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Ideas That Work in College Teaching

reviewed by Jan Allen - June 30, 2008

coverTitle: Ideas That Work in College Teaching
Author(s): Robert L. Badger
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791472191, Pages: 172, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Robert Badger, chair and professor of geology at the State University of New York Potsdam, gathered essays from colleagues representing different disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and life and physical sciences for this edited volume, Ideas that Work in College Teaching. The contributors all teach, or taught, at SUNY Potsdam, a liberal arts school with over 3,500 undergraduates and almost 700 master’s students, so the experiences they describe make the book most useful for instructors at similar schools. But their ideas are easily adapted for teaching in many other higher education environments. And most readers will discover an appreciation, maybe even a longing, for the sense of community and conversations created among teaching colleagues reflected in the collaborative effort to share teaching ideas beyond their campus to the wider teaching community. Certainly we can value the process of thoughtful reflection that allows good teachers to also produce good writing about their instruction.

This is an essential volume for campus teaching and learning center directors and faculty others who work across disciplines and departments. But I wondered how a faculty member or TA in any one department would use a volume written by faculty in 15 different disciplines, ranging from computer science to geology to psychology. So my goal was to get at least one useful idea from each chapter in the book to use or adapt for teaching my own courses in developmental child psychology.

I met my goal. Joel Foisey, in “There is No Such Thing as a Dumb Student, But Can I Help Them Do Better?” describes a mock trial in which his mathematics students form defense, prosecution, and media teams for a fictitious student accused of murdering her professor. Student teams use Newton’s Law of Cooling to argue time of death. Foisey reminds us that no one teaching method or project will be effective for all learners: “Any given class is really many different classes – one for each student involved” (p. 8).

The volume’s editor, Robert Badger, in his essay “You Can Teach a Rock New Tricks,” recalls the professor in his undergraduate economics class assigning letters to a fictitious uncle: “In your last letter you asked about the World Bank. Let me try to explain….” So Badger uses this third-person writing assignment in his geology class: Your Uncle Ralph…the geologist…doesn’t have any kids of his own…so he’s paying your way to college. His only stipulation is that you take a geology course. That’s this course.” Instead of lab reports, written for an audience of one, the instructor, students write to someone not in the class and “usually do a much better job of describing, which leads to better interpretation, and hence better comprehension” (p.60).  For another assignment, after students collect field data on aquatic organism diversity, water quality, and food supply, they write their report, not as a scientific paper, but as if they were professional river guides preparing a report of relevant data for a rafting company.

In the chapter, “Play to Learn,” Walter Conley reviews research supporting the role of play – simulations, card and board games, puzzle problems and conundrums, Jeopardy and Bingo formats – to enhance classroom learning.  He also describes his own experience with online assignments, student designed experiments, wet labs and games in a biology for non-majors class. He details an example of play as the method for student engagement in active learning to teach “energy transfer among organisms, photosynthesis, and food webs” (p. 148). In various acts (Act One: The Light Dependent Reactions, Act Two: The Light-Independent Reactions) and scenes (Scene One: The Source of Carbon, Scene Two: The Calvin Cycle), he asks his students to develop dialogue by functional groups based on the photosynthesis process. The instructor provides props and questions that must be explained through the actors’ dialogue using the course text and instructor-provided web resources. Conley’s instructions to the students include, “Photosystem II: Dress in green. Practice being excited when light shines on the chloroplast.”  For students playing the role of water, “This group will be provided with squirt guns. Watch out, chloroplasts!” For those playing the role of sunlight, “This group will be provided with flashlights. The concept here is a difficult one.” And for students in the First Electron Transport Chain, “This group will be provided with small balls that represent the electrons that will be transported from the back of the room to the front. A member from your group must act as the primary electron acceptor. Three other members will represent ATP molecules” (pp. 152-153). Acknowledging that there are mixed responses to such play in the classroom—from scholars and occasionally students—he does remind us that students learn best when they are active, engaged, and enthusiastic.

Liliana Trevizan, who teaches both a senior Spanish seminar and an introductory women’s studies course, writes in “Border Crossing in the North Country: An Academic Story,” about her use of the fishbowl technique to encourage class discussion and her use of a democratic forum to encourage critical thinking. Peter Brouwer, in “Group Projects in Computer Science,” writes about his use of semester-long team programming projects, detailing how to form teams and have students evaluate their peers’ contributions to the project, two of the challenges in using group projects. Caroline Downing, in “Combining Art Studio and Art History to Engage Today’s Students,” writes about giving students the choice to create a painting using principles in either the Romantic or Asian traditions. Now art is about as far from my discipline – and certainly my skill set – as it can get. But this essay prompts me to consider asking my students to write a class paper on children and media using the philosophy and theories of Paiget or Vygotsky or Skinner.

And on and on through the remaining essays, each chapter offered suggestions for engagement of students with course content and each other. Readers may have the same reaction that the volume’s editor describes in the book’s preface, where he writes about Larry Brehm, physics professor and author of a wonderful and ranging essay, “At Home in the Universe,” who suggests not creating homework before the class but instead e-mailing or electronically posting assignments after the lecture and discussion so that the homework is directly related to that day’s class content and student questions. Badger responded, “Why didn’t I think of this?” Well, likely we all could have. But we’re saved the effort because these teachers have shared their very good suggestions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 30, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15298, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 10:46:55 AM

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About the Author
  • Jan Allen
    Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    JAN ALLEN, Columbia University, is associate dean for PhD Programs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. From 2006 to 2008 she was also acting director of the GSAS Teaching Center at Columbia.
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