Tools for teaching, second edition


Barbara Gross Davis, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2009, 592 pp., ISBN 978-0-7879-6567-9 (paperback, $50).

MaryKay Orgill*, * Department of Chemistry, UNLV, Las Vegas, Nevada 89154-4003.

I had no idea what I was doing the first time I taught a college course. I relied on my previous experiences in classes, the course textbook, a colleague's lecture notes, and my own intuition as I planned and delivered the course material. None of my teaching strategies were based on what is known to promote student understanding of abstract scientific concepts. I was simply trying to survive the course without making too many mistakes. As I have become more confident in my teaching, I have also become more interested in integrating learner-centered strategies into my courses. However, finding easy-to-understand and easy-to-access information about strategies that I can realistically integrate into my large enrollment college-level courses has been difficult. I have often wished for a resource to which I could turn for quick advice about teaching strategies that can promote learning in my classes. I have found such a resource in Barbara Gross Davis's Tools for Teaching.

In this book, Davis, an educational psychologist, distills much of the research and pedagogical literature about college-level teaching into a simple, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-access format. According to the preface, the book “provides new and experienced faculty in all disciplines with practical, tested strategies for addressing all major aspects of college and university teaching, from planning a course through assigning final grades” (p. vii). The book is written for a general audience, and its language is easy enough to understand so as to make it accessible to a faculty member from any discipline.

The book is divided into 12 parts, each focused on a principal teaching responsibility or activity of a college professor. Each of the parts is, in turn, subdivided into multiple chapters that cover both basic topics—like creating a syllabus, assessing student learning, and using evaluations to improve teaching—and more advanced topics—like discussion strategies, group learning, case studies, and strengthening students' problem solving skills. I found many topics that were directly relevant to the classes I teach, such as “Teaching Academically Diverse Students” (Chapter 8), “The Large Enrollment Course” (multiple chapters in Part IV), “Motivating Students” (Chapter 21); and “Maintaining Instructional Quality with Limited Resources” (Chapter 19). I also found helpful reminders about the effective use of technologies that support teaching and learning. For example, there is a useful discussion of PowerPoint presentations in Chapter 51.

One of the strengths of the book is its author's belief that there is no one teaching strategy that is appropriate for all courses. Instead, she recognizes that faculty members are intelligent agents who are capable of choosing those teaching strategies that are best for their courses and their students. As such, this book provides a “toolbox” of strategies that faculty can choose from and implement, as appropriate.

At first, I found the length of the book to be somewhat intimidating, but I quickly learned that faculty members will not need to read the entire book in order to benefit from its contents. The book is designed as a reference book, with independent chapters that can be read in any order, depending on the reader's interests and needs. The organization of the book makes finding needed information a simple task. The Table of Contents provides descriptive titles of chapter contents. Each chapter includes a brief introduction to the topic at hand, followed by short paragraphs with boldface subheadings. I found it very easy to skim the boldface subheadings in order to find a teaching strategy that was of interest to me. For example, in Chapter 11, in the section about planning an online discussion board, I quickly found a bolded subheading called “Explain the Ground Rules.” In that section, I learned about ground rules that will promote respectful, thoughtful online discussions—rules I had not previously considered, but that I will use for my course discussion boards in upcoming semesters.

The descriptions of individual teaching strategies are brief—intentionally so. The author knows that faculty time is limited and believes that, given the gist of a strategy, faculty are capable of adapting the strategy for their courses and their students. Personally, I found the descriptions to be sufficient for my needs; but, for those who would like to know more about a particular topic or strategy, Davis provides multiple references to publications that discuss each strategy in detail.

In all, I found this book to be a useful, quick reference for my queries about different strategies I could use in my classroom, and it is a welcome addition to my library. I plan on using it not only for my own benefit, but also as a starting point for discussions with graduate teaching assistants and other faculty members about issues related to classroom teaching and learning.