Book Review: Saundra Yancy McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn

By Timothy CochranTeach Students How to Learn

As the title suggests Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (Sterling: Stylus, 2015) is filled with tools for helping students become aware of the “learning process” (2). To increase competency, confidence, and a desire to learn, McGuire offers a menu of techniques that are exceptionally simple, practical, and direct, which she invites us to make explicit in the classroom. For example, she suggests:

● Teaching students to become conscious of their “level of learning” on Bloom’s taxonomy (37).

● Teaching students to recognize the “difference between studying and learning” (31) and to grow in knowledge by not only completing homework and taking notes but also by attempting to teach course material to peers (or, if that produces anxiety, to a stuffed animal) (33, 55).

● Teaching students explicitly how to develop a “study cycle” of previewing a text (i.e., orienting oneself in the text by briefly looking over subheadings, bolded words, first sentences, etc. (46)) before reading, going to class, reviewing notes immediately, completing short review sessions each day, then reflecting on the effectiveness of these learning techniques and identifying needs (39).

● Teaching students how to adopt a “growth mindset” rather than assuming that “intelligence is static” (62).

Although the book can be repetitive and self-congratulatory in tone and the examples come primarily from the sciences, many of the principles can be adapted to a range of circumstances without requiring an entire shift in pedagogical philosophy. I have not adopted McGuire’s method as a whole, but I have tried a number of her approaches including asking students in Music History II last spring to articulate the distinction between studying and learning (31) and to commit to trying out two approaches during the term (see p. 132); I collated and distributed the anonymous answers for reinforcement. Aspects of the study cycle have been highlighted in my classes from time to time as well.

I came to McGuire’s volume through the Pedagogy Book Club at my institution (Eastern Connecticut State University). This group, founded two years ago, brings together new and continuing faculty who all read a book prior to the beginning of a semester and then gather for discussion.

Although I have found reading books like this about pedagogy to be useful, the book club itself has been the most valuable part of the experience. My discussion table for McGuire’s book featured a wide range of responses, from those who saw it as salvation for helping students succeed in traditionally difficult courses (mostly in the sciences) to those who questioned the book’s cure-all presentation and frequent recourse to test scores in success stories as markers of deep learning. It occurs to me that a pedagogy book club is not really about the book so much as the chance to wrestle with ideas and the tensions they create within our pedagogies in a community of diverse perspectives on teaching and learning. We need these kinds of interdisciplinary forums to help us become aware of, evaluate, and expand the tools in our music-pedagogical toolboxes.

Book Review: Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty

By Paula J. Bishop

Student Engagement Techniques

Both theoretical and practical, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley (Jossey-Bass, 2010) has become an important resource for me when I am looking for ways to enliven the classroom experience and draw students into the learning process. The techniques, strategies, and learning activities for promoting student engagement are the result of Barkley’s own experience and interviews she conducted with other college educators from a variety of disciplines and institutions. Barkley grounds this  anecdotal and experiential information gleaned from fellow educators in the current literature regarding student engagement and underscores specific connections between the research and her advice.

Barkley divides the book into three parts. She first presents a synergistic model of student engagement that combines motivation and active learning and takes into account other factors that affect student engagement including the sense of community, appropriate levels of challenge, and holistic learning opportunities. A set of tips and strategies to promote student engagement drawn from the literature on best-practices in the college classroom follows. These suggestions, which align with five categories based on her conceptual framework, focus on fostering motivation, promoting active learning, building community, ensuring students are appropriately challenged, and advocating holistic learning. While her tips are rather general in nature, Barkley references and briefly summarizes the relevant literature. For instance, after suggesting that one “offer options for nonlinear learning,” she notes the work of Susan El-Shamy (How to Design and Deliver Training for the New and Emerging Generations, Pfeiffer, 2004), who suggests that teachers allow learners to choose their own path toward the desired endpoint.

The final section offers fifty Student Engagement Techniques (SETs) in the areas of knowledge, skills, recall, and understanding; analysis and critical thinking; synthesis and creative thinking; problem solving; application and performance; attitudes and values; self-awareness as learners; and learning and study skills. Each SET identifies the essential characteristics of the exercise: individual vs. collaborative; activity focus (writing, reading, discussion, problem solving, analyzing, note-taking, etc.); duration of activity; and online transferability. Along with a description and step-by-step instructions, Barkley includes examples from a variety of disciplines, online implementation strategies, observations and advice, and a list of relevant literature.

Student Engagement Techniques is a teaching resource that, like John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2011), I find myself returning to often during my course preparation. The ideas presented are rooted in research, yet communicated in a personal and relatable tone. She understands that educators come from different backgrounds and institutions, are at different stages in our teaching careers, and have different goals. Not insignificantly for the AMS Pedagogy Study Group, Barkley is also a musicologist and the author of the textbook Crossroads: The Multicultural Roots of America’s Popular Music (Routledge, 2006). Consequently, she sprinkles the text with anecdotes and examples from music courses, something I have not seen in other pedagogical books. Barkley’s book can be read from cover to cover, or referenced like an idea book.