.         Concern about the quality of education in the United States is widespread.  The National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) pulled together a number of facts in A Nation at Risk (1983, pp. 11-12) which indicated to them the decreasing quality of our nation's education.  The following paragraph is quoted:

Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation. The Department of the Navy, for example, reported to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth-grade level, the minimum needed to simply to understand written safety instructions.  Without remedial work they cannot even begin, much less complete, the sophisticated training essential in much of the modern military.”


5.         Feinberg (1985, p. A4) reported on a study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching which indicated that business is spending 40 billion dollars per year? “to fill the gaps left by inadequate schools and colleges...the proliferation of           remedial work in basic reading, writing and computation skills implies an indictment of the schools for graduating students who lack the fundamentals needed to perform well on almost any job...Beyond the basics, more and more companies are teaching analytical skills and critical thinking.”


6.         What behaviors are particularly irritating to U.S. employers?  A recent survey of 100 of the largest companies produced the following list with the most irritating behaviors at the top of the list. ("Getting the Boss's Goal--or the Door," The Washington Post, December 29, 1984, p.?).


           a.   Dishonesty and lying.

           b.   Irresponsibility, goofing off, and doing personal business on company time.

c.   Arrogance, ego problems and excessive aggressiveness.

d.   Absenteeism and tardiness.

e.   Failure to follow instructions or ignoring company policies.

f.    Whining and complaining.

g.   Absence of commitment, concern or dedication.

h.   Laziness and lack of motivation


7.         Homework has several important values:  (1) Time spent on homework increases the amount  learning time  (2) Students who are not able to learn as fast, can work longer at their own pace, outside of class.  (3) Students who don't learn well with the teaching methods used in the classroom can compensate through homework.  (4) Homework supports the development of self-discipline and good study habits (Strother, 1984, pp. 423-426).  Keith (1982, pp. 248-253) after careful research concluded:  “The implication of this and past research seems clear:  increased homework time results in higher achievement, as measured by grades, for all levels of ability.”  “National data suggests that American high school students average only four hours of homework weekly” (Walberg, 1984, p. 399).


8.         Rhetts (1983, p. 44) reported on a study of parents’ views on education in Howard County.  These parents reported that less than 38% of high school students averaged an hour of homework per night. 25% averaged less than half an hour.  14% of high school students watched less than half an hour of TV nightly while 50% watched more than an hour.  Over half of the parents felt that high schools were not challenging for students. In summary, experts have concluded that the quality of education in this country needs improving.


(4)  Use of psychological knowledge about learning.  What has been discovered on how students learn?  Here is what I found.


A.        LECTURES


When you walk into a college classroom, you expect that a large percentage of class time will be spent listening to lectures given by the instructor.  There are a lot of reasons why so much time is given devoted to lectures. Some psychologists have been doing research on lecturing.  What have they discovered about lectures?


1.         Can students learn college material without the help of lectures?  Taveggia (1976, p. 1028) concluded from a review of 350 research studies “That face-to-face teaching in the traditional sense of the term--is not even to be preferred over unsupervised independent study. Apparently, if college students are provided with definite goals toward which to work in the form of course content examinations, and if they are  also provided with appropriate study materials for attaining these goals, then the overwhelming bulk of empirical evidence suggests that conventional ‘face-to-face’ teaching will not make a difference in terms of student learning of course content materials.”  McKeachie (1978, p. 30) points out that “If rate of transmission of knowledge is important, a good book is hard to beat.  Not only can readers control their own rates, but motivated, skilled readers can transverse the printed page much more rapidly than even the fastest lecturer can deliver the material. Additional evidence comes from the studies on the PSI (Personalized System of Instruction) approach. Kulik, Kulik, and Cohen (1980) reviewed an innovation in college teaching and reported that the PSI approach which does not use lectures produced the most students learning.


2.         What percent of the time are students concentrating on the content during a lecture?  A study I saw several years ago indicated that only about 20% of the time were students listening to the lecturer.  For several years I have asked my students if they agree with that figure-they have generally agreed that 20% sounds correct.


3.         How much do students retain from lectures?  To learn something from listening students don't have to be concentrating every second.  McKeachie (1980, p. 29) reviewed the research on attention and remembering and found “that, typically, attention increases from the beginning of the lecture to ten minutes into the lectures and decreases after that point... after the lecture, students recalled 70% of the material covered in the first 10 minutes, and only 20% of the material covered in the last 10 minutes.”


