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Psychology expert offers tips on teaching undergrads

To avoid being a "toxic professor," faculty members need to help students improve their learning skills, according to nationally known cognitive psychologist Michael Pressley, in a lecture discussing how college courses can be more effective.

The November 7 lecture was the first event in a series of lectures and other activities supported by a grant from the Hewlett Foundation for innovation in general education.

Students bring to their college education not just their IQ but prior knowledge and learning strategies, such as comprehension, writing and problem solving, he said. Yet most students are not well prepared in such strategies and there is enormous variation in their background knowledge. Although most campuses have study skills centers, this is not enough, he said. Faculty need to help students build their knowledge and learning strategies.

Drawing from his extensive research on how students cope with college education Pressley, who holds an endowed chair in cognitive psychology at Notre Dame University, offered the group of about 60 faculty members attending the lecture a variety of tips.

Adopt textbooks that are well written, present material well and indicate what is most important, he said. Freshmen are not as good at reading as they need to be. "They are not equal to texts that are tough to begin with, let alone texts that are bad."

He advised faculty to offer a range of texts at different reading levels. Students have vastly different backgrounds, he said. Introductory books are mostly the same in any particular field but some are much easier to read than others. Offering a range of options will allow students to select according to their reading abilities.

Pressley said "achievement is determined largely by prior knowledge brought to the classroom." A student from a lower socio-economic class is less likely to be in a school that develops prior knowledge well, and will enter the university less well prepared, with less chance to succeed. A student from a New Haven high school, who has lived in poverty, will have less prior knowledge than a student from Greenwich, he said. "This is not a pretty story."

For students who lack essential background knowledge, he suggested providing information that can quickly develop the basic knowledge and understanding they need. "Develop resources that don't require a whole lot of time and effort to jump-start their prior knowledge," he said.

He also advised faculty to pace their lectures so students can understand the information and teach them how to take notes that are appropriate for the particular class.

Model how to read, said Pressley, who is editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology. "No undergraduate knows how to read original research articles." For example, encourage students to reflect on the abstract before reading a research paper, he said. "Once students know that, they stop reading word for word."

Students also need help developing information finding skills, he added. "Finding information in libraries and computer networks is not an obvious skill."

Pressley said it is important to state clearly whether the class will be assessed through multiple choice or essay questions. Do all you can to reduce unrealistic anxieties about exams and classes, he said.

He said he has interviewed hundreds of students in his research and many of them talk about professors who tell students most of them are not smart enough to take their courses. He said this is one of the ways to be what he described as a toxic professor.

"Sometimes anxieties are realistic if the student is not prepared, but mostly anxiety is dysfunctional with respect to academic accomplishment," he said. "There is lots of evidence that when faculty members encourage questions and answer them respectfully, it works better."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu