Ruth S. Day / Duke University /

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Cognition and Teaching

Many professors are delightful outside the classroom. They are fluent, clear, and engaging. However, some undergo a peculiar transformation when they enter the classroom...
  --R. S. Day (NSF Chautauqua)

Basic Problem Faculty Courses Research Approaches Papers

College professors are highly knowledgeable people, deeply immersed in one or more academic disciplines. However their graduate training has generally been about the accumulated knowledge and research methods in their discipline, with little or no training in how to teach it. Teaching assistantships along the way may involve little actual teaching and/or little guidance about classroom instruction. Often, professors arrive at their first academic job and have to figure out how to teach. They may spend so much time doing so that they have little left for research or other pursuits.

Common teaching strategies of new college faculty include:
  --recalling their own professor(s) and trying to duplicate their approach
--assigning one textbook to students and "teaching" from another
--laying out the material to be "covered" and marching through it
--reading all the latest research articles and "telling" about them in class
--making copious lecture notes

While all of these strategies have some merit, they also have drawbacks. For example, in an effort to "cover" everything, instructors can wind up "teaching the material," but not the students. Also, lecture notes that are too detailed and divorced from natural speaking styles can transform an otherwise engaging person into quite the opposite (Day, 1980).

Although there is no one "best" way to teach, knowledge of basic cognitive processes can help instructors teach in more effective ways. My "Cognition and Teaching" course in the National Science Foundation Chautauqua Program is designed to help in this effort. Participants are faculty from natural and social science disciplines, from colleges and universities throughout the country.

Faculty participants requested additional coursework, so there are now two "Cognition and Teaching" courses, "Part 1" and "Part 2." Each is a 3-day course (see Chautauqua descriptions for course information and NSF for program information). The course has been offered at many NSF field centers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico (see course history), and in abbreviated versions to many universities (e.g., Brown University, Reed College, University of Chicago) and professional organizations (e.g., American Academy for the Advancement of Science, American Association for Higher Educations). See "Cognition and Teaching" presentations for details.

Thousands of college faculty from all academic disciplines have participated in some version of "Cognition and Teaching." Many have also taken course concepts and demonstrations back to their home institutions - both to their colleagues and students. They often use demonstrations from the course (originally developed as experiments in the Cognition Lab). Feedback about these presentations and discussions with such a diverse array of faculty is very useful (especially in terms of implications for everyday cognition).

The Cognition and Teaching project is an integrated program of research and application. It developed out of classroom experiences, research on basic cognitive processes, concerns about everyday cognition, and interactions with thousands of college professors from many academic disciplines and institutions. Most of the research is conducted in the Day Cognition Lab but some has taken place at collaborative institutions, as described below.

Sample topics include the role of notes in teaching and learning, knowledge vs. knowledge structures, experts vs. novices, alternative representations of course concepts (e.g., organic chemistry molecules), and cross-disciplinary cognition.

Some "Cognition and Teaching" faculty collaborated with us after the course, usually at their home institution. For example, one project had interested faculty throughout the university generate their own knowledge structures for a subset of their course material using empirical methods demonstrated in the "Cognition and Teaching" course. The same faculty had students do the same task, then discussed results in class. In talking together, faculty and students had many insights about the nature of knowledge, how to think about it, and differences between experts and novices. They also reported that the experience had positive effects on subsequent teaching and learning. We later compared results across academic disciplines, as part of our project on cross-disciplinary cognition.

Some collaborative projects have been conducted in the Day Cognition Lab at Duke. For example, a chemist became interested in our previous research on alternative representations of organic chemistry molecules. She spent her sabbatical in our lab, learned how to do cognitive experiments and contributed her expertise in both chemistry and teaching.

(on cognition and teaching)

Day, Ruth S. Teaching from notes: Some cognitive consequences. In W. J.
  McKeachie (Ed.), New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Learning, Cognition, and College Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1980. Pp. 95-112.

Day, Ruth S. Knowledge vs. knowledge structures. In W.A. Cashin (Ed.),
  National Issues in Higher Education, 1987, 26, 35-56.

Day, Ruth S. Cognition and Teaching (in preparation).