4.         When is it appropriate to use lectures?  After reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the lecture method, Gage and Berliner (1979, p. 44) comment that "...the lecture method is suitable when (a) the basic purpose is to disseminate information, (b) the material is not available elsewhere, (c) the material must be organized and presented in a particular way for a specific group, (d) it is necessary to arouse interest in the subject, (e) the material need be remembered for only a short time."


5.         What knowledge should be taught to psychology students?  Here are some things to be considered:  (1) Only a small amount of psychological knowledge can be taught in one course.  (2) Some of the knowledge that students will need to use in future years has not yet been discovered, so it can't presently be taught.  (3) Some current knowledge will be shown to be incorrect.  (4) Some current knowledge will have fewer uses than presently anticipated. (5) Not all that is taught is learned.  (6) Most of what will be useful and is learned is quickly forgotten (West, 1966, p. 770).


6.         What besides knowledge should be taught?  (1) We need to help students understand that education is a life long undertaking and it is their responsibility.  (2) We need to help them learn the skills to be successful as self-directed learners.  (3) We need to help them learn to locate information, to be able to think about information, to be able to use it, and to be able to solve problems (Lewis, 1983, p. 10; Cross, 1984, p. 172;  Makosky, 1985, p. 23).




Mastery learning is the name given to the idea that learning from your errors is important.

There are different ways to state the results of these studies.  The most general statement is that mastery learning results in more learning than non-mastery courses.  One way to look at the overall results is to take a student who scores at the 50th percentile in a non-mastery course.  After completing a mastery course that student will have improved his standing up to the eightieth percentile.


On college level, the PSI (Personalized System of Instruction) approach uses mastery learning and has been extensively studied. The PSI system uses mastery learning, frequent checking of learning, printed study guides, specific objectives and no lectures. A review of 75 studies concluded that PSI students scored higher than students who received traditional instructing. In addition, PSI students rated their courses higher, enjoyed the courses more, learned more, put in more time, and had slightly more dropouts than students in conventional courses (Kulik, Kulik and Cohen, 1979, pp. 307-318).


“The literature suggests that PSI’s effectiveness comes from its emphasis on frequent testing of student performance, immediate feedback to students on their performance, and the requirement that students re-do work until evaluation shows that they have reached a high standard of performance.”  (Kulik, Kulik and Cohen, 1980, p. 204). 


Research on the impact of study guides is usually done along with PSI approach.  Miller and Weaver (1976, pp. 289-300) found that quiz scores were 30% or higher for those students who have used the study guides.


Taveggia (1976) also points out that PSI courses tend to be seen by students as more difficult than conventional courses and that more effort, time, and creativity are demanded from instructors who develop their own materials.


Research indicates that telling students specifically what they will be tested on results in increased learning (Lewis, 1981, pp. 27-29).


At times all of us put off until tomorrow things we should do today.  Learning involves a long-term goal, so that students often tempted are to put off studying. Student procrastination in PSI courses is decreased by setting deadlines and using a penalty if the deadlines are not met.


The Think-Pair-Share approach is useful in both early stages of learning and later application stages (Forsyth, 2003, p.106)




Pauk (1985, pp. 83-101) summarizes evidence on forgetting information from textbooks.

1.         “The great amount of forgetting information occurs rapidly, during the first day.

2.         Forgetting is still sizable during the first fourteen days.

3.         Forgetting slows down after two weeks, but again there is not much left to forget. . .”


“Remembering what you have heard is usually more difficult than remembering what you have read.  In reading you can slow down, pause, reflect, and even re-read.  But when listening, you usually hear material only once, and you have to take notes, mental or written, to retain it.”


What are some ways to improve remembering?  Pauk (1985) lists several.


1.                  “The Principle of Motivated Interest

Psychologists agree that to learn something thoroughly, you must have an interest in the material being studied. . .


2.         “The Principle of Selectivity

According to this principle, you have to pare the job of learning down to a manageable size.  To do this, you must decide which facts to master and which ones you can safely ignore. . .”  Or, the teacher can specify what is to be learned.


3.         “The Principle of Intention to Remember

Without an intention to remember, little worthwhile learning can take place. . .


