For this year’s SIT, we’re pleased to welcome Dr. Althea Need Kaminske, an Associate Professor at St. Bonaventure University, and a member of the Learning Scientists. We asked her some questions about her research and work. Read on to learn more about study skills, learning styles, and what Dr. Kaminske is bringing to SIT!
FC: In 2018, you co-authored Five Teaching and Learning Myths – Debunked. What is the most pervasive teaching and learning myth in U.S. higher education? How can we productively move away from or learn from it?
AK: The most pervasive myth in U.S. higher education is learning styles, specifically the idea that individuals learn best through visual presentation, auditory presentation, etc. Not only is it completely divorced from learning and memory principles, but it also paints an overly simplistic picture of the nuances and variations in learning processes. By better understanding effective learning processes, and the factors that affect them, we can better understand how to address the needs of all learners.
FC: You co-direct the Center for Attention, Learning, and Memory at St. Bonaventure University. What is the most important thing for college and university educators to know about attention, learning, and memory?
AK: This is a tough one! As a memory researcher, though, I will say that it is understanding that memory is an active, reconstructive process. Our minds are not video recorders passively recording events around us and then replaying them at will. Instead, every time we recall something we have to reconstruct that memory based on the cues, or hints, we have in our present moment. The more practice we get with recalling that information – in that context and with those cues – the easier it becomes. This process of reconstructing our memories based on the information we have around us, is called retrieval. Retrieval is such a simple, yet powerful, tool for learning. I will be talking more about retrieval in my Keynote.
FC: Much of the work of The Learning Scientists, a website maintained by a small group of cognitive psychological scientists interested in research on education, focuses on effective study skills. How can faculty support and encourage effective study skills?
AK: One way to encourage effective study skills is to talk about them. Many students have not had any formal instruction in how to study, despite how important it is for their academic success. They get advice from parents, friends, or look up tips online. Maybe they find something that works and maybe they don’t, but it’s a lot of trial and error on their part with little direct feedback or guidance. Another way to encourage effective study skills is to acknowledge how challenging it can be and to provide opportunities for students to talk about their challenges. We know that failure is a part of learning, but when all you see are your own failures and other people’s successes it can be incredibly disheartening. Having students see that others struggle as well helps them to understand that learning is a process, and it makes that process a little less isolating.
FC: How has your research on attention, learning, and memory impacted your own teaching?
AK: I think it has made me more willing to re-examine and change things in my own teaching. For example, after attending a workshop on un-grading and reading some recent research on mark-withholding by fellow Learning Scientist, Dr. Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel, I decided to re-work my entire approach to grading in my upper-level courses. While I gave regular feedback on papers and assignments, nothing was graded. Instead, students tracked all of their progress on readings and assignments and completed additional learning activities on top of what was assigned (like extra-credit work). At midterms and at finals they submitted a portfolio of their work and I met with them individually to discuss grades. This had several advantages. First, it made handling missed classes and work much easier. This was a necessity after COVID. Second, students felt more in control of their learning. We had clear and direct conversations about their grades before they were submitted, so it was never a surprise. Finally, for me, giving feedback on papers and grading papers are two entirely different activities. Grading is onerous and taxing, while feedback felt more like a conversation where I was able to meet the students where they were at and help them improve. It was not perfect and there’s room for improvement, but I was surprised at how well it went.
FC: One of the goals of SIT is to celebrate accomplishments in teaching over the last year. Do you have a recent accomplishment in your education work that you’d like to share?
AK: In all honesty, it has been a rough year. A good year, but a rough year. Between COVID and having a toddler I have had to come to terms with not being in control of a lot of things. I am incredibly fortunate that my husband works from home so we can be more flexible as a household when daycare closes, but it’s still a balancing act. Prior to this last year the only time I can remember canceling class was the week I got married. This last year I’ve had to cancel four or five classes either because I was sick, my son was sick, or because there was just no getting around childcare that day.
Aside from my personal wellbeing, the wellbeing of my students has changed dramatically. The problems that are surfacing had been present before the pandemic, but they seem to be more prevalent now. Whereas before I might have had one or two students who stopped showing up to classes each year, now it is about four or five a semester. I have Zoom up during all my classes so that students can attend remotely if they need to, and I can forward them the recording if they have to miss altogether. I spend at least twenty minutes every morning responding to emails and staying connected with students who have had to miss class.
So, just making it through the semester feels like a major accomplishment – both for me and for my students. The fact that learning occurred, and it was positively received by the student, was honestly surprising!
SIT will be held on Wednesday, June 1 (in-person) and Thursday, June 2 (online). This is an intensive and celebratory multi-day event that brings together educators from across the university to build and strengthen a community around teaching and learning. It highlights emerging and established pedagogical practices, resources, and technology tools with an emphasis on evidence and scholarship. It also provides a showcase for the exceptional efforts and accomplishments of UD’s educators. The event is free and advance registration is strongly encouraged particularly for the first day when lunch will be provided. To learn more about the event and to register, visit https://sites.udel.edu/sit/.