Connecting with Learning (and Learners): Six Principles That Guide My Teaching

01 May 2019 10:00 AM | Anonymous
By Jennifer A. McCabe, Ph.D., Goucher College

Last year, as part of my portfolio for promotion to Full Professor, I wrote a teaching philosophy statement. As this is required for nearly every teaching position in academia, this was not my first draft. In fact, I had written a solid statement for my tenure case just six years ago. At first I asked myself, did anything really change in that time? I soon realized that, in a way I could not articulate at earlier points in my career, I could now identify six core principles that guide every teaching-related decision I make. I hope that by sharing these principles I can encourage others to identify and develop their own set of guiding principles as higher education practitioners.


  1. Strategies for Durable Learning

My scholarship focuses on learning strategies that benefit long-term memory, and I have become more intentional about my responsibility to integrate these evidence-supported memory principles into the structure and delivery of my courses. Early in my career I was worried that some of these choices would be unpopular with students. It took more time and confidence in the classroom to commit fully.

Now I do so transparently and unapologetically. This includes the use of frequent, effortful, low-stakes, cumulative, spaced (distributed) retrieval practice (a.k.a. quizzes) - followed by discussion to encourage elaboration and connections - in all of my courses. It’s amazing how readily students get on board with these strategies even though they require more time and effort than traditional class practices.

2.              Interest-First Approach

Memory researchers also know about the self-reference effect, that we remember information more easily if it relates to ourselves. I enact this principle by adjusting the entry point to many topics and assignments, allowing student interest to be the guiding force. If they begin work on a complex topic using a question or a problem sparked by natural curiosity, I trust that deep and durable learning of the content will follow. I give students much more agency in their assignments and approach to learning than I did in my early years of teaching.

I also prioritize a narrative approach to course material - learning psychological science through stories. I assign popular press books and articles whenever possible to promote real-world applications of concepts, ensuring a connection between my students’ coursework and their lives. To further engage student interest, I make sure to include (and prioritize) interactive elements such as demonstrations and discussions during each class period.

3.              Integration and Connection

I intentionally structure my classes to encourage students to make meaningful connections, drawing on the principle of elaboration. Every day in class, I emphasize how current material links with past topics, and prompt them to continue this work in assignments outside of class.

For example, I ask students to connect various course topics at the end of the semester as part of a final exam take-home essay. They may identify connections between various aspects of the class with course themes, draw on course material in writing a narrative about each stage of cognition needed to play a game of their choosing, or write a story about how each component of memory would contribute to a day in a person’s life. I have also enjoyed the challenge of embracing college-wide Theme Semesters in my courses, including topics of Mindfulness and Storytelling.

4.              Authentic and Shared Learning

I strive to increase the types of activities and assignments that are situated in authentic real-world issues, and that are shared beyond a submission to the instructor. I have found that students are far more engaged—and submit higher-quality products—under these circumstances.

For example, sharing can happen among classmates in the form of each student reading a different article on a certain topic and then coming to class ready to teach (and learn from) peers in small group discussions. Or they may present mini-TED Talks, consisting of an engaging 5-minute oral presentation on a course-related topic of their choice. There is also great value in having students share their work in other settings, such as presenting at the college’s student symposium or creating resources on course topics for the public. Each semester my students in a seminar on Cognition, Teaching, and Learning complete a “Translational Project for a General Audience.” Formats include podcasts, infographics, videos, games, and one time even a children’s book. Several students who wrote posts in the style of The Learning Scientists blog were subsequently published on this site. Talk about sharing the authentic work of learning!

5.              Metacognitive Self-Reflection

My research program also focuses on metacognition, specifically the extent to which students know about and use effective strategies. This scholarly interest permeates all my courses with the goal that students learn about, and reflect on their own, learning. The main idea is to embrace desirable difficulties: learning strategies that are initially slower and harder, but produce more durable memories. Students experience in-class demonstrations showing the memory benefits of these strategies (e.g., spacing, elaboration, testing), followed by activities and assignments to encourage an examination of their own learning beliefs and misconceptions. Then they brainstorm the best ways to communicate this information to peers, and plan for how they will utilize these strategies.

Metacognitive development is also a natural side effect of frequent, low-stakes, cumulative quizzing. Testing is not only an effective learning strategy, it also provides metacognitive feedback about the state of one’s own knowledge. I encourage students to use testing for both purposes, knowing that the best way to avoid the fluency illusion (believing you have learned something because it seems familiar or easy) is to take a test that requires effortful retrieval from memory. Further, in classes with major tests, I administer a post-exam metacognitive debrief activity aimed to help students understand if they were overconfident, how they studied, the reason(s) they answered items incorrectly, and a preparation plan for the next exam.

6.              Transparent Course Design with Intentional Scaffolding

I have improved my communication with students regarding the goals and objectives in my courses, and the purpose behind how I structure the class and assess student learning. In other words, I think about course design in a more integrated way, connecting learning objectives to teaching strategies and assessments. I work to enhance the clarity and detail of my syllabi and assignment instructions, making them as purpose-driven and explicit as possible. To close the loop on this process, one of my favorite activities is to ask students on the last day of class to reflect on the course objectives, evaluating their progress, and identifying components of the course that helped them improve.

With regard to scaffolding, I remind myself that each of us is in a developing state of expertise (to borrow growth-mindset language). Some students in my class will need a lot of support and opportunities to get to the level of expertise I expect, and others will need less. The best remedy for this, in my opinion, is to offer early and frequent opportunities for formative feedback. Complex assignments can be broken down into scaffolded components, with feedback at every step. This approach leads to both higher-quality end products and a more positive learning experience for students. It is also a step toward a more inclusive classroom that allows for students of diverse backgrounds and abilities to grow.

A central theme that unites all of the above is something I express to my students early and often: I care about your learning. Learning, by definition, is about change. And I am committed to nurturing that growth in my students, as well as in myself as an ever-evolving practitioner. In this way, I can maintain high standards in my courses while helping students feel informed and supported in their efforts to achieve success. In turn, they can (and should) have high standards for me, including expectations of preparation, availability, clear and consistent communication, prompt feedback, authentic and enthusiastic engagement, and—maybe most importantly—ongoing efforts to improve. After all, teaching is about change too.

Jennifer A. McCabe is a Professor in the Center for Psychology at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she has taught since 2008. She just completed her 15th year of full-time teaching, having also taught at Marietta College in Ohio. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has taught courses including Introduction to Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Human Learning and Memory, Statistics, Research Methods, and Seminar in Cognition, Teaching, and Learning. She has won teaching excellence awards from Marietta College and Goucher College. Her research interests include memory strategies, metacognition, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. She has been published in Memory and Cognition, Teaching of Psychology, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, Instructional Science, Frontiers in Psychology, Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, and Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Supported by Instructional Resource Awards from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP), she has also published two online resources for psychology educators on the topics of mnemonics and memory-strategy demonstrations. She has served as a Consulting Editor for Teaching of Psychology, and is currently a Consultant-Collaborator for the Improve with Metacognition project.

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