4.         “The Principle of the Basic Background

Our understanding of what we learn, what we read, what we see, what we feel, and what we taste depends entirely upon what we already know--upon the knowledge and experience we have in our background. . .Many students make the mistake of thinking that the basic courses taken in their freshman years are a waste of time.  These courses create the background essential for all of their later courses. . .


5.         “The Principle of Meaningful Organization

There is no better method for remembering large masses of material than the personal organization that you impose on the material. . . If something does not make sense, it will not be remembered.


6.         “The Principle of Recitation

No principle is more important than recitation for transferring material from the short-term memory to the long-term memory.  Recitation means saying aloud the ideas that you want to remember . . . Recitation is far more effective than merely reading and re-reading for the following reasons:


a.         Since you know that you will stop to recite after reading each headed section within a chapter, you will be more motivated to understand.

b.         Recitation lets you know how you are doing.  A correct recitation is an immediate reward that helps motivation.

c.         Recitation strengthens the original memory trace, because your mind must actively think about the new material.

d.         The physical activity of thinking, pronouncing, and even hearing your own words involves not only your mind but also your body in the process of learning. When you read a textbook chapter containing many facts, names, and principles, 80% of the time should be spent in recitation, and only 20% in reading.


7.         “The Principle of Distributed Practice

In distributed practice, the student studies for relatively short periods broken up by rest intervals.  In massed practice, the student studies continually until the task is completed.


8.         “The Principle of Correcting Our Mistakes

Students learn to change their behavior to become more competent to handle future situations.  For a variety of reasons the first attempts at learning are not successful.  Learning from mistakes is an important type of learning (Perkinson, 1979, pp. 35-57).


9.         “The Principle of Feedback

Learning occurs more quickly when feedback is given.  In some cases, emphasizing what was done well is helpful.  In other cases, pointing out incomplete learning and/or errors is helpful.  Providing feedback to students increases learning (Herron, 1979, p. 93).




Several studies at Howard Community College indicate the importance of attending, being prepared for class, and actively participating in class. 


E.         STUDY TIME


Learning takes time. Cramming is a short cut learned in high school that produces little long term learning. Few college students spend enough time studying to retain and apply learning (Forsyth, 2003, p.191) (McKeachie, 1999, p.24).


The amount of time that students spend on courses outside of class has been hard to study.  Researchers have found that self-reports of study time are generally high.  Students earning lower grades in particular tend to overestimate their study time (Grant, Keenan and McAvoy, 1981, pp. 95-96). 


 Other studies have shown increased learning when the time available to study was increased (Grant, Keenan and McAvoy, 1981, p. 105).


The SQ3R study system (the middle parts of the KSQ3RO used in this course) has received research support for turning headings into questions, reciting information rather than just reading, and including review sessions (Grant, Keenan and McAvoy, 1981, p. 107).   Grant, Keenan and McAvoy (1981, p. 114) looked at frequent testing.  “From the standpoint of study behavior, the most interesting effects of frequent testing are the regular and consistent day-to-day patterns in studying rather than the irregular bursts of studying seen in less frequent testing.  Further research would be useful in clarifying exactly what it is about regular, consistent study which makes it more effective than irregular, sporadic study.”


A full-time high school student is in class about 30 hours per week and studies less than 5 hours weekly for homework.  A full-time college student is in class about 15 hours a week and can expect homework of 20 to 30 hours weekly.  Looking at individual classes in high school a semester class will meet about 80 hours with 20 hours of homework.  In college a single semester 3-credit class will meet for about 45 hours with 60 to 120 hours of homework.  In college, students spend less time directly with faculty and study on their own much more than in high school. Consequently, being motivated to  study out of class, having the skills to study effectively, and being able to effectively manage time are all more important for passing college courses than for passing high school courses.




Few students have had specific help with study skills. Forsyth, (2003, p. 191) reported that less than 20% had received help with study skills. Research is inconsistent on the value of     note taking from lectures and the value of some of the various skills involved in studying. Baker and Lombardi (1985, p. 28) report that “Among the many skills involved in academic success is the ability to take thorough and accurate lecture notes.  This skill, like so many others that support academic endeavors, is rarely explicitly taught in the traditional classroom. Students must develop their note-taking skills on their own, deciding for themselves how much and what kinds of information they should include. It would appear, however, that these efforts are often unsuccessful, as any instructor who has ever examined students' lectures notes can attest.”  “Studies of students note-taking have revealed that, in the absence of handouts, students take notes which at best record only about one-third of the content of the lecture and then in a scrappy and unfortunately not very usable form. 


