Learning to Teach

Faculty members nationwide may hold doctorates, but that doesn’t necessarily make them great at sharing knowledge with a roomful of students. Here’s how Denison is making scholars better teachers.

When a couple of junior faculty members approached Frank Hassebrock a decade ago about reviving Teaching Matters, a monthly brown-bag forum through which professors can share classroom teaching methods, he thought it was a great idea. After all, Hassebrock, today an associate professor of psychology and the Charles and Nancy Brickman Distinguished Service Chair, helped launch the original group in 1990. Plus, as a cognitive psychologist, he had spent his career trying to understand thinking and reasoning, memory, and comprehension.

A few years later, Hassebrock and a group of colleagues began exploring what a teaching and learning center like those found at other colleges might look like at Denison. Now they know: This past fall, Hassebrock became the director of the College’s new Center for Learning and Teaching.

Drawing from research, the Center aims to arm faculty with scientifically grounded insights into how students learn best—insights that sometimes fly in the face of what many may believe. A 2013 Association for Psychological Science report, for example, explained why common strategies like all-night study sessions don’t actually work, and it offered more effective alternatives, like using small, frequent practice tests.

The idea behind the Center is to promote evidence-based approaches to learning, drawing upon research on problem-solving, memory, and cognition. “We help faculty learn about learning, and then we apply it,” says Hassebrock.

Located in the Doane Library atrium, the center coordinates long-standing programs like Teaching Matters and new ones like the Pedagogical Practice Projects initiative, which supports faculty who develop innovative practices such as using social media or adjusting courses midstream based on feedback.

It also assists younger professors, who might not have spent much time contemplating teaching while finishing their Ph.Ds. For instance, the Center offers a regular seminar for first-year faculty and another program that encourages less experienced teachers to observe their more seasoned associates and debrief with them.
Those kinds of experiences can simultaneously make the task of college teaching less daunting and give veteran educators fresh food for thought. But the primary goal is, and always will be, to help students.

“Ultimately,” says Hassebrock, “we’re doing this to ensure that students receive the most effective instruction possible.”

Published May 2016