College’s Curriculum for Teachers: The Latest Research on Cognition

By Daniel Gursky — January 15, 1992 7 min read

SOUTH EUCLID,OHIO--When Sister Ruthann Heintschel talks about the new master of education program here at Notre Dame College of Ohio, she pays extra attention to the word “master.”

Most master’s degrees in education lead to administration or counseling, says Ms. Heintschel, the director of graduate programs for the suburban Cleveland college. At Notre Dame, on the other hand, “We wanted to put together a program that would enhance the teacher’s ability as a classroom teacher and develop what we would call master teachers, in the sense that they are masters of the art of teaching,” she explains.

The best way to produce those masters, Ms. Heintschel and the program’s professors believe, is to immerse classroom teachers in the latest research findings about learning. The program emphasizes the rapidly emerging field of cognitive psychology, the study of how people store, retrieve, and apply information--in short, how they think and learn.

As the teachers in the program quickly learn, current cognitive psychology represents a sharp break from the theories that dominated the field when they earned their teaching degrees--and that dominate classrooms today. In place of the old behaviorist notion that students must master bits of knowledge in increasing difficulty, cognitive science stresses that children “construct” knowledge based on what they already know, and that they can engage in complex thinking at a very early age.

“Traditionally, it seems we teach in terms of skill levels and hierarchies of knowledge,” says Charlotte Andrist, an assistant professor of education at the college. “With cognitive psychology, we’re trying to put the emphasis on process rather than skills.”

In the classroom, that translates into fewer repetitive skills drills and more attention to students’ individual differences and how they affect learning.

“It’s a perennial question whether teaching is an art or a science,” says Sister Therese Dugan, an associate professor who heads the school’s education department. “We all know it’s both. But this program tends to enhance the scientific, research-based approach to teaching.”

Teaching Experience Required

With cognitive psychology as the thread that runs through the program, the graduate students go on to specialize in one of three areas. Ms. Heintschel says most choose the critical- and creative- thinking track, which includes courses on theory as well as curriculum design and teaching strategies.

Other students specialize in teaching the learning disabled or in instruction of the developmentally handicapped.

Students in the critical- and creative thinking track explore the latest research on topics such as reasoning, inference, creativity, and problem solving, as well as analyzing their own thinking processes. “How-to” courses focus on specific teaching strategies, including questioning techniques, methods of organizing information graphically, and cooperative learning.

Students in the other two tracks, likewise, examine research findings as they study the psychology and education of the handicapped, assessment in special education, instructional strategies, behavior and classroom management, and related subjects. Each course also includes clinical and field experiences.

The program only accepts classroom teachers who have a valid license and at least one year of successful teaching experience. Because most students will continue to teach full time, Ms. Heintschel expects them to take at least 2½ years to earn their master’s degrees. They have up to five years to complete the required 33 semester credit- hours.

The seven teachers who made up the program’s first entrants completed their inaugural semester last month. With a target future enrollment of about 35 students, the program will continue to enjoy the advantages small size can bring, Ms. Heintschel says.

For most of the teachers, the Notre Dame program provides their first encounter with advanced research about learning. And that initial experience can be demanding.

“It was like being thrown into the water without a life preserver,” says Ann Bebout, who enrolled after moving from Virginia, where she taught for five years. “We were assigned psychological and educational journals that I had