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The Necessity of Really Knowing Your Audience

By Susan Ambrose and Michael Bridges, Carnegie Mellon University

A little knowledge can go a long way toward becoming a better educator.

One of the ways we can become master teachers is to cultivate a strong interest in and understanding of some of the developmental issues faced by our students. Three of the most important developmental issues are psychosocial, cognitive, and cultural. These areas play a key role in our students’ intellectual growth, their competency in the classroom, their sense of identity, and how they relate to the rest of the world.

Psychosocial functioning

Over the course of four years, college students invest substantial energy in issues concerning their vocational, religious, and sexual identities. In addition, their academic and social self-concepts undergo considerable challenge and adjustment. The transition to college also brings a new set of academic peers to whom they compare themselves. This new comparison base may threaten a student’s sense of intellectual and academic competency. Similarly, the distance (physical or emotional) that college often imposes on relationships with family and high school friends may force a loss of social identity and alter how students see themselves. In the midst of all the uncertainty brought about by coming to college, students are faced with the task of developing a sense of self-worth, self-competency, self-satisfaction, and self-confidence. All these struggles can impact academic performance.

In addition to changes that occur in the context of how students see themselves, important changes also occur in how students interact with the outside world. Students are developing a greater sense of autonomy—freedom from the external influence imposed by other individuals and institutions. They are testing previously held beliefs, values, and relationships in a shift toward a greater sense of control over important domains of their lives, and exerting more independence from family. This shift toward greater autonomy is accompanied by movement toward a less rigid orientation to the world: College students are becoming less authoritarian, dogmatic, and ethnocentric, less guided by strict rule-based behavior and stereotypic views of others, and more open to the perspectives and views of others. This growth also affects their learning, and expert teachers design learning experiences with this in mind. For example, faculty can structure courses that allow students to individually identify the relative weighting applied to various components of the course—quizzes, homework, exams, etc. This affords students a greater sense of control, autonomy, and engagement.

Integrating cognitive theory into teaching practice

Expert teaching also requires an understanding and integration of cognitive theory into teaching practice. While this has occurred in K–12 classrooms, it has not occurred as much at the university level. Following are four key cognitive issues that expert teachers understand.

First, prior knowledge is the basis for building new knowledge because existing knowledge can facilitate, interfere with, or distort the integration of incoming information. It is important for instructors to understand the misconceptions students have, so they can dispel them up front; otherwise, these misconceptions make learning more difficult. On the other end of the spectrum, if instructors know what students know, they can build on that prior knowledge to strengthen their reception of new information.

This brings us to our second point: How prior knowledge is organized determines its access and use because organization can facilitate or interfere with retrieval, use, and further learning. If students have not organized prior information effectively, there is a good chance that they won’t be able to access it easily, if at all. Organization is a sophisticated cognitive task, so instructors need to model effective organization and provide practice for students to help them hone this skill.

In order for information to become knowledge that a learner can access and use in multiple contexts, students must process that information deeply; this is our third point. Research indicates that active engagement promotes deeper learning because it creates stronger representations, facilitates storage in long-term memory, and creates multiple avenues for retrieval. Active engagement with material helps learners expand and elaborate on the course content, making it more meaningful or relevant to them while enhancing understanding and retention.

Finally, if students are to develop proficiency as learners, they must acquire the skills of selecting, monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting their learning strategies—what some cognitive psychologists refer to as metacognition. In essence, students need to understand the role of prior knowledge, organization, and active engagement, among other things, in the learning process. One way to accomplish this is to explicitly focus on process, not just outcome, and ask students to reflect on how they solve problems or construct arguments. For example, a colleague of ours routinely assigns students two less homework problems and, instead, asks them to chose two of the assigned problems and document why and how they did what they did to solve the problems.

Cultural development

This academic year represents the first time that “traditional” undergraduate classes are fully populated with members of the most recent cultural cohort—the Millennials. This group brings a host of shared experiences, attitudes, and values that are distinctly different from those of the previous generation. In particular, three features help us understand the culture from which our current students come.

This generation of students grew up in a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. As young children and teens, they have been courted by corporate America more than any previous generation. In addition, child protection policies, governmental regulations, and consumer standards have helped make this the most protected generation in history. Shifts in child-rearing practices have resulted in a cohort of students who are used to being indulged, consulted, and included in decisions that involve them or their families. The collective consequence of this pattern of attention has resulted in particularly strong bonds between today’s students and their parents. This bond often manifests itself in ways that are counter to developing autonomy and independence.

Economic prosperity coupled with fewer children per family has meant more attention and resources for the academic, athletic, and artistic success of this generation. These students are expected to excel, so parents respond to the first hint of suboptimal performance with tutors, coaches, and special supplemental instruction. As a result, these students expect individual attention, extra help, and institutional resources to support any difficulties they might encounter.

This generation has also lived task-oriented lives. They grew up reviewing flash cards, while eating a snack in the back of a minivan, listening to music on the way to soccer practice. Multi-tasking is a way of life. As a result, they erroneously believe that they can assimilate, and understand complex information while simultaneously listening to music, tracking their favorite cable television program, and carrying on Instant Messenger conversations.

This overview, of course, only deals with one segment of a diverse national student body. Today’s college students are complex beings. Understanding them along many dimensions moves us, as faculty, toward becoming more effective and more expert teachers.


References & Resources

Anderson, J.R. 1990. Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications, 3rd Edition. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Belenky, M.F., B.M. Clinchy, N.R. Goldberger, and J.M. Tarule. 1986. Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: BasicBooks.

Brophy, J. 2004. Motivating Students to Learn. Mahwah, NJ; Lawrence Erlbaum.

Evans, N.J., D.S. Forney, and F. Guido-DiBrito. 1998. Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Howe, N. and W. Strauss. 2000. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, New York: Vintage Books.

National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council. 2001. Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Pascarella, E.T. and P.T. Terenzini. 1991. How College Affects Students, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W.G., Jr. 1999. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schor, J.B. 2004. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner


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