Margaret Procter

Knowing What We Do: Two Books about University Teaching and Learning


Richard J. Light, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Harvard UP, 2001).

Janice Newton et al., eds., Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Garamond Press and York University Centre for the Support of Teaching, 2001).


These two books about university teaching and learning -- one from York University, one from Harvard -- come out of a lively period of institutional self-examination in the early 1990s. Both demonstrate explicit commitments to active and exploratory learning, to critical thinking and discussion, and to respect for student diversity. They're also both relevant to our specific interests in CASLL because they give pride of place to the uses of language, both oral and written, in the types of learning they value.

Making the Most of College is based on the Assessment Seminars undertaken at Harvard and several dozen US and Canadian universities (including York, at least for a period) - assessment in this case meaning self-reflection by faculty, not just testing of students. These seminars brought faculty members together to study and evaluate their own teaching practices, and at Harvard they eventually focussed on students as the best judges of the learning experience. Richard Light, trained as a statistician and now an expert on designing educational research, supervised an intensive set of research projects to follow up the discussions at Harvard. His book, like the two initial Reports he published in 1990 and 1992, is based on rich empirical evidence, but it wears its statistics lightly. The survey results are discussed in very readable and quotable words; the book contains no tables and gives almost no numbers. In fact, the 214 pages of text consist in large part of long passages quoted (with some editing, Light admits) from intensive student interviews. Some of the topics are not likely to be relevant to the Canadian experience: the desirability of holding tutorials in dorms, for instance, and of scheduling them close to the supper hour so that students can continue to chat together as they eat dinner together in the residence hall, for instance. There are also gaps of attention: in his eagerness to talk about the advantages of well-managed diversity, Light labels people relentlessly in racial and religious terms, but it's noticeable that there is no data on non-native speakers of English and no inquiry into gender issues.

Those of us working to reposition writing from a marginal requirement to a central place in the learning experience can take considerable comfort in what Light's research established about the value of language-based learning - often to his surprise, he says repeatedly. Students told him (and he quotes them vividly) that the chance to learn to write well was the most valuable skill in their university experience; that they hungered for intensive one-to-one feedback on their writing; that they discounted freshman composition, but wished for more writing instruction in their "substantive" upper-year courses; and that they learned best when they wrote to other students, not just to the professor. Light and his students also have much to say about the value of discussion in small classes and of foreign-language learning, of group work in class and outside, of mentoring between professors and students, and of inclusiveness across ethnic and religious groupings. In one section, Light reiterates a message he took across the continent with his Assessment Seminars, that the one-minute paper - an impromptu note that students write and hand in at the end of a class -- can let professors know what students have taken in from their lectures. In representing student opinions so centrally, this book gives a strong impression that Harvard students have heard the message of liberal education very well. It makes good reading for anyone concerned with writing across the curriculum, and may be useful for convincing Canadian administrators that what most of us now consider good practice is backed up by solid research -- and that it worked for "good" students.

York University's book Voices from the Classroom is an impressive demonstration that a non-elite Canadian university can be committed to the same goals of inclusiveness, inquiry, and student development as Harvard is. It also shows that these ideals may be much harder to achieve in real-world conditions than Light's book suggests. Its 77 articles by 62 faculty members and teaching assistants (with a few students heard from in the first chapters) shows a teaching culture focussed on critical skills and grappling with issues of diversity in skills as well as in personal backgrounds. Clearly the faculty here have talked to each other as well as listened to their students. As with the Harvard studies, most of the pieces come from the early 1990s, and some show the impact of Light's visits to York to encourage Assessment Seminars in that period. These are pieces about how to teach effectively and reflections on the challenges of aiming at inclusive and critical practice. The structure and tone of the book reflect the ongoing struggle to keep teaching goals alive in real-world circumstances.

In contrast to the book dominated by Light's fatherly voice and his students' youthful wisdom, this is a collection of disparate pieces, varied in modes of presentation and sometimes overlapping in topic. Putting ideals into practice isn't as easy as reflecting on success afterwards, and practice may well need to be as diverse as the students at this large urban university. Some of the articles set out practical teaching tips (I counted at least three on using the one-minute paper), often reprinted from pre-1995 issues of York's Core newsletter or based on workshop or class handouts. The concluding chapter consists of long documents from the York Senate setting out the rules for teaching evaluation and also giving helpful case studies: this is an institution where even committees write well. Other chapters consist of extended theoretical articles, sometimes versions of pieces already published in scholarly journals.

The best pieces combine personal accounts with indications of theoretical or research grounding. Leslie Sanders' three short articles stand out for their ability to narrate challenges honestly: she lets us know that even our best intentions may not be adequate to the situations that real students bring to the classrooms, though in her two pages she can also suggest ways to recognize and adapt to challenges. Articles by Pat Rogers, the former director of the Centre for the Support of Teaching, and Linda Briskin, a professor of Social Science, give useful overviews of theory and research about student development. One pleasure of the book is noting the diversity of perspectives. After reading ten upbeat short pieces on reaping the benefits of group work, it's satisfying to come to Linda Briskin's longer article on the problems of negotiating classroom power in that type of project. It is also refreshing to find Janice Newton's incisive note pointing out that the standard one-minute paper embodies the assumption that the professor is the source of knowledge and that the classroom enterprise is to transmit it clearly.

Navigating the book, however, isn't always a pleasure. It can be hard to find specific pieces in the nearly 400 pages of short articles and introductory comments. It's understandable that the book has no index, but less so that the Table of Contents omits contributors' names and that the list of Contributors does not include page numbers. To make up for those flaws, I will note here especially the pieces by Leslie Sanders starting on pages 54, 93, and 95; the concise note on computer-mediated communication by Mary-Louise Craven, 210; the advice for TAs on working with student writing by Miriam Jones, 291; the theoretical overviews by Page Westcott, 110, and Pat Rogers, 118; the weighty but enlightening theoretical reflections by Linda Briskin, 25 and 255; pieces by Janice Newton on the reading problems that underlie much plagiarism, 171, and on alternative techniques for recognizing what's going on in your classroom, 321 and 326.

For people who care about the university enterprise, both these books are worth having on your shelf. The Harvard book makes encouraging reading and offers models for local research. The York book makes disturbing, frustrating, and stimulating reading. It comes close to home, challenging us to think deeply about what we do as well as keep finding efficient ways to do it.

University of Toronto


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