When humans first started passing down the wisdom of previous generations, it couldn’t have been long before debate emerged on the best way to transmit this knowledge.  And so began learning theory, which has been with us ever since.

Teagle Foundation logoUC Berkeley has been in the game a little less than a century and a half, but in that time has earned the reputation of being one of the very best at the endeavor of teaching (as well as research).  That reputation probably played a part in Berkeley’s receiving two recent grants from the prestigious Teagle Foundation of New York City, which works to, among other things, improve undergraduate student learning in particular and higher education in general.

The two Teagle grants have already created a ripple effect of positive changes that are radiating in small waves through the campus, changes that are rooted in solid research about how students learn and the important role graduate students play in educating undergraduates.

Linda von Hoene
At the helm of the “How Students Learn” Initiative is Berkeley’s Linda von Hoene: “We know the Teagle Foundation is very interested in assessment, and we are, too. The kind we’re looking at in this project are assessment activities that simultaneously promote learning— for example, low-stakes quizzes, meaningful and well-conceived projects and assignments, portfolios of student work and reflection on their learning over time. One of the most powerful ways to get students to learn is to have them assess their own learning. The students are not just showing their teacher what they know, they’re gauging for themselves how much they know and don’t know, and seeing where they need to put their efforts. As teachers, we need to recognize that we’re not just teaching the facts, we’re teaching the cognitive skills that enable our students to analyze, interpret, evaluate, and apply that knowledge in a variety of contexts.” (photo: Peg Skorpinski)

The Teagle Foundation — which was established by Walter C. Teagle, the man credited with turning Standard Oil of New Jersey into the world’s largest oil producer — is an organization that likes results, and it takes the trouble to find out how its backing might be most effective before investing in new proposals.  To do this, the foundation holds what it calls “listenings.”

A few years back, Teagle leaders invited people from top-tier universities in the U.S. to a listening so they could hear how those institutions were improving undergraduate learning, from one very specific angle: by developing their graduate students as professional teachers.

This was music to Berkeley’s ears.

Through the Graduate Division’s Graduate Student Instructor Teaching and Research Center (nicknamed the GSI Center), Berkeley had quietly and on a shoestring been pioneering efforts in this direction for years.

Linda von Hoene, who directs the GSI Center, went to that first listening, and happily responded to the Teagle Foundation invitation to apply for “a small amount of pilot funding.”  In 2010, the foundation backed Berkeley’s proposal with an initial grant of $35,000, to cover 15 months — a period in which the perpetually-busy GSI Center ramped up its efforts significantly.  What the center’s staff produced in that time, with faculty partners and a part-time graduate student researcher, was a wide and lasting set of “deliverables” for use by the whole Berkeley campus and beyond.

These included:

  • A semester-long working group and speaker series in spring 2011 on how students learn.  As speakers, says von Hoene, “we got people who are doing research on this, not just cognitive scientists and neuroscientists and people from education, but others from integrative biology and anthropology and more.  What we told them is, ‘We want you to translate your findings into a language that everybody can understand.'”  To hear what they had to say, von Hoene and her group invited “faculty members who teach large courses and their colleagues-in-the-making, the GSIs who helped them teach those courses.”  About 75 people took part, roughly two-thirds faculty, one-third GSIs.  (These would become the nucleus for a next step, if further funding became available.)
  • A resource-rich website on how students learn, drawing from the research of the speakers, with essays, videos of the presentations, and links to key sources.
  • A final report, with findings, for the Teagle Foundation — which invited Berkeley to apply for another round of funding.

In due course, a second grant came through, in spring 2012.  This time, the grant amount was $125,000, for a three-year period.

Richard Morrill, the president of the Teagle Foundation, wrote last May, “We are pleased to support this scaling up of the pilot program that seeded the ground for this project, and was focused on integrating research on student learning and its application more fully into Berkeley’s program for preparing graduate student instructors for current and future teaching.”  In addition, he said, “we expect that the results of your work will benefit your individual campus, and further, that they will be of wide interest to others concerned with graduate education and its impact on undergraduate student learning.”

What’s already underway, thanks to this grant:

  • A workshop for GSIs on how students learn is being revised that will be offered each spring, as a required component of the GSI Center’s teaching certificate program.
  • Starting with eight departments this year and another eight next year, a module about how students learn will be introduced to the 300-level pedagogy courses that are required for all first-time GSIs.  (Berkeley is one of the few research universities in the country with a comprehensive policy on steps the departments, faculty, and GSIs themselves must take to ensure that the GSIs are, in fact, prepared to teach.)  The module will include material that will enable GSIs to apply the research on learning in their own courses.
  • In 2012, the Graduate Division’s decade-old Summer Institute for Preparing Future Faculty began incorporating specific information and activities on how students learn as part of its curriculum.
  • Starting in 2013, the GSI Center’s Teaching Effectiveness Award, which honors GSIs for identifying and solving teaching problems, will be extended to honor teaching-problem solutions that are based on research about how students learn.
  • An annual seminar for faculty on working effectively with GSIs, offered since the mid-’90s, will be incorporate research on how students learn.

Taken as a whole, the reach of these programs will be dramatic.  Von Hoene estimates that over the life of the two grants, over 700 GSIs and faculty members will have direct experience with the research on how students learn, and as they employ the findings in their own teaching they in turn will have impact on more than 16,000 undergraduate students.  “Once we’ve integrated the fruits of this research into all our programs,” she says, “it can have a long life, enlightening the campus in way that’s thoughtful and not off-putting, but inviting and intelligent.”

Von Hoene, whose 2002 Ph.D. in German is from UC Berkeley, says, “In the teaching of foreign languages, there’ve been quite a number of methodologies advocated over the years.  So I’ve developed a healthy skepticism about someone telling me I should do this, this, and this.  I ask why.  What this Teagle funding is helping us do is tell faculty and GSIs not only what techniques work, but who says they work, and why.  It’s all about training the next generation.  The GSIs will use this knowledge while they’re here, then get their degrees and take it with them to other institutions.”

During the span of the project and at its conclusion, von Hoene and others will get feedback on how useful the information proves to be to the GSIs and faculty, and will communicate these results to the campus, to other parts of the UC system, and at professional conferences elsewhere — a living example of how new research on learning can be integrated into the teaching culture of a major research university.

Summer Institute 2012, teaching porfolio group
Reaching the teachers: the participants of this year’s “preparing a teaching portfolio” section in the Summer Institute for Preparing Future Faculty became familiar with new research on how students learn as part of a wider roll-out of the findings. (photo: Peg Skorpinski)


An example of the videos from the speaker series.  This is anthropologist Rosemary Joyce, talking about how people learn in the context of communities.


Berkeley’s “How Students Learn” Initiative team:

Linda von Hoene, Director of the GSI Teaching and Resource Center and Person in Charge of the “How Students Learn” Initiative

Kim Starr-Reid, Assistant Director of the GSI Teaching and Resource Center and webmaster of the “How Students Learn” site

Catherine Cronquist Browning, (graduate student, English) teaching consultant, phase 1

Ben Krupicka, (graduate student, Political Science) teaching consultant, phases 1 and 2

Christopher Atwood, (graduate student, Italian Studies) teaching consultant, phase 2

(“We’re very grateful,” says Linda von Hoene, “that Graduate Division Dean Andrew Szeri, with his associate deans, has created a climate here that encourages us to try new ideas.  Dean Szeri places great value, from his own experience as a graduate student and as a professor, on faculty and graduate student collaboration, and has a deep commitment to enhancing the professional preparation of our many Ph.D. students.  Associate Dean Rosemary Joyce, who is an anthropologist, gave an outstanding talk in the speaker series on how we can apply what we know about how people learn in the context of communities to teaching practices and the design of projects and assignments that will lead to greater learning.”)

“How Students Learn” website

About the foundation:

The Teagle Foundation provides leadership for liberal education, mobilizing the intellectual and financial resources that are necessary if today’s students are to have access to a challenging and transformative liberal education.  The Foundation’s commitment to such education includes its grantmaking to institutions of higher education across the country, its long-established scholarship program for the children of employees of ExxonMobil, and its work helping economically disadvantaged young people in New York City — where the Foundation is based — gain admission to college and succeed once there.