On this page:
How the Project Began
Phase 1: Working Group and Speaker Series
Phase 2: Disseminating the Research
Products of the How Students Learn Project
The Teagle Foundation

How the Project Began

The idea for the How Students Learn project emerged three years before the Certificate Program in Teaching and Learning was launched. We asked the department Faculty Advisers for GSI Affairs what they thought should be included in the Certificate Program. One question we posed to them was, “What is the one thing you wish you had learned about teaching before you began teaching as a junior faculty member?” We expected a topic such as “how to write a syllabus” or “how to give a lecture” to top the list. While those ranked high, the number one response was that they wished they had had more knowledge about how students learn.

In many ways this made complete sense. We often implicitly ask faculty and GSIs to take it on faith when we suggest that they use active or experiential learning strategies, to teach to different learning styles, or to create a safe classroom space, but we rarely tell them what it is about these strategies that promotes learning. In the absence of substantive, research-based explanations, it makes sense that many faculty and GSIs are resistant to employing non-traditional teaching techniques.

In thinking about how to incorporate this topic into our upcoming Certificate Program, however, we wanted to make sure that we did it in a meaningful way. Rather than simply presenting the research literature, which can often be so technical that it makes faculty and GSIs glaze over, and rather than relying on speakers from other universities, we decided we wanted to do something that was more grassroots. That was to create a forum where faculty who work with GSIs and GSIs themselves would have the opportunity to 1) hear from faculty on our campus whose research directly or indirectly bears upon how students learn, and 2) discuss the implications of this research for the teaching that they do in specific disciplinary contexts. In other words, we wanted to work collaboratively with faculty and GSIs to think this topic through and make it our own, and we wanted to use the outcomes of our discussions to inform how we would approach the topic of how students learn in our certificate program.

The GSI Center’s work on this project has come in two phases, each supported by funding from the Teagle Foundation’s Graduate Student Teaching in the Arts and Sciences Initiative.

Phase 1: Speaker Series and Working Group

The Teagle Foundation grant in academic year 2010–2011 enabled us to hire a graduate student researcher, Catherine Cronquist Browning, to help us identify speakers, create a usable bibliography from the vast literature on learning, convene a working group and speaker series, and later, based on the outcomes of the working group, to help us develop a workshop for our Teaching Certificate program on how students learn.

The GSI Center hosted the speaker series and working group on how students learn in the spring of 2011. The working group consisted of faculty-GSI teams from 33 departments across the UC Berkeley campus. Participants heard presentations by UC Berkeley faculty in a variety of disciplines whose research bears on the topic of learning. The talks brought forward recent findings from neuroscience, anthropology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and education, and stimulated the faculty and GSI teams to apply these findings to their own teaching.

Among the products of Phase 1 are videos and summaries of the speakers’ talks, assignment designs from working group members, and pages of the GSI Teaching Guide that present applications of the speakers’ talks to teaching — not to mention 75 instructors in higher education whose teaching is better informed by research on how students learn.

Phase 2: Disseminating the Research

Based on the success of Phase 1, the Teagle Foundation extended funding for three additional years, to infuse the research on learning into more programs offered by the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.

The first such program increased the support the Center provides departments for their 300-level pedagogy courses. A seminar in the spring of 2013 and 2014, also called How Students Learn, featured faculty speakers from the 2011 speaker series who introduced research on how students learn and discussed the implications of this research for how we prepare graduate students to teach. Sixteen faculty-GSI departmental teams analyzed syllabi for 300-level courses and worked out ways to integrate the research on learning into the design of their own departments’ courses. The graduate students then received summer stipends to support their work with their faculty members to revamp their 300-level course syllabi.

In addition to the summer stipends, the Teagle Foundation grant funded an expansion of our Teaching Effectiveness Award (TEA) program. This program, in place since the 1990s, invites recent recipients of the Outstanding GSI Award to submit one-page essays describing a problem they identified in their teaching, the strategy they devised to address the problem, and the way they assessed the effectiveness of the strategy. Of the hundred or so essays usually submitted each year, ten to fourteen are selected for the TEA, which carries with it a cash award. The Teagle Foundation grant makes it possible to extend special awards for GSI essays that demonstrate the effective application of learning research to address the teaching-and-learning problems GSIs identify. The essays selected for this award in fall 2014 are linked on our Teagle Foundation Award for Excellence in Enhancing Student Learning page.

This phase of the Teagle grant also funded the work of three graduate student researchers for the project: Benjamin Krupicka, Christopher Atwood, and Ashley Leyba. They assisted in developing the Spring Seminar, analyzing the 194 TEA essays on our website at the time, facilitating the 80-minute How Students Learn workshops, and incorporating the material on how students learn into the GSI Center’s Faculty Seminar on Teaching with GSIs.

Products of the How Students Learn Project

Phase 1, 2010–2011
Working Group and Speaker Series: videos and summaries
Select Bibliography
Applying the Research to Teaching
Materials incorporated into the Teaching Guide for GSIs:
Neuroscience and How Students Learn
Cognitive Science: Memory and Learning
Anthropology: Situated Learning in Communities of Practice
Psychology: Motivation and Learning
Education: Organizing the Learning Process
Education: Learning to Think in a Discipline

Phase 2 (2012–2014)
300-level course syllabi informed by Teagle-funded Spring Seminar on How Students Learn (to be added)
TEA essays: instructional activities informed by research (to be added)
List of readings added to the Faculty Seminar (to be added)

The Teagle Foundation

The Teagle Foundation, established in 1944, is a private foundation that “provides leadership by mobilizing the intellectual and financial resources that are necessary if today’s students are to have access to a challenging and transformative liberal education” (Teagle Foundation Mission Statement).

We invite you to browse The Teagle Foundation’s website to learn more about their mission, grantmaking, and sponsored programs.