Teaching for teachers: Eyler’s book explores how we learn

From trigger warnings to Trivial Pursuit, “How Humans Learn” explores the fundamental ways in which our brains seek out and soak up information

Although it’s Josh Eyler’s first book, “How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching” (West Virginia University Press, $24.99) has been greeted with the sort of excitement typically reserved for a long-awaited follow-up to a best-seller.

How Humans LearnAfter abundant interest generated by the global teaching and learning community and an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that spotlighted Eyler’s efforts as the director of Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), Amazon decided to bump up the release date of “How Humans Learn” from Dec. 1 to Oct. 24.

Aptly described as a “warm, humane little book” by Daniel Chambless, the co-author of “How College Works,” Eyler’s effort at tackling such a broad topic remains intimate and interesting throughout. Woven together are personal anecdotes, interviews with college professors and in-classroom observations with research across fields such as cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology.

Starting with a story about his 5-year-old daughter, Lucy, endlessly examining a pair of red coffee cups as a baby, Eyler examines curiosity as the first of five broad themes in the book.

“I had never seen such purely fundamental curiosity — like curiosity as not just an intellectual exercise but as a need — and that moment just shifted everything for me,” Eyler said of watching Lucy investigate the new world emerging around her. “What happens to that?”

Eyler is prone to such sudden, life-altering realizations. It’s how the man who once planned to return to his hometown of Hanover, PA to become a high school English teacher and coach decided to focus instead on teaching the teachers; it’s how the medievalist with tenure approval at Columbus State University chose to depart from his faculty position in order to take on the role of associate director at George Mason University’s teaching center for two years before coming to Rice to head the CTE.

A book called “What the Best College Teachers Do” came out at a pivotal time in Eyler’s life, just as he was wrapping up his graduate studies at the University of Connecticut in 2006.

“It’s very popular now,” Eyler said. “But then, it had just come out. And that opened my eyes to the fact that there were these things called teaching centers on university campuses, and I thought, ‘That’s something that I would eventually like to do.’”

Josh Eyler

Josh Eyler

Teaching appeals to Eyler because of the opportunity to have a positive impact on a student’s life — to reignite curiosity that has been extinguished, to cultivate the kind of failure that inspires one to work harder or smarter. University teaching centers, it seemed, were ideal places to implement these techniques on an even larger scale.

“What I love about teaching is that you have this amazing interaction with the group of students that you are working with,” Eyler said. “But what I’m drawn to about this work is that you can have a similar impact on a lot of different students.”

With “How Humans Learn,” Eyler hopes to reach an even broader audience of educators, whether they’re at campuses with teaching centers or not. In addition to the theme of curiosity, the book addresses four others running through recent scientific inquiry: sociality, emotion, authenticity and failure.

Below, a condensed interview with Eyler touches on all five themes from the book and what educators can take away from each.

Eyler on curiosity:

“Curiosity is a natural part of who we are, so where does that go? How can we tap into it? How can we use it as a tool? That led me into some really amazing work on how essential curiosity was for our development and how our brains process that.

“There are some scientists doing research on curiosity right now where they put subjects in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners and they ask them trivia questions, and then they ask them how confident they are that they got the right answer. It’s just like Trivial Pursuit questions. They saw this spike in dopamine every time someone would get an answer wrong but that they had a lot of confidence that they were right. Their brains are priming them to say, ‘Wait, a minute, what happened here? I thought I got that right. I need to know that answer.’ So you’re seeing on kind of a chemical level. It’s fascinating — it’s just so deeply set in.

“One of the points of the book is that people really don’t change that much in terms of how they learn from the time they’re very young to when they’re very old — what changes is the educational context and things like that. So what’s applicable in terms of curiosity of an 18-year-old would also be true of a 5-year-old or a 35-year-old. It’s the context that shifts.”

On sociality:

“We, as people, not only thrive on social connection but also fundamentally need it. And that extends to our learning as well. So we learn much better from other people than we do by ourselves. That’s not to say that we can’t learn by ourselves; we just learn better when we are with other people.

“Part of it is because this is how we have developed as people through those social interactions. The earliest communication was people talking to other people about information that they needed to know. And so those teaching relationships have a very, very long history and do become embedded in the fabric of who we are.

“Some of the researchers I look at in that chapter are thinking about how did this develop, how did teaching evolve — that sort of thing — and they all come back to that, that at some point, someone has to show another person who doesn’t know quite as much something to help them survive.”

On emotion:

“Emotion is so interesting to me because we don’t talk about it very much in education. (But) so much of the research on emotion and learning shows that emotion and cognition go hand in hand. In most of our learning experiences, they are balanced together and moving in unison.

“If you think about ways that you can use humor and joy in the classroom — make people experience the joy of the subject matter or create really warm, welcoming environments in the classroom — those are prime ways that your emotions are tied to learning. The biggest issue, though, is when emotion surpasses our ability to regulate it.

“When you think about emotions as something that can not only affect learning but also have a negative effect on learning when they’re unregulated, you have to talk about those situations where students would be flooded with traumatic emotion and completely unable to learn because of that. Trigger warnings and content warnings get a bad rap as being kind of babying of students, but if you think of them biologically as a way for students to pre-regulate the emotion, it makes total sense from a pedagogical point of view that you would give people a heads-up.”

On authenticity:

“People in higher ed use ‘authentic’ for all kinds of reasons, it’s one of those umbrella words that you see all the time. In that chapter, what I specifically mean comes from psychologists who talk about cognitive authenticity, which means very simply that our brains are really good at picking out what is an artificial learning environment, where they don’t have to pay attention, and what is an authentic, real learning environment. When students are doing things that scholars in the discipline do, they recognize that this is an actual environment where they can apply what they’re learning.

“Flying an airplane and being in a flight simulator would both be authentic because they are mirroring real, they’re real to the brain. But being given a lecture on how to fly a plane would not be. So they’re two different sorts of things. So I could watch the Food Network all I want. That’s not gonna teach me what I need to know until I get in there, until I start doing it.

“Short lectures are absolutely an important part of the teaching toolbox. In terms of authenticity, though, we need to worry about the length of time someone can pay attention. The authenticity issue with lectures is we have all been in lectures where we’re thinking, “Uh, why do I possibly need to know this?” And that is the signal, that’s the kind of manifestation of a lack of authenticity.”

On failure:

“Fear of failure starts very early, and this is true in all endeavors. We’ve set up educational systems that privilege immediate success in high-stakes environments and high-stake assignment for a grade, for a GPA, something like that. Our educational systems all the way up are set up to discourage failure and to stigmatize failure. The problem is that’s not the way learning actually works, and so one of the things I point out early in that chapter is, as scholars in higher education, we know just from our work when we go to do research, we don’t magically come up with the right answer, the way that we don’t walk into labs and make great discoveries.

“We haven’t mined all the possibilities for a productive use of failure and error in the classroom. On a biological level, we’re making mistakes and errors all the time — it’s a feature, not a bug, that this is the way our learning processes work. We also have parts of our brain that are specifically attuned to catching errors and devoting cognitive resources to them. We need to think about that as teachers and embrace it.

“Because we know this is how people learn, we have to do what we can to make space and to figure out ways that we can utilize it. There are lots of different things that you could try there, but much of it boils down to disassociating learning from grades, and that is very hard to do. I don’t have the answer to that, just possibilities for how we can do that.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.