Effective Teaching—A Road Trip with Dr. Todd Zakrajsek

Effective Teaching—A Road Trip with Dr. Todd Zakrajsek

By: Julia Daley

We’re doing something a little different with this month’s issue: we’re basing the entirety of it on evidence-based teaching and learning strategies. So, rather than focusing on a particular facet of the mind, the brain, or education, we’re instead taking a more holistic approach and looking at what techniques neuroscience and educational psychology research have shown are most effective in the classroom. Readers are in for a treat with an issue chock full of nitty-gritty teaching and learning tips that are backed by actual evidence and data.

Rather than going into tips and techniques myself—since this month’s authors do an amazing job of it already—I will instead focus on the major highlights from our DEEP video for May.

Clocking in at a bit over an hour, Dr. Todd Zakrajsek has crammed in a bunch of humor, neuroscience, and practical teaching tips into his workshop How Students Learn (2015). It’s a compelling combination, and if you’re nerdy, like me, just the single hour might not be long enough for you, so I’d recommend following up by watching two of his other talks: The New Science of Learning: How Research is Revolutionizing the Way We Teach (2015) and The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain (2014). They are both equally as enjoyable as the talk anchoring this issue (and it was a challenge deciding which of the three to go with for our DEEP video this month)!

Dr. Zakrajsek begins his workshop by connecting Equity Theory (best illustrated by this clip of monkeys and their reaction to unequal food rewards) with school grades. Zakrajsek talks about how almost our entire society is predicated on this idea that grades in school are important, and so it is natural that students would be very concerned about their grades in our classes and become quickly upset at any perceived inequities in the grades they receive. He argues that teachers have to convince students that learning is an important part of education too, but that this can be a difficult task for us.

After launching his talk with Equity Theory, Zakrajsek then moves on to talk about ice-breakers—or rather, what the research says about ice-breakers. (Un)Surprisingly, the data shows that most people don’t care for these activities at all. Fortunately (for those who actually like ice-breakers), there is evidence that they can be valued by students if the content of the ice-breaker activity is clearly tied to the course. He suggests that teachers should think of a concept they want to start the class with first, and then come up with an activity that can communicate that concept to students. He models this with a “valuable” ice-breaker of his own: “What is something you do really well, and what is something an average person wouldn’t know about that thing?” He uses this ice-breaker to connect participants to the ideas of learning and motivation: we tend to like the things we do well, and we are proactive learners when it comes to our hobbies (watching videos about our hobby, reading about our hobby, asking experts about our hobby, etc.). I’ve never been a particular fan of ice-breakers, which has always made planning them a challenge, but I found Zakrajsek’s advice to be a breath of fresh air.

He follows up with another fascinating activity involving US pennies. Let’s model it here: take a look at the diagram below and choose which US penny is the “real” penny. I failed abysmally at this activity, and so did most of Zakrajsek’s participants. Zakrajsek explains that he uses this activity with his (American) students to demonstrate how we can see something every day and not really know it. This means that repetition alone does not lead to profound learning, which may be why so many students struggle with learning by highlighting for rereading. As teachers, this means we need to find a way to make the necessary details of our content meaningful and salient to students, so their mental “penny” images become more nuanced and detailed.

Throughout his presentation, Zakrajsek practices what he preaches, and also pauses to dissect something he just did and why he did it, or to demonstrate how he would communicate something to his students. Of particular note was his analysis of his own body language and the research behind how body language, eye contact, and movement can grab students’ attention and encourage participation. He explains how a teacher can get up and move around the classroom to engage students, connecting this to the research on attention that shows that our brains pay more attention to things in motion rather than stationary ones. Even when standing behind a podium, Zakrajsek notes that how a teacher stands can affect the tone of the class: hunched-over lecturers are quickly going to bore students, but lecturers standing tall, making eye contact, and gesticulating are better able to generate student interest in the learning material.

Zakrajsek says that the biggest challenge in teaching is knowing how to share the right amount of information with students. He reiterates this idea of a “fine line” between boredom and frustration and that, as teachers, we must “straddle the line”—move too slowly, and students become bored; but move too quickly, and they become frustrated. The gap between frustration and boredom can vary from student to student and day by day, depending on external factors like a student’s mood or lack of sleep. He compares teachers to road sign designers, using humorous examples of confusing and contradictory road signs to illustrate his point. If we imagine students as drivers, our job as teachers is to guide them down the road they need to take to not only succeed in our course, but also for their educational and professional futures, and we do this with road signs that are salient, noticeable, and consistent.

So, buckle up and drive on down into the rest of this issue. It is full of an assortment of practical, evidence-based techniques for you to discover and apply not only to your classrooms, but also to your own learning! And I cannot recommend enough sparing some time to watch Zakrajsek’s videos–they’re a humorous and scientific source of teaching inspiration.

Julia Daley is a lecturer at Hiroshima Bunkyo University, where she teaches English conversation and writing. She earned her MA in TESL at Northern Arizona University and is certified to teach secondary English in Arizona. Julia enjoys learning about neuroscience and finding ways to apply the research to her classrooms. She appreciates everyone’s patience as she’s been learning how to build a website.

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