Most students have not had formal training to develop their note taking and listening skills and do not have the ability to make a mental outline as they listen.  Instead, studies show, the usual practice is for students to merely record verbatim certain strings of the lecturer's words which they hope they can later reconstruct into structured and meaningful representation of the speaker's ideas.  Open-ended questionnaires, however, reveal that the student typically find their own notes of little benefit for later study and tend not to look at them again.”  (Lecturing Techniques, 1978, p. 2).


Armbruster and Anderson (1981) reviewed the research on study skills and came up with 3 major conclusions:  (1) “One conclusion is that any study technique can help if it enables students to process the right information in the right way. . .  The effectiveness of any study technique depends on how it is used and whether the way it is used matches the demands of the criterion task . . .  A second major conclusion from the research on study techniques is that students often have to be carefully trained to use a technique to advantage. . .  Finally, students cannot learn very much about studying by being taught how to study ‘in general.’  Studying is not a general process; each content areas has its own types of criterion tasks, texts, and preferred study strategies.  Content-area teachers are in the best position to take the skills necessary for each particular discipline.  Teachers also have a responsibility to teach study skills, rather than erroneously assuming that students already know how to study.”


In a study on lecture notes (Baker and Lombardi, 1985) found that almost all students copy down information from transparencies and the blackboard.  Only about 25% of other important information was taken down. Beginning student need help in taking notes (Forsyth 2003, p. 194)


G.        WRITING


Why is there an emphasis on out-of-class written assignments?  There are 3 major reasons. I previously measured how much students in General Psychology learned by giving tests which included multiple choice items, short answer items, and short essays.  In addition, a research paper or research project was also required.   I read more about how people learn, I talked with other teachers and I got feedback from my students, I changed the ways I measured learning in my courses to focus out of class writing.


Although there are many different specific ways to measure learning, these ways can be reduced to:  1) tests (objective tests -- multiple choice, matching, true-false, fill in the blank; subjective tests -- short answer, short essay, long essays), 2) written assignments (essays, research papers, other types of papers), 3) group discussion (measurement of the quantity and quality of group discussion), and  4) individual interviews (question and answer sessions with a more advanced student or the instructor or extended discussions with the instructor). I have tried all of these methods and presently use them in upper level psychology courses.


My preferences would be talk individually with you about what you have learned.  This method would be closed to how you will use what you are learning in this course after the course is over.  However, the size of the class and the necessity of doing assignments each class makes that approach difficult to use in this course.


Tests are relatively easy to make and grade. Tests to measure thinking are difficult to make.  Research papers take a lot of time to grade but that time is usually one period near the end of the course.  Grading short papers takes a lot of time.  However, students in previous classes have overwhelmingly requested that I use brief written assignment each class rather than tests or longer written assignments.  For several years I offered other alternatives and I never had any takers.  Consequently, I have been working to improve the written approach that was requested by the students. Besides high student interest in written work, there are two other lines of thought which have supported my decision to use written assignments:


One of the newer views on how people learn suggests that being active is extremely important in learning.  A summary of that viewpoint is contained in the book entitled Writing in the Arts and Sciences by Maimom and four other teachers (1981) “. . . to learn is to absorb new information into preexisting patterns of thought.  This new view stands in opposition to the older view that students, like robots, can learn just by sitting down and memorizing several chapters at a time.  We now believe that to learn new material, you must work with it, you must give it some kind of structure . . . What is essential is some active involvement with the material.  Writing about the material provides the active involvement (p. 18).


“In short, writing is one of the most important intellectual activities that you do in college, for writing is not simply a method of communicating what you know about a subject, it is an extremely useful tool for assisting you in a variety of academic tasks, from observation to argument” (p. 19).


Another line of thought has been the increasing desire of businesses in this country to have employees who can express themselves both orally and in writing.  A consensus has been building that education from the early years through college needs to stress writing and its importance.  Time (May 19, 1980) said:  “What is new is the national conviction that something must be done about writing, and the challenge of trying to spread writing skills widely throughout a society as diverse as the U.S.’s. . .  The fuss over writing skills means one thing at least:  students will write more.  And that fact alone is significant.”  Consequently, I require written assignments in all of my courses.  The result is that students are becoming better writers.




