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The Craft of College Teaching: A Practical Guide

reviewed by Doreen M. Keller - November 16, 2020

coverTitle: The Craft of College Teaching: A Practical Guide
Author(s): Robert DiYanni & Anton Borst
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691183791, Pages: 232, Year: 2020
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Robert DiYanni and Anton Borst’s text is grounded in both contemporary and seminal writings on teaching, motivation, the brain, curiosity, inclusion, and much more. In the first paragraphs of each chapter, there is a hook establishing its importance and an “in this chapter” preview that offers the reader a glimpse of what’s coming. The applications section at the end of each chapter offers a set of questions that pose ways for college instructors to apply specific principles or strategies to their own courses. The interludes at the end of each chapter offer more detailed illustrations of a concept closely connected to the chapter. For example, Chapter Three’s (Making Learning Last) interlude focuses on the keys to effective and powerful instructor explanations while Chapter Seven’s (Teaching and Technology) interlude is about the importance for all instructors to pay attention to and have conversations with students about being critical consumers of what they find online. The book’s appendix, “A College Teaching Survival Kit” offers 12 pages of compiled resources, including templates, suggested reading, and even sample grading rubrics. The appendix also has comprehensive lists of the teaching strategies and tips in the book, including everything from course design considerations to discussion practices to Power Point slide tips to student questioning ideas.  

Chapter One, “Motivating Student Learning,” draws from many books on related subjects and synthesizes those reads. One nugget, being mindful of the “Goldilocks Zone” (p. 14) wherein we design instruction and problems where students are able to “succeed but not without some struggle,” offers important advice. The chapter examines eight approaches to motivate students, such as demonstrating care; providing thoughtful, timely, positive, and critical feedback; and embracing and publicizing our own experience with failure. Throughout the discussion of these eight approaches is a thread of the importance of asking the right kinds of questions of our students at the right times. Multiple examples are given.

Chapter Two, “Course, Syllabus, and Lesson Design.” is arguably the most practical and imperative chapter of the book for new professors, especially those with no training or experience in pedagogy. The course design advice is grounded in Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (UbD) framework for instructional design. To readers familiar with UbD, it gives pause that the authors transpose steps two and three of the process. Wiggins and McTighe (1998) purposefully situate the second step of their process, “determine acceptable evidence,” after the first, “identify desired results,” and before the last step, “plan learning activities and instruction,” to avoid the “twin sins of planning and teaching”; namely, the sin of “activity-oriented teaching” and the sin of focusing on “coverage” of vast amounts of material (McTighe, 2010, p. 276). The authors here represent UbD with the second and third steps swapped, leading the curriculum designer to potentially commit the sin of planning the activity before determining specific assessment evidence. This will be a nuanced slip that most new college instructors reading the book will never notice, but it does misrepresent the heart of the UbD message.

The conversation about how to thoughtfully construct a syllabus is comprehensive and helpful in this chapter. While it gives a laundry list of items that all syllabi should contain (and that hopefully university administration would also share with their faculty), it also issues a challenge to instructors to think about how their syllabus portrays them – their teaching “persona” – to students. The authors liken the syllabus, a living document, to a contract, map, blueprint, journey, invitation, as well as an “opportunity to sell your course” (p. 31).

The authors offer a great discussion in Chapter Three, “Active Learning,” about the what, why, and how of a college course experience that goes well beyond the traditional and passive, yet omnipresent, lecture. It challenges instructors even in large lecture halls to incorporate active learning into their instruction. This chapter contains great scripted activities the reader can adapt while also including tips to increase student (and parent) buy-in. Links to job readiness research and a detailed description of nine techniques (exit tickets, minute paper, think-pair-share) give the reader the impetus and tools to adapt their courses. Chapter Four, “Making Learning Last,” builds on the active learning discussion by subtly making the point that college students need instruction and modeling about how to be good students; namely, how to take notes, interact with, and study course material. The authors intimate that all college instructors have a role to play in helping to make learning last for their students. Chapter Five, “Discussion-Based Teaching,” builds on this idea of lasting learning and is rooted in the idea that students construct their knowledge through verbal processing and interacting with others. Many practical tips can help any instructor who wants to try incorporating more discussion as “one of the richest means of formative assessment” we have (p. 82). A clear, comprehensive, and urgent wake-up call for better Power Point design is offered in Chapter Six, while Chapter Seven’s discussion, “Teaching and Technology,” could easily be developed into a much-needed text in and of itself due to the rapid and almost complete pivot to remote instruction in 2020.

Chapter Eight focuses on the definition of, types of, and considerations for experiential learning. The writers stress the importance of reflection and constructive and timely feedback as crucial elements. They offer brief definitions of six different types of experiential learning, focusing a more in-depth conversation on service learning. Writing is the topic of Chapter Nine. It begins with reasons why writing is critical for learning and includes a discussion about how writing allows our students to take ownership of their learning and develop a sense of agency. The chapter is presented in three main sections: writing about reading, the writing process, and impediments to writing. The writing about reading section is particularly detailed and makes a case for providing many scaffolded opportunities wherein our students interact with assigned texts. Annotating, questioning, taking and making notes, free writing, and evaluative writing are all explored in this section. Several practical suggestions are offered as part of the discussion about the writing process. The authors suggest “demystifying the writing process” for our students, coaching them to think that our written pieces are never really finished, only “abandoned,” and that reading their “final” drafts aloud will enable the “ear [to] catch what the eye overlooks” (p. 176). The authors offer many practical applications with respect to how to get our college students to practice critical thinking in Chapter Ten. They offer specific examples of critical thinking about situations, images, and literature. A three-step critical thinking analytical framework – observing, connecting, and inferring – is offered. There is an interesting conversation about Richard Nisbett’s ideas around dialectical thinking, and the chapter concludes by describing many “biases and bad habits,” such as confirmation bias and unconscious bias, that get in the way of us thinking critically.

The final chapter of the book, “Assessment and Grading,” begins by distinguishing between grading, which the authors identify as evaluating performance against a standard using a rubric, and assessment, which the authors identify as “evaluating students’ proficiency in and progress toward completing a task” (p. 199). The discussion about grading follows as the authors outline preliminary considerations; why we grade, how we grade, grading challenges, grading criteria, and grading rubrics. The chapter concludes by offering ways to think about grading in broader terms. One example notes that it may be valuable for instructors to “intervene less often to evaluate student work and more often to demonstrate an interest in it” (p. 211). The organizational structure of the book is intuitive, clear, and not verbose. Information is presented in manageable, engaging, relevant, and useful chunks. This text offers an easily consumable and invaluable primer for all new college instructors and some great reminders for those of us who have been at it a while.


McTighe, J. (2010). Understanding by design and instruction. In R. J. Marzano (Ed.), On excellence in teaching (pp. 271–299). Solution Tree.

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (1998). Understanding by design. ASCD.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 16, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23513, Date Accessed: 11/30/2020 9:54:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Doreen Keller
    Whitworth University
    E-mail Author
    DOREEN M. KELLER, Ed.D., is an associate professor and the secondary education coordinator for the Master in Teaching program at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. After teaching high school English Language Arts for eleven years, she transitioned to higher education and joined the Whitworth faculty in 2013. Her research interests include culturally responsive pedagogy, edTPA preparedness, and place-based education.
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