Who teaches the teachers? Spelling out the ABCs of pedagogy

In her newly revised compendium of teaching strategies, Barbara Gross Davis covers the basics ... and beyond

| 11 March 2009

Barbara Gross DavisIn preparing a new edition of Tools for Teaching, says Barbara Gross Davis, she "did what instructors would do if they had time" synthesized current research to help faculty create the best possible classroom teaching and learning experience. (Peg Skorpinski photos)

Barbara Gross Davis broke new ground in 1993 by publishing Tools for Teaching, a practical guide for college teachers. Davis, then dean of educational development at Berkeley, sequenced the content of the book to parallel the delivery of a course, defining key terms in each chapter, offering a historical perspective, and then providing ideas that faculty anywhere could adapt and try out.

Her approach proved successful Tools for Teaching was a longtime bestseller for its publisher, Jossey-Bass. It was translated into Japanese and Chinese, and found users worldwide, from Cuba to Vietnam, Singapore to Albania.

Since Davis published Tools for Teaching, pedagogy has undergone profound changes. And while technology has revolutionized the classroom in the past 15 years, there has also been a wave of new research on how people learn, says Davis, who is now the campus's assistant vice chancellor for equity and inclusion. Davis rewrote Tools for Teaching to address those developments, and Jossey-Bass published the second edition last month.

Since first publishing her book, Davis has tracked various technology-driven pedagogical shifts the introduction of learning-management systems that supplant the old paper syllabus and enable online discussion, PowerPoint as a lecture tool, and the classroom uses of Web 2.0. Technology permeates every aspect of teaching today, says Davis, adding that it "has made instructors have to think about how they teach and the role they want technology to play."

Davis received her master's and Ph.D. degrees in educational psychology at Berkeley, and has been connected to the campus ever since. In addition to her current position, she has served as director, then dean, then assistant vice chancellor of Educational Development, and assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. Having spent her entire career studying developments in education, she knows that university-level teachers "don't have time to read the literature [on teaching and learning] if they're trying to keep up in their disciplinary field."

Barbara Gross Davis"There is no single way to teach"
– Barbara Gross Davis

Topics that Davis addresses in the new edition of Tools for Teaching include course design and revision; how to lead a discussion; testing and grading; the pedagogical uses of blogs and wikis; how to create an inclusive classroom; and effective ways to teach large-enrollment courses. Davis looks at various presentation technologies (from flip-charts to the effective use of video clips), alternatives and supplements to lectures, and evaluation as a means to improve teaching.

She also discusses issues that have arisen in response to changing circumstances in American society for example, she includes a section on how to teach in difficult times. "With 9/11, [Hurricane] Katrina, the shootings on college campuses, what's an instructor supposed to do when you go into the classroom the day after a national or international tragedy?" Davis asks not entirely rhetorically, noting that little educational research has addressed that topic. "I actually think there is something an instructor can say, and I offer various options," she says, adding that individuals will determine what actions are comfortable for them. "There is no single way to teach," she emphasizes.

New developments afoot

Davis is particularly buoyed by new research that could lead to improved teaching. For example, she offers, researchers have found that learners have limited capacity when taking in unfamiliar and challenging information. Students may spend so much mental energy trying to understand and focus on a new concept that they lack sufficient cognitive space to reflect on, interpret, and absorb it, says Davis. To help students integrate what they've learned, an instructor needs to provide sufficient learning time and to pause to give students an opportunity to think. "That kind of information about how people learn has practical applications," she says, "and is relatively easy to implement within the classroom."

Another piece of new research shows that people who possess incomplete information or erroneous preconceptions about a subject may distort new information so it fits with their prior knowledge and existing conceptual framework.

A simple solution is to give a diagnostic test at the start of classes to discern students' levels of knowledge on a new subject, "instead of seeing students as tabulae rasae which is historically how people have taught," says Davis.

In her book, Davis also discusses recent educational trends, including the explosion in alternatives to the traditional lecture-and-discussion approach. Research has shown some of the shortcomings of the classic lecture model for getting students, particularly in the sciences, to understand concepts, she says. Davis points to the growth in and acceptance of new ways to learn: collaborative learning, undergraduate-research opportunities, engaged scholarship in which students learn within and outside of the classroom, and case studies in which learners solve problems posed in a real or invented scenario.

Home-grown help

Davis spent five years revising her book working nights, weekends, and vacations and estimates that 85 to 90 percent of the second edition is new. Some of the research and insights in the book came from Berkeley faculty, including a technique developed in the late 1970s by Charles Schwartz, professor emeritus of physics. At the end of class, Schwartz would ask his students to write down the answer to two questions: What is the most significant thing you learned today, and what question is uppermost in your mind at the end of today's class? Schwartz called that exercise the "one-minute paper." The students' responses, submitted anonymously, enabled him to see how well he had conveyed the material and what topics to emphasize in the next class meeting. Since Schwartz originated the technique, it has been emulated and modified by other instructors across the country.

Davis traces other ideas in the book to the campus's teaching e-mail list (known as the Teach-net listserv), including a section that addresses the etiquette of students' use of laptops in the classroom and how to accommodate student announcements in class. "Teach-net provided a lot of helpful, practical advice that I thought would be of interest to faculty beyond the Berkeley campus," she says.

When she finished her manuscript, Davis sought feedback from some of Berkeley's most celebrated pedagogues. Two previous recipients of the campus's Distinguished Teaching Award Ole Hald, professor of mathematics, and Gary Firestone, professor of molecular and cell biology read the manuscript and provided her with advice. Firestone says that Tools for Teaching is "correctly titled it gives you great ideas." Thanks, he says, to the book's design, specific topics can be accessed with ease.

Even as an experienced teacher, Firestone says, he learned some new strategies to implement in the classroom. "Berkeley is a large place with mostly large classes," observes Firestone. "The first thing any department on campus should do to help new assistant professors develop their classroom skills and optimize their teaching effectiveness is to give them a copy of Barbara's book."

As Davis herself sees it, "The faculty don't need a lot of handholding to figure out what they need to do to be better teachers." In Tools for Teaching, "I wanted to give them the gist, to let them jump to what they need to fit their own particular circumstances."

For information on the Office of Educational Development, visit To learn about the campus's Teach-net listserv, visit