Creating the Path to Success in the Classroom
reviewed by Kristi Santi - July 11, 2019
This book is highly accessible and should be a requirement for all students in doctorate programs who will be working in academia upon graduation. It is also a book that a provosts office should recommend for all faculty in a manner such as a summer reading series or as part of the hiring process. The practical approaches to teaching in face-to-face and online settings outlined in this book will be relevant to educators in colleges of education as well as preservice teachers. In each chapter, the author takes the reader through the research and then into the strategies that address specific areas of need for students who are underrepresented in the college classroom.
In the first chapter, Retention, Persistence, and Success: Clarifying the Challenge, the author sets the stage with a succinct summary of the research to clarify the need for a change in how faculty approach teaching and learning, regardless of the discipline. The author provides a clear description of each of the ensuing chapters, thus providing readers with the opportunity to move to whichever chapter may be most intriguing or relevant. From the perspective of someone who has been in the field of education for over 30 years, Chapter One effectively establishes the need to review some antiquated practices that need to be revised in light of current research.
In Chapter Two, Class Climate: Widening the Circle for a Diverse Student Body, Gabriel provides the reader with quick tips for ensuring that faculty members can connect with all students in the classroom. As part of the learning experience, students need to feel connected and be actively engaged during lessons. Through the use of her own experiences and vignettes, the author provides multiple ways in which students cultures and backgrounds can become part of the classroom climate. As a faculty member and a former teacher, this chapter was inspiring, especially given the changing demographics of U.S. students. The helpful reminder threaded throughout the chapter is: Because we have the power to create circumstances for student success in our classrooms, retention is one of our core responsibilities (p. 14). The world of academia must embrace this change and realize that many students who enter post-secondary education do not necessarily have family or community members who can help them navigate the system, the courses, or the demands of daily life as a college student.
When teachers are trained to work in the public school system, one sentiment often conveyed is: do not to smile until Christmas. While there is a bit of truth to this adage, it isnt necessarily a great way to cultivate a caring community within the classroom. The third chapter, The First Month of the Semester: Engage, Connect, and Commit, details ways in which professors can help students make connections between the real world and course materials. Research has shown (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014) that when students can attach new knowledge to their backgrounds, students perceive an increase in the relevance of course materials. Another aspect of teaching is understanding that it is helpful for students to read culturally relevant materials. As Gabriel points out, there is much research to show that this can be as simple as using ethnicity in mathematical or statistical problems or asking students to discuss how a concept might play out in their community.
Chapter Four, Motivation and Attitudes: Impact of Mindsets and Mental Toughness Attributes, focuses on the power of mindsets in college classrooms and how professors can help shift a students mindset. By using modeling techniques of metacognitive strategies when presenting a problem to the class, the professor has an excellent opportunity to show students how to think through a problem critically and what the thought process might look like if one were stuck at any point during the problem-solving process. The second concept Gabriel takes time to cover is mental toughness. This life skill is one that many students do not come to post-secondary settings understanding. It may take the form of students not asking questions because they think doing so makes them seem weak. They may not understand that attending office hours for additional assistance is a sign of strength and is welcomed by the majority of professors. These two skill sets, mindset and mental toughness, can be addressed by a professor during each class without additional preparation. For some professors, it is as simple as understanding the concept of the curse of knowledge (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014), wherein someone who has mastered a subject forgets how long it takes a novice to learn the materials.
Chapter Five, Interactive Lectures: Using Meaningful Educational Activities, provides professors with an opportunity to stop and reflect on current practices and the ways in which slight modifications to the delivery of materials can make a big impact on the motivation, retention, and grades of all students. The ah-ha moment when reading this chapter is a citation inserted by Gabriel after a review of the literature detailing how lectures do not help underrepresented minorities: Paul (2015) agrees that the continued use of a traditional straight lecture offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population (p. 64). Gabriel spends the remainder of the chapter discussing in detail the ways in which professors can create interactive lectures, foster accountability, incorporate Blooms taxonomy into discussions, and, most importantly, evaluate the pros and cons of the PowerPoint presentation for lectures.
A common debate among faculty concerns the use of reading materials in courses. Many professors make the assumption (a reflection of training) that required texts are those that students read in between class meeting times to supplement the lecture. However, students may perceive these readings to be voluntary if they are not explicitly covered in class in some manner. Chapter Six, Reading Assignments and Class Discussions: Stimulate Deeper Thinking, addresses these disconnects between professors and students, offering many simple solutions to help all learners understand the importance of course readings. Gabriel also helps professors think about the roadblocks to reading from a student perspective and how to address them before required readings are assigned.
Writing, a word associated with assignments that is becoming more dreaded by professors with each passing academic year, is thoughtfully covered in Chapter Seven, Writing Assignments: Promote Critical Thinking and Writing. In her quest to help professors work with students on this critical skill, she describes her goal to demonstrate how we can assign writing tasks in our courses in order to promote learning and engagement and also help students improve their writing skills and critical thinking (p. 95). The suggestions she provides throughout this chapter have the potential to directly impact the overall quality of academic work for underrepresented minorities. It is thus a great chapter for all in academia to read.
The final chapter, Resilience, Habits, and Persistence: Hold Fast and See It Through, nicely summarizes the considerations of many tasks in academia that will ultimately help an increasingly diverse student body. With a more than 25% increase in attendance over the past 20 years (p. 126), post-secondary education needs to reflect on past practices and incorporate the research-based strategies that are known to help all students succeed. The past practices of higher education are not altogether unworthy of todays populations, but they can be tailored to be more student-directed and thus more applicable to the increasingly diverse contemporary post-secondary student body.
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. London, England: Harvard University Press.