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Q&A with Joshua Eyler on 'How Humans Learn'

Joshua Eyler answers questions about his new book, How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective Teaching.

November 19, 2018
 
 

I had an opportunity to read How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective Teaching pre-publication and knew I wanted to ask its author, Josh Eyler, more about its genesis and his view on teaching and learning. The book is a wonderful tool for reflection on one's own teaching practice, a way to catalog one's own values and how we put them into practice in the classroom and out.

In addition to being the author of How Humans Learn, Joshua Eyler is director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and adjunct associate professor of humanities at Rice UniversityWhen he's not doing that, you may find him on Twitter (@joshua_r_eyler) where he frequently shares additional insights about teaching and learning.

The Q&A was conducted over email. 

John Warner: I’m going to start with an unfair, or perhaps unanswerable question rooted in your book’s title: How much of how humans learn is explained by science?

Josh Eyler: This is definitely a fair question, and there’s a lot packed into it. If we think about learning as a biological phenomenon—where learning processes are rooted primarily in the brain—then science (biology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc.) can clearly explain quite a lot. But we are more than our brains, of course. As my colleague Robin Paige likes to say, we are also social beings in a social world. So if we shift things just a bit to think instead about the environments we design and cultivate to help maximize learning, then psychology and sociology are vital for understanding these elements as well. Crucially, though, the explanations we glean from scientific research should be paired with our own observations, which will undoubtedly help us to understand more about our students as *individual* learners—their strengths, preferences, and areas for improvement.

On the other hand, we might think about your question in terms of the kinds of strategies we use as teachers to help our students learn. In that case, the answer is much more complex. Science becomes one tool we can use alongside our own trial and error in the classroom, discussions with colleagues, knowledge about the educational background of students at our institution, and so much more. I do try to address this kind of nuance in the book.

JW: One of my frustrations with the “science of learning” is that to design experiments which have reasonable limits on the variables and can be quantitatively measured results in scenarios that seem divorced from the actual experience of learning. For example, one of the frequently cited studies about laptops in lectures involves students sitting and watching TED Talks and then taking a quiz, primarily about how much is recalled. That’s not a pedagogy that I think most of us would embrace, and yet the study is cited as a reason to ban laptops. How do you navigate these tensions in your work?

JE: I think it’s telling that you used scare quotes here, because the phrase “the science of learning” is a nebulous one that means a lot of different things to different people, and it’s often used as a gesture meant to invoke a kind of instant credibility that may or may not be warranted. I prefer to think about specifics—what is the question I am seeking to answer about learning and where can science help me develop answers to this question?

Ultimately, though, it seems like what you’re asking about here has to do with generalizability. How likely is it that the effects measured in a specific study will translate into our own classrooms? I don’t think there is any such thing as exact replication, because the experimental context is different from our own individual teaching situations. But we can gather evidence from these studies, and we can learn about approaches that we might want to try with our students. I think of educational research as the beginning of a dialogue, not the end of one.

As part of that dialogue, we should interrogate the findings of the papers we are reading. The study you reference above, for example, makes claims that can only be true if nonstop lecturing is the sole pedagogy used in classrooms. We know that this is not the case. The researchers don’t really address the possibility of teaching students strategies for taking meaningful notes regardless of the medium either. Thinking about issues like this helps us to assess whether or not we use a particular piece of research to inform our practices.

JW: What spurred the book. Did you have a vision or manifesto for what you wanted to do?

JE: When I first moved into the world of teaching and learning centers, I had a lot of questions about what kinds of strategies worked in different disciplines. The more I learned about these techniques, both through reading and through observations, the more I wanted to know *why* they worked. Why do some methods work well and others do not? I began to look high and low for the answers to this “why” question, but I kept finding “how” answers. There is a lot of wonderful scholarship out there on what works and how to implement it, but it turns out that we still have a lot more to discover about the ways in which human beings learn and the relationship between this knowledge and the teaching practices that are most effective. 

Roughly around the same time as I was beginning to ask these questions, I became a father. Watching my daughter Lucy explore and learn so much for the first time brought new questions to mind about the fundamental, and deeply ingrained, ways that we seek to understand the world.

JW: You are a scholar of medieval literature by training, and did the assistant professoring thing for awhile, but you’re now Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at a highly regarded university. Explain.

JE: I read Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do when I was finishing graduate school, and I decided at that moment that I eventually wanted to work in a teaching center. As I moved into a faculty role I tried to take as many opportunities as I could to prepare me for this work—I taught a range of different courses, sought out opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, worked in a variety of administrative roles, etc. After I was approved for tenure and promotion, I decided the time was right to make the leap to be involved with teaching and learning initiatives full time. I was fortunate that a job opened up at George Mason University. It was a good fit for me, and I learned a lot before I later moved to Rice for my current position. 

I do want to say, though, that giving up tenure was a very difficult decision to make, and I recognize that not everyone could do so. The benefits of this decision, though, have outweighed the costs, because I have been able to continue teaching and researching—the things I loved about being a faculty member—while at the same time working on a daily basis to highlight the importance of evidence-based teaching in higher education.

JW: In my experience, there’s a lot of faculty out there who would like to work on their teaching, but also speaking from experience, it can be daunting to look at the enormity of the task and know where to start. What are your recommendations? Also, what role can teaching centers play in that process, and how should faculty go about engaging with those teaching centers?

JE: Start small. Incremental changes are the key. It can be overwhelming to try and change everything all at once, and—honestly—this kind of massive overhaul may not really help students because they (and the instructor) will be trying to juggle too much at the same time. It is much more beneficial for students and more efficient for instructors to make a targeted, evidence-based change and then to tweak it as necessary before moving onto something else.

Whereas colleagues in our fields give us important insights on discipline-specific pedagogies, the folks who work in teaching centers have a lot of knowledge about teaching strategies that cut across disciplines, and they can recommend a wide variety of different approaches. Most teaching centers also have programming devoted to course and assignment design, two elements that are essential for effective teaching.

On the question of how to engage with teaching centers: we’re friendly, I promise! Just send us an email or give us a call. If faculty aren’t quite at the point where they want to dive into one-on-one consultations, then I recommend checking out a workshop or another kind of event just to see what their local teaching center is all about.

JW: What do you see in the future for teaching centers? Who should be staffing them? What relationship should they have with the larger faculty body? What influence do you think they’ll have on our institutions? Do we need to start offering PhD’s in higher education pedagogy? Have I asked too many questions?

JE: I’m biased, of course, but I think teaching centers have a major role to play on our campuses. Teaching centers have great potential to help advance the teaching missions of our colleges and universities, to improve student learning, to increase in retention and on-time graduation, and the list goes on. The success of teaching centers, though, depends on close collaboration with and connection to the faculty. It also helps when faculty see those of us who work in teaching centers as colleagues—teaching our own courses and doing our own scholarly work, for example. I also think it’s important that all of the work of a teaching center is grounded in research.

Buy How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective Teaching directly from West Virginia University Press at that link just back there.

 

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