Reviewing the Literature: Research on Teaching in Higher Education

As you may or may not know there are a number of journals (peer-reviewed and editorially curated) that publish research on teaching in higher education. These journals publish articles and essays on subjects as varied as pedagogical theory, cognitive function, and specific classroom practices. There are a number of general interest journals like, College Teaching and InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, as well as a variety of discipline-specific journals such as Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching and Teaching Sociology. These journals can be a great resource for you to find new ways to engage your students. Because the information is trustworthy, you can feel confident as you try new approaches and practices in your classroom. Also, if what you're doing in your classroom is working really well—perhaps you can turn your experience into an extra publication!

This article reviews some of the current literature on higher ed with commentary on how you might be able to martial this information in your own work!

*Note: The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kennesaw State has compiled a great list of teaching journals.

Overcoming the Uncomfortable Moment with Case Studies
Hughes, Bryce, Huston, Therese and Stein, Julie (2011) 'Using Case Studies to Help Faculty Navigate Difficult Classroom Moments', College Teaching, 59: 1, 7–12

At some point, most of us encounter an uncomfortable or "hot" moment in class. A student makes a remark that is 'off,' often not meaning to be offensive, but succeeding in doing so anyway. Hughes, Huston, and Stein suggest that using case studies can help instructors to anticipate these difficult moments and to know how to respond effectively. Noting that letting these comments go by unremarked on or confronted can leave offended students alienated, thus destroying a positive classroom culture, they also note that it is genuinely difficult to know how to respond—especially when these comments are always surprising. In order to prepare and respond effectively, Hughes et al, ran a series of teaching workshops in which they provided a series of case studies that proposed an "awkward moment," and then had workshop participants work through the case. They identified the specific skills learned from this approach:

  1. Identify difficult moments they may have had in their own teaching experience;

  2. Realize that they are not alone if they have found it hard to respond to a difficult moment;

  3. Learn pre-emptive strategies and well-crafted responses from each other and from the literature;

  4. Evaluate how different responses can lead to a variety of unintended consequences.

The authors acknowledge limitations of the case study, including the difficulty of extrapolating across disciplines, as well as finding/creating a group comfortable enough to talk honestly about the case, but conclude that there are many benefits from using case studies to figure out how to respond to these tough moments. One case study they used is included in the appendix of the article.

Learning Communities as Resources in Hybrid Courses.
Kemp, Linzi. (2010) 'Teaching & Learning for International Students in a 'Learning Community': Creating, Sharing and Building Knowledge' InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching. 5:63-74.

The learning community, a structure designed to engage students in collaborative and active learning, is best defined by what Kemp calls its "essence," "healthy collaboration, shared resources and learning together." In this article, Kemp discusses the literature on learning communities and gives advice for developing learning communities in a hybrid course. Loosely described, a learning community is a group of students who will work together both in and outside of class-time to enhance learning through active and collaborative learning. Currently, these are more common in science courses, but research shows that they can be beneficial to student learning across disciplines. Kemp discusses the important "stages" of implementing learning communities: Stage 1) Introduction of the Learning Community, Stage 2) Embedding the Learning Community, and Stage 3) Working Together in the Learning Community.

In Stage 1, Kemp emphasizes the importance of the role of the instructor in setting the tone for the learning community. She warns against an introductory lecture on learning communities (suggesting instead that description be limited to no more than 10 minutes per class) and discusses how the instructor might act as a "model" of a positive member of a learning community, "pointing out shared resources; expressing satisfaction on what students have learned from each other." Kemp continues:

An effective strategy for introducing the learning community identity and culture is for the teacher to demonstrate or highlight examples of the learning community as it happens in the classroom. This could be through praising an incident of learning community in action, or through adding or pointing out a resource for students. In a learning community, learning how to learn better is important.

In Stage 2, the additive benefit of online learning communities to a face-to-face classroom experience is discussed. The blended class is particularly ripe for this sort of practice, allowing social ties to be developed in the classroom, but the online meeting space can become an additional space for dynamic discourse, as well as a repository of relevant resources for student learning. Kemp particularly focuses on the opportunities for multiple sections of the same course to interact in the virtual environment.

Enabling students to become creators of their own process is a particular benefit of Stage 3, wherein students identify particular concerns they have, while the instructor shifts focus onto the varied products that online and face-to-face groups might produce. In the article, she discusses several types of assignments that are particularly suited to the hybrid course.

Concluding, Kemp advocates for carefully developed, well-designed learning communities, though she worries that they will become one more academic buzzword and the practice will be diluted rather than developed.

Teaching Writing, Teaching Subjects: The Value of Teaching Writing in 'Other' Subject Classes.
Wingate, Ursula, Andon, Nick and Cogo, Alessia. (2011) "Embedding academic writing instruction into subject teaching: A case study." Active Learning in Higher Education 2011 12: 69-81.

A constant question facing all instructors is how we want to spend our class time, and what exactly is it we wish our students to learn. We know that we want our students to be critical thinkers, but we also want to "cover all the material" that we think is crucial to the course topic. This article, which focuses on a UK linguistics class, argues for the benefits of devoting class resources to writing development. In the literature review, Wingate, Andon, and Cogo discuss the extensive literature that shows that students are more active learners, have deeper understanding of material, and are more engaged in their own learning process when writing is used as a pedagogical tool, but they also show that regular writing is sorely lacking from many classrooms. The body of the article is devoted to discussing the case in which writing development was embedded as a core element of a linguistics course. In teaching writing, they relied on the following, well-researched principles.

  1. Academic writing is based on critical-analytical reading. Therefore, students must be guided through the detailed reading of texts, and their attention must be drawn to argumentation as well as discourse features (Rose et al., 2008).

  2. Academic writing is a process and a product of critical thinking. Therefore, students must be given opportunities for developing critical thinking, for instance through the discussion of open-ended questions or problem-solving (Bean, 2001).

  3. The importance of making discourse and epistemological features explicit to students has been emphasized by genre and Academic Literacies researchers (Lea and Street, 2006; Martin, 1999). In the embedded approach, these features need to be highlighted in the classroom and in texts related to the session's topic.

  4. Acquiring academic literacy is a gradual process that needs developmental feedback (Bharuthram and McKenna, 2006). Therefore, there must be a progression of short informal writing tasks to formally graded assignments, accompanied by formative feedback comments and "dialogues around texts" (Lillis, 2006, 2001).

Through this process a number of benefits were found, including that through effective assignment development, no course content was actually lost. Other benefits included more interactivity in the classroom, and students reported greater understanding not only of the material, but of why the material was important. The major drawbacks of adding this substantial writing component was that the workload was high—when you assign critical writing assignments, someone (probably you) needs to grade those assignments. Further, despite the intensive feedback given, some students in the course didn't utilize it. This article describes a process by which you could bring more writing, one of the core elements of active learning, into your regular practice, but acknowledges the difficulties in doing so.