URBANA – University faculty members have extensive training in their own disciplines but often no formal education in teaching when they first stand in front of a classroom of students.
"It's a really scary proposition for most people," said Cleo D'Arcy, a University of Illinois crop sciences professor.
A few hundred UI faculty learned more about teaching methods Friday at a retreat on active learning. They were told the best teachers don't just give their students answers, they raise questions. They talked about answering important questions rather than assignments and what it means to learn about a subject and solve the issues it raises rather than focusing on grades.
Most importantly, great teachers understand how students learn, said Ken Bain, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University and the keynote speaker at the retreat.
Bain has founded teaching centers at three universities and is the author of the book, "What the Best College Teachers Do," which won the 2004 Virginia and Warren Stone Prize for outstanding book on education and society.
Great teachers, he said, "understand that human beings do not absorb knowledge. We can't pour it in a student's ear. Knowledge is constructed."
In other words, he said, people learn by taking what they already know about the way the world works and using it as a framework for new ideas. But often, professors want their students to throw out the way they think and look at issues from a new perspective.
"That isn't a natural process," he said.
For example, two physicists from Arizona State University who taught an introductory physics class measured their students' understanding of motion before and after they took the course. They found virtually no change in the way the students thought about motion, and any changes had no correlation to the grades they received.
"A students and C students were just as likely or unlikely to change the way they thought," Bain said. "How can someone make an A in an introductory physics course and still perceive motion" inaccurately?
The answer, he said, is that the students took the knowledge from the course and made it fit their pre-existing notions of physical principles. Teachers need to find ways to challenge their students' assumptions. Just telling them the "truth" or the right answers won't work, he said.
D'Arcy breaks down her students' assumptions on the safety of natural versus synthetic products by having them write about topics such as herbal medicines or pesticides. They find through their research that herbal products aren't regulated for safety, while pesticides are heavily regulated.
"It's much more effective for them to learn it through their own research and writing," she said.
Students must also "care enough to stop and grapple and say, 'I've got to sit down and think this thing through,'" Bain said.
How do you motivate students to care about what is being taught? Start with them, rather than the material, he said. Asking them to discuss provocative questions – for example, a teacher of a political discourse class might ask, "What is justice?" – builds excitement and curiosity before they plunge into the specifics of the material.
D'Arcy said the retreat and a UI reading group that discussed Bain's book let faculty share ideas about teaching styles and problem-solving.
The reading group "gave us a reason to get together and talk about teaching," said her colleague, Darin Eastburn, also a crop sciences professor. Discussing teaching "isn't what most faculty do, even though it's a major part of our jobs. We're just expected to know it."
D'Arcy and Gail Hawisher, an English professor and director of the Center for Writing Studies, are the two Distinguished Teacher/Scholars at the UI this year. The recognition goes to outstanding faculty members who play a role in enhancing teaching on campus.