Advice

Top 10 Books on Teaching

Spend some time this summer with at least one book about improving your college classroom

By James M. Lang

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Raoul Luoar.]

In The Vocation of a Teacher, Wayne Booth, the literary critic and longtime English professor, posed a question that floats into my mind every May: "Why, if I claim to love teaching so much, am I so relieved when it’s over?"

I was especially glad this May because I will be on sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities for the 2014-15 academic year. I have two book projects I hope to complete over the course of the next 15 months. That might sound like an overly ambitious agenda, but the last time I was on leave, my wife and I couldn’t afford full-time child care for our 2-year-old twins on my reduced sabbatical salary. Now that all of our children are in school, I am counting on a major increase in my productive writing time.

Before diving into those writing projects, though, I will spend a little time reflecting on the semester that has come and gone, and looking to discover at least one great new book on teaching and learning in higher education. As much as I love what I do, and seek ways to improve the learning experiences I shape for my students, I find little or no time for substantial professional reading during the academic year. The summer offers me the opportunity to catch up.

I have been trying to stay current in small doses. Colleagues on Twitter have been especially useful in pointing me to articles, blogs, and resources that are worth my attention for the first 10 or 15 minutes of my working day. And I will confess that, as a result of that reading, I have been suffering from some revolution fatigue this year. I’m not sure I can stand to read one more warning about how the entire system of higher education is about to collapse, or yet another celebration of the fact that it has begun collapsing already and we should help it along.

Big changes are both coming and necessary, no doubt about it—especially in terms of the financial model of higher education, and its increasing exploitation of adjunct labor. But in the meantime, the work of teaching our students, as many of us do on heavy teaching loads, has to continue. And I firmly believe that if every teaching faculty member could carve out the time to read one or two great books on teaching and learning every year, we would collectively serve our students much better than we do already.

In service to that conviction, I offer below the top 10 books on teaching and learning in higher education that I have encountered over the course of my teaching career. Each of these books has shaped—or reshaped—my teaching in some substantive and practical way: the construction of my syllabus, the nature of my assignments, the way I conduct class,the feedback I give to students. All of these books deserve a wide readership among faculty members, and any one of them represents a great place to start or continue your professional development.

  • 1. What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain (Harvard University Press, 2004). You may have seen me mention this book previously in this column, or perhaps you have attended Ken’s popular summer institute, built around his research into the attitudes, habits, and practices of highly successfully college faculty members. This book remains the gold standard in the field for me, mixing field observations of outstanding teachers with solidly grounded research into learning and motivation theory.
  • 2. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel (Harvard, 2014). Two cognitive psychologists and a novelist provide an excellent summary of the research on how people learn, and some of the implications of that research for those of us who teach. You can read more about the book in my April column. It provides a good complement to Bain’s book to help you better understand the work of both teachers and learners.
  • 3. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman (Jossey-Bass, 2010). This book is more specifically tailored than Make It Stick to faculty members in higher education. Ambrose and the other authors provide readable overviews of key components of the teaching-learning transaction (motivation, mastery, feedback, and more), point to fascinating experiments and research findings, and offer practical suggestions for how faculty members can accommodate the findings in their courses and classroom practices.
  • 4. Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, by Daniel T. Willingham (Jossey-Bass, 2009). Although this book is meant for K-12 teachers, Willingham’s deep familiarity with cognitive theory makes it an enlightening one for higher-education faculty members as well. Filled with graphs, illustrations, anecdotes, and examples, the book introduces and clearly explains a variety of terms associated with student learning.
  • 5. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, by James E. Zull (Stylus, 2002). This one rounds out the sublist of books that focus on learning theory and its implications for teachers. Like Willingham, Zull gives clear overviews of what neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us about how the brain works, complete with illustrations and a rich set of examples and anecdotes. You will find Zull, a biologist, digging more deeply into the physical brain than Willingham does, but you will walk away from this one equally enlightened about the learning challenges and opportunities that our students face every day.
  • 6. Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, by José Antonio Bowen (Jossey-Bass, 2012). This book provided a temporary cure for my revolution fatigue. Bowen argues smartly that higher education’s "most precious (and expensive) asset is student-faculty interaction," and that we can use technology outside of the classroom in ways that enable us to enhance and improve that interaction. He calls for a certain amount of revolution, but he also offers a wide range of practical resources and suggestions on how to improve one’s teaching practices in light of the technologies available to us. Even if you aren’t looking for revolution, you can find myriad ways here to improve your courses. (You can read a fuller review of Bowen’s book on my blog.)
  • 7. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck (Ballantine, 2006). I came late to the party on this book. Dweck has conducted research for many years on how students’ attitudes toward learning and intelligence shape their educational experience. Students with a "fixed" mind-set believe they are limited by the intelligence they were given at birth; those with a "growth" mind-set believe they can get smarter. Not surprisingly, students who believe in growth are more successful. Read this book to find out how you can help students (and yourself) move from fixed to growth mind-sets.
  • 8. How College Works, by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs (Harvard, 2014). I have many fond memories of seminars or informal gatherings in the homes of my undergraduate professors. According to Chambliss and Takacs, such personal interactions with faculty members are key indicators of student satisfaction with the college experience. If you are looking for ammunition to lob at administrators who want to redesign your campus from the ground up, or to conscript you into the next strategic-planning process, hand them a copy of this book and walk away. Small changes, it argues, make more of a difference than expensive new programs.
  • 9. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper Perennial, 1990). Not directly related to either teaching or learning, this book presents fascinating research on the state of "flow," in which people are thoroughly engaged in an absorbing activity that brings them deep feelings of satisfaction—and, ultimately, happiness. Our best learning experiences are characterized by the state of flow, and hence we have the opportunity to enrich the lives of our students by creating such happiness-inducing experiences for them. Reading this book will give you a new perspective on the buzz of positive energy you witness when students are deeply engaged in some task you have given them. It might just help you design such tasks more effectively.
  • 10. Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It, by Donald L. McCabe, Kenneth D. Butterfield, and Linda K. Treviño (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). We don’t like to talk about it, but we have to. This book presents decades’ worth of research, and the numbers aren’t pretty. Think your students don’t cheat? The odds are not in your favor. McCabe and colleagues tell us how much students are cheating these days (more than you think), and how we can most effectively handle the problem.

My own summer reading list typically includes a few books from the field’s back catalog as well as a new book or two. From the back catalog I am looking forward to reading the second edition of L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2011). Books on the horizon, for the summer and beyond, include Mark C. Carnes’s Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Harvard, September) and Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (University of Chicago Press, September).

If I’ve missed your favorite—the book that has had the most positive impact on your teaching—tell us about it in the comments below. In the meantime, happy summer reading.

James M. Lang is a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. His most recent book is Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse.

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