Skip navigation


California State University, Northridge wordmark
Michael D. Eisner College of Education wordmark
Joan Becker and 6 of her students.

Vol. 3, No. 1

Fall 2013

Your Source of Information for Staying Connected, the e-magazine of the Michael D. Eisner College of Education

Initiating Campus-Wide Conversations about Teaching and Learning

Mike Rivas and Cynthia Desrochers

Drs. Mike Rivas, Secondary Education Department Chairperson, and Cynthia Desrochers, InnovatED Editor, Special Projects

Stop! Before you read further, please select a class you teach (or have taught). [Pause]. Got it? Next:

  1. List five essential generalizations or skills for your students to learn in that course.
  2. List five research-based principles of learning that you could use to teach those five essential generalizations or skills to students in that course.

Which was easier? Likely, the first, but because you are in the College of Education, you may not have been stumped by the second one either because understanding how learning happens fits within our area of expertise. But what about most CSUN faculty? Imagine sitting outside the Orange Grove Bistro and asking a random set of faculty members to make the same two lists. How successful would they be at citing five research-based principles of learning?

Last fall, we rhetorically asked this same question and committed ourselves—as experts in this field, who better? —to promoting campus-wide conversations on the topic of teaching and learning. Gratefully, we received support from the dean of the Michael D. Eisner College of Education, Michael Spagna, and Provost Harry Hellenbrand, as we brought together eight campus leaders to meet monthly over the academic year.

Through readings1 and often heated discussion, our Teaching Learning Group2 engaged in the predictable stages of forming, storming, and norming in order to distill five research-based principles that we suggest can become the language for CSUN faculty to use in thinking and talking about teaching and learning with each other and with students. Moreover, we have begun to establish a schedule of conversations with like-minded groups on campus to discuss the following five principles—Five Gears for Activating Learning—that instructors can use in order to overcome obstacles and challenges to student learning in their courses, as well as save instructors' valuable time:

  1. Cultivate student motivation by highlighting the course's value, teaching for student success, and supporting students.
  2. Encourage the organization of knowledge in explicit structures.
  3. Build on students' prior knowledge and experiences.
  4. Provide opportunities for targeted practice and frequent feedback.
  5. Design for mastery by encouraging students' sustained (deep) engagement, reflection, and self-direction.
Five Gears logo

To facilitate discussion and application of these Five Gears for Activating Learning, we generated a list of techniques and strategies that instructors can use in designing learning experiences that have the potential of activating each gear with students. These five gears interact as our learning machine—the brain—progresses to mastery.

  1. Motivating Learning
    • Design assignments that explicitly demonstrate the value of the course and connect its content to real-life experiences.
    • Provide early success experiences and gradually increase assignment complexity throughout the semester. Temporarily reduce extraneous cognitive load by supporting some aspect of a complex task as students work through the entire task (also called scaffolding).
    • Allot class time for re-teaching and in-class problem solving with instructor and peer feedback and support.
  2. Organizing Knowledge
    • Ask students to make a key concept outline of course modules.
    • Ask students to make a key concept graphic organizer of the entire course. [Metaphor: this provides a visual file cabinet with explicit categories—file folders—for students to insert new knowledge throughout the course.]
    • Create an expert's graphic organizer for students to analyze.
  3. Connecting Prior Knowledge
    • Connect course facts, concepts, and principles to similar objects, examples, metaphors, and stories that students are familiar with and ask students to do the same (e.g., How is chemical bonding similar to the bonding between mother and child?).
    • Use knowledge surveys to determine what students believe they know about course concepts and the depth of this knowledge and ask students to review the survey results throughout the course.
    • Use concept inventories to assess prior knowledge in order for you and your students to understand their knowledge entry points as well as their misconceptions.
  4. Practicing with Feedback
    • Provide guided practice of historically difficult concepts, give targeted feedback, and have students revise assignments based on that feedback. Make use of newer feedback technologies, such as Wordle, Socrative student response system, and Moodle quizzes.
    • Use weighed-criteria charts and rubrics to clarify expectations for components student should consider in completing a student-constructed project. Use exam (or assignment) wrappers that ask students to analyze their test preparation, performance, and the instructor's feedback when exams are returned, with the goal of improving future exams.
    • Assign collaborative problem-solving sessions that include individual accountability (e.g., randomly pick one student from each group to solve the problem on the board) and team-based learning assignments.
  5. Developing Mastery
    • Design the course to focus on significant student-learning objectives and align the learning activities and assessments with these objectives.
    • Ask students to engage in the High-Impact Practices of intensive writing, researching, and collaborating.
    • Implement deep-learning pedagogies, for example:
      • Case-based learning
      • Team-based learning
      • Problem-based learning
      • Learning portfolios
      • Flipped instruction
      • Undergraduate research
      • Community-service learning
    • Provide opportunities for students to direct their own learning (e.g., self-directed projects), followed by reflection on and self-assessment of their performance.

In addition to conversations about the techniques and strategies listed above, most recently, our group is focusing on applying the Five Gears for Activating Learning to common student learning obstacles and challenges, such as student reading, writing, and thinking skills. The Eisner College of Education is uniquely qualified to become the campus incubator and promoter for innovative educational practices at CSUN; therefore, we invite you to join us in promoting these conversations about student learning.

For more information, please contact the Teaching Learning Group at

  • 1Our common reading, How Learning Works (2010, Ambrose, et al.), provided the foundation for our yearlong discussions.

  • 2Matthew d'Alessio, Geology, Pedagogy Enhanced with Technology Group

    Cynthia Desrochers, Education, former Director, CSU Institute for Teaching & Learning

    Rashawn Green, Director, Learning Resource Center

    Sharon Klein, English/Linguistics; Director, Writing and Reading across Disciplines

    Daisy Lemus, Communication Studies; Director, Faculty Development

    Michael Neubauer, Mathematics; former Director, Liberal Studies; Vice Provost

    Mike Rivas, Education; Secondary Education Department Chair

    Cheryl Spector, English; Director, Academic First Year Experiences

Return to previous page.
Proceed to next page.

Content Contact

Dr. Cynthia Desrochers, Editor
Professor, Eisner College of Education

Technical Contact

Ian Carroll
Web Developer, Eisner College of Education