A considerable amount of research has been done on how we learn.  Probably the major finding coming out of research on student learning is that the best method for one student is not the best method for all others.  There is no one magical “best” method for all learning. However, research has established that certain methods are better to use for certain objectives than other methods.


1.         On Group Discussions:


a.          McKeachie, one of the most knowledgeable researchers on college teaching, summarized the research on group discussions in his book Teaching Tips:  A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher (1969) (the 2002 is the eleventh  edition – still the single most useful book for college teachers).


“Almost a half-century of research results indicate that the preferred method of teaching depends on one’s goals.  Effects shown on tests of factual knowledge are not consistent (discussions no better than lecture, than programmed instruction, etc.); but in studies that have measured problem-solving ability, attitudes, or motivation, the results favored the discussion method.”


McKeachie further says that group discussion is most useful “when the instructor wants to do the following:


1.         Use the resources of members of the group.

2.         Give students opportunities to formulate applications of principle.

3.         Get prompt feedback on how well objectives are being attained.

4.         Help students learn to think in terms of the subject matter by giving them practice in thinking.

5.         Help students learn to evaluate the logic of and evidence for their own and others' positions.

6.         Help students become aware of and to formulate problems which necessitate information to be gained from readings or lectures.

7.         Gain acceptance for information or theories counter to folklore or previous beliefs of students.

8.         Develop motivation for further learning.”  (1978, pp. 35-36)


b.         One of the most comprehensive educational psychology textbooks is Gage and Berliner’s Educational Psychology (1979), in which they discuss the objectives of group discussions:


“We believe that the discussion method is useful in fostering the ability to do critical thinking in the appraisal of ideas.  To achieve this objective, students must learn to support their opinions with reasoning based on facts, definitions, concepts and principles.  Another prime objective of the discussion method is to foster the student’s participation in discussions.  In an undemocratic committee, class, school, or nation the ability to ‘reason together’ is not essential.  But in democratic settings, skill in the free and rational examination of ideas is important.


“Such working together in groups requires skills that must be learned.  The discussion method seems especially suited for such learning.  The ability to listen to others, to evaluate their arguments, to formulate one's own views in the heat of give-and-take, to resist the influence of one's reasoning of personal likes and dislikes for others, to continue to focus on the problems at hand, despite emotional arguments and influences - - these skills require practice in discussion”(p. 478).


2.         On Student-Led Discussions:


Beach summarized the research on student-led discussions.  “Studies conducted by the author are reported in which small self-directed groups of college students (5 to 7 members) assumed the major responsibility for their learning in college courses.  Other similar studies are reported and summarized.  These studies all indicate that self-directed small group study does not result in any decrement in subject matter mastery in the college learning experience.  Furthermore, a number of measurable benefits appear in terms of other desirable outcomes as interest in reading materials related to the course and its assignments, quantity and quality of study invested in the courses, increased communicative and interpersonal skills, sense of responsibility for one's growth and learning, greater enthusiasm for the small-group experience, improvement in critical thinking, greater awareness of applications of study material, and lasting curiosity aroused by the learning, all appear persistently in favor of the self-directed student groups."  (Leslie Beach, Self-directed student groups and college learning.  Higher Education, 1974, 187-200).


Although you may not be familiar with student-led discussions, I have used them for over 35 years now and research supports my personal feelings about such groups.  Probably the most challenging task teachers have is that of helping students learn how to learn on their own.  Becoming able to direct one is own education is at the heart of the educational process.  In student-led discussions some of the customary dependence on the instructor is not possible, so that students themselves start learning how to take more responsibility for their own discussions.  In addition, there is more time for more students to participate actively.


3.         Reasons for the Use of Small Group Discussions In This Course


Why take a psychology or critical thinking course?  For that matter, why take any college course?  The major reason for taking college courses is to learn additional information and skills which will be useful in later life, both in a career and in everyday living.  All of us will be doing some reading in the future and some writing.  However, much more of our time will be spent listening and talking with others.  Group discussion is excellent preparation for the future because you are practicing the skills you will be using often in the future.  Listed below are some of the reasons I use group discussions in my courses.


a.         To provide you an opportunity to increase your understanding of what you have seen or read.

b.         To have you practice higher level cognitive skills, such as application, analysis, synthesis, and creativity.

c.         To practice the skill of critical evaluation.

d.         To have you evaluate your thinking and that of group members.

e.         To encourage you to participate in a trusting-learning environment.

f.          To practice leadership skills and become a productive group member.

g.         To develop skills in problem solving.

h.         To practice and gain confidence in oral expression.

i.          To experience cooperation and responsibility.

j.          To experience leading a discussion.

k.         To learn with less dependence on the instructor.





As a student in high school and college, most of my courses involved traditional instruction. Traditional instruction is still very common today.  These are the major characteristics of traditional instruction.


No specific objectives are given to guide student learning.  Students are not told what is to be learned.  Students are expected to attend class to listen to lectures and homework is to be read. Most HCC courses do use objectives.


Lectures are the main class activity.  Sometimes class is used for question/answer sessions, and sometimes for full class discussions (usually only a few students participate).  When I was a student, films and guest speakers were extremely rare. Videos are being used more recently.


Homework is reading from a textbook.  Studying from a textbook is also expected, but little help is given on how to study the textbook.


Grades are based on a few tests, primarily multiple choice.  Many courses I took had just a midterm exam and a final examination.  These tests required extensive memorization of the definitions and facts that I had figured out were the ones that the instructor would be asking about. Grades were not based on written work (some courses expected one research paper) or on thinking, just on memorizing.


The assignment of grades results from competition among class members.  A normal curve is used so that there are a few A’s and F’s, more B’s and D’s, and mainly C’s. Currently higher education and high schools have increased their awarding of A and B grades.


Students are mainly on their own to learn the course material.  Study guides, film guides, study questions, lectures written out, lecture notes or outlines, or practice test items are not often used.


Students are rarely asked for their input for improving the course until the end of the course. When I was a student, the use of student evaluations was rare.  Some traditional instructors now collect student evaluations at the end of the course.  How that information is used is unclear.


Mastery learning is rarely used.  In some classes the student never knows what was incorrect on tests, since the tests are not returned.  In most classes the tests are reviewed briefly, but there is no emphasis on correcting errors.  Consequently, at the end of the course different people have learned different ideas in the course.  Written work may be returned, but often after several weeks after the work was turned in.




1.         Specific learning objectives are used for all assignments.


2.         Homework involves writing answers to questions based on interesting articles.  Learning objectives are used and study guides help organize the learning.  Students prepare to see videos by reading a 1 to 2 page film guide.  Developing the skill of critical evaluative thinking is accomplished through two specially written booklets which use the ideas of programmed instruction.


3.         Class time is used to go the homework assignments, see videos of behaviors which would be hard to demonstrate in the classroom, listen to instructor answers to student questions, and participate in small group discussions (4 to 6 students, students lead their own groups).  Creativity and critical thinking exercises are also completed during class.


4.         Mastery learning is used for all written assignments which are done outside of class and are open book.  Mastery learning is not used for in class activities which are generally not graded and are preparation for homework.


5.         Grading is on the homework assignments which are sequenced from simple to complex to teach the skill of summarizing a full article.  Higher level thought objectives are assigned toward the end of the course.  Poor class attendance, turning in work late, and redoing many assignments lowers a student’s grade.  An “A” grade is earned by completing one of several possible projects.


6.         Student ideas are welcome and requested throughout the course.  Student evaluators meet weekly to help improve the course.


7.         Carl Rogers, a psychologist, in his book On Becoming A Person (1961, p. 276) commented about instructor centered teaching. “I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is a self-discovered, self-appropriated learning. Such self discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriate and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another.” It is essential that faculty move from being a sage on the stage to being a guide on the side (Forsyth, 2003, p. 87).


            8.         Students need to be taught the correct curriculum of higher education. Study skills  and learning to learn need to be explicitly taught. In addition, there needs to be increased focus on critical thinking, creative problem solution and analysis. Metacognitive thinking (thinking about think) also needs to be learned by students. Metacognitive thinking involves planning to learn self assessing current thinking, and reflective self critical thinking to improve learning (Dominowski, 2002, pp. 62-63).


9.         The first day is the most important day of the course. It is important to have a creative introduction to the course, have students start to get to know each other, assign the grading system and expectation for homework, get important data from students, give out course handouts, and have in writing all of the key information so that students who miss the first day can catch up. The second day there is a quiz over course expectations, feedback over the homework, and students sign a course contract.





If you have any questions about how or why this course is different, please drop by during an office hour to talk.  If you have reactions to the ideas in this handout that you would like to share, please drop by to talk.



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