'How to Think' not 'What to Think'

M. Mamo, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

I teach an introductory level Soil Resources course every Fall semester. Because it is a high enrollment (>110) course with a very diverse majors (15 to 16 majors) and an almost equal percent distribution of freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior, I invest a significant amount of my time on scholarship of teaching and learning. My pedagogy is to develop students 'skill on 'how to think', especially for a lower level course where many underpinning concepts are taught. I believe that students should master the skills in metacognition by the time they are in their third year in college and lower level courses become even more critical in providing opportunities to increase skills in metacognition.

I have taught the course using an active, small-group learning style covering twenty-five soil science topics with 1/3 hands-on activities combined with worksheets, 1/3 with just worksheets alone, and 1/3 on projects. The set-up or design of the course, one lecture a week and 2-two hr meeting a week in small group, actually fits to enhance self-regulated learning although the vast majority of the students cannot embrace too well a semester long course that is almost entirely small group and self-guided without the instructor 'lecturing'. Part of self-regulated learning is planning before the task of activities (small group). This has been and is still a major barrier to self-awareness in learning as most in the class spend less than 2 hours/week spend preparing and reading (Mamo and Kettler, Formal and Informal Surveys, 2003). In 2004, I implemented an online quizzing system done outside of class to encourage reading and course review outside of class. This portion of the course activity is 20% of the course grade. The quiz consists of both lower and higher order level questions and is open for a week at a time. Because the goal of the open book online quiz is to give students incentive to review and read course materials, the quiz can be taken as many times as needed within the week to achieve an 80% mastery level. The online system allows me to track the number of attempt for each quiz, minutes spend at each attempt on a quiz, and the total hour spend on a quiz for each student. Periodically, I ask my small group what they do when they do not succeed on the quiz. The answer almost always is that 'they had to go back and review the readings and supplemental references once or few more times. This has greatly improved amount of hours spend (3 to 4 hours/week) on planning/preparation for the majority of students.

Other activities that I have incorporated to enhance self-regulated learning is situated learning and/or case study which is especially critical in a course with diverse background preparation and motivation level. The central trait of this approach is starting with a compelling problem that provides a motivational context for learners (Koschmann et al, 1996). Context based problems will naturally pose intriguing question or problem; broadening the significance of the question or problem; and engaging students in higher order activities (Bain, 2004). To this end, I have developed and used digital case studies with different context to increase motivation and broaden the application of the subject matter.


Bain, K. What makes great teachers great? The Chronicle of Higher Education. (1)31, B7-B9. (2004).

Koschmann, T., Kelson, A. C., Feltovich, P. J. and Barrows, H. S. (1996). Computer-supported problem-based-learning: A principled approach to the use of computers in collaborative learning. In T. Koschmann (Ed), CSCL: Theory and Practice of an Emerging Paradigm. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.