Practices that Promote Equity in Basic Skills in California Community Colleges

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Brain Research

The ASCCC Basic Skills Handbook, Constructing a Framework for Success: A Holistic Approach to Basic Skills (2010) chapter 5, describes teaching and service formats that address learning styles, delivery methods, student metacognition8, and other kinds of practices that promote student success based upon brain research and learning theory that are aspects of UDL. Findings from the National Research Council and other sources verify the importance of learning theory and neuroscience in successful learning.

Until quite recently, understanding the mind—and the thinking and learning that the mind makes possible—has remained an elusive quest, in part because of a lack of powerful research tools. Today, the world is in the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of scientific work on the mind and brain, on the processes of thinking and learning, on the neural processes that occur during thought and learning, and on the development of competence. The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three or four decades has important implications for education…a new theory of learning is coming into focus that leads to very different approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment than those found in schools today. Equally important, the growth of interdisciplinary inquiries and new kinds of scientific collaborations have begun to make the path from basic research to educational practice somewhat more visible. (NRC, 1999, p.3)

Many faculty have heard that students retain information longer and learn it better when there are interactive teaching and learning activities involved. Brain research and neuroscience provide many examples of the importance of active learning in promoting student success, particularly where students both consider their own learning styles and interact with the faculty and class members on the content and application of the learning material (Handelsman, 2008; NCR, 1999; Zull, 2003). And yet year after year the nationwide community college survey of student engagement (CSSE) indicates that the majority of faculty spend the majority of their teaching delivery in lecture mode (CCSSE, 2007).

When students are actively involved in their own learning, they are better able to organize information and retrieve it, resulting in long term learning and application to real world situations. Appendix M includes a list of faculty resources for active and cooperative learning. A useful visual of active learning was created by the National Training Laboratory (NTL) of Bethel, Massachusetts. Figure 3 replicates the NTL learning pyramid, based upon their experience and learning retention (Wood, 2004, p.4). There are no data associated with this pyramid, and the percentages are too simplistic to represent research-based data, but the concepts are a good tool to gauge the pay back on the class activities and teaching strategies. Experimentation by neuroscientists supports the general effectiveness of each level of the pyramid and validates the importance of increasingly active and engaging learning experiences because they involve neural activity in more functional areas of the brain.

In an interview, the National Training Lab described the development and use of this pyramid based upon their experience. They determined that course material delivered primarily through lecture formats provides a very small percentage of return in long-term learning retention, whereas they saw an increasing retention of information when more active learning formats were used. Active learning involves more than question and answer periods or discussion, the most effective learning retention occurring when the students became the teachers requiring mastery of the material.

Figure 3 Retention of Learning Associated with Various Teaching Methodologies

As students consider and take responsibility for their own learning, they can help us as we try to modify our teaching to be more effective by providing feedback. Recent learning research has re-emphasized the significance of students taking responsibility for their own learning, because self-monitored learning prompts and improves student metacognition. Zull (2003) advocated that students’ knowledge about their own learning was the most significant force in improving learning (p. 239-240). The National Resource Council (NRC) described metacognition as one of the top three strategies that produce usable in-depth learning. The NRC emphasizes the importance of incorporating self-learning skills into the curriculum in order to actively target student metacognition and profoundly influence learning outcomes (as cited by Pelligrino, Chudowsky & Glaser, 2003, p 4). Activities on student metacognition are most effective when used in the context of discipline classes. While Academic Development departments may address particular strategies, student metacognition is so important to success for all students in all courses or activities that it should be addressed in every venue to increase knowledge transfer (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 18–19).

There are several free and engaging sites that students can use to explore their own learning styles and preferences. Directing students to these websites at the beginning of a class or counseling session signals an individualized engagement where both the practitioner and student are active participants regardless of the cultural differences.

  • VARK -

  • Solomon and Felder Learning Style Index

  • Marsha Conner’s Learning Style Assessment

  • Mencke and Hartman – Learning Style Assessment

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