Winter break might be a good time to read something new–brand new. Josh Eyler’s new book How Humans Learn has just come out, so we caught up with him to learn more about the project and his approach to research.

Average Read Time: 3 minutes

In his new book, How Humans Learn, Josh Eyler (Rice University) synthesizes research on learning from multiple disciplines to help instructors uncover why certain techniques are so effective for students.

 

While attending this year’s Professional Organizational Developers (POD) Network conference, our very own Rose Muravchick (CTAL) had a chance to interview him about the book and his own reflections on teaching in light of his research.

ROSE

Why did you want to write this book?

JOSH

I wanted to write this book because when I first moved into teaching and learning work, I was trying to get myself acclimated to all of the different strategies that the disciplines were using, and what I found were really helpful resources on how to implement but what I couldn’t find and what I had a lot of questions about was why do some strategies work and why do others NOT work? And so in searching around for some of those answers I couldn’t find many, so I started to move into research from areas I’m certainly not trained in but I found really fascinating, because they are all touching on the question of how people learn, going about it in a really different way, and I thought, well, maybe we can use that to actually figure out what is underneath our teaching strategies.

ROSE

How do you think that your humanistic training informed the way that you approached this project?

JOSH

That’s a great question, and I feel really strongly that I used a lot of the skills that I learned in the humanities (skills in close reading, and synthesis…) that they served me really well in trying to pull together this research. I will say that one of the reasons why the project took me a long time (it took me 5 years) is because I had to teach myself some of the methodologies of these other disciplines. But fundamentally what I was doing was bringing together, very much like we would for humanities research… finding the patterns that emerge from the work and weaving them together into a unified interpretation that moves our knowledge forward.

ROSE

It’s funny that you say that about bringing things together because I’m a humanist too, and one of the things that I’ve learned in trying to figure out what this whole world is like, is that seeing connections between things that seem as though they wouldn’t be connected, is a skill that I didn’t know or realize was an actual skill that is learned through the way that we approach texts, materials, the body of crazy, disparate things that are in front of us, that we have to learn how to make sense of because there aren’t necessarily accepted pathways for X to Y to Z systems.

JOSH

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’d find anthropologists talking about how curiosity was fundamental for some of the evolution of the brain over time, and I would find people from developmental psychology talking about children’s curiosity and so trying to bring all of those threads together in exactly the way that you are talking about.

ROSE

So it took you 5 years to write this book. In the process, did any of the research that you did inform your own teaching in ways that were surprising?

JOSH

Yes! It definitely informed my own teaching. The last chapter of the book is about failure and ways that we can cultivate environments that destigmatize failure and utilize error and mistakes for learning potential. One major component of that research is in the area of grades and new models for grading. So I had experimented a little in the past with different approaches to grading, but in doing the research for this book I dramatically shifted my undergraduate courses–they are all portfolio based courses and our graduate courses are learning contract grading. And there we are trying to cultivate a mentor role and relationship rather than an evaluative one, so it makes sense. But the switch over to fully portfolio was something that I hadn’t ever done before.

ROSE

Are you finding that it is taking more time or less time for the evaluation of those portfolios than for the traditional products you were using prior?

JOSH

It takes me a little bit less and it is distributed differently. It takes me less in that there is a lot of time and emotional space taken up by trying to determine a grade, as opposed to just giving feedback on papers. On just giving feedback it lets me move more quickly. But, and this is a good thing, the students wanted to meet with me more in my office hours. Because without the grade marking the progress they wanted to talk more about, “how am I doing… can we talk about this paper… how do I improve it…” So that was a good thing. And it redistributed the work a little bit.

ROSE

Do you still have to assign them a final grade because of the institution? How does that work?

JOSH

That was the biggest obstacle, that I talk about in that chapter, that we work within systems where we have to give grades. So how do we do this? There have been K-12 people who have been talking about this for a long time. I think we need to pay attention to that in higher ed. The way I handled it was to talk about why we were using a portfolio to enhance their learning and to talk about the difference between getting a grade and learning something. And I saw a lot of my work, independent of any content, is helping them divest learning from grading. Certainly we don’t make it all the way in one semester in fulfilling that goal, but by the end we were having really interesting discussions about why we grade in education and how that is not necessarily reflective of the learning that is happening.

We had a lot of conversations especially in the first few weeks of the semester. There was a lot of trust that they placed in my hands which I took very seriously. In some of those meetings it was somewhat about the papers, but also about trying to talk them through this new process.

ROSE

What’s next!?

JOSH

I have some ideas. I gave a talk recently on teaching as a creative endeavor, so I’m thinking about a bigger project on the creative art of teaching. We do a lot with the science of learning, but there is also a real art to it, and those two things can coexist.

 

How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching has just been released from West Virginia University Press. The Morris Library’s copy hasn’t come in yet, but you can order your own here: https://wvupressonline.com/node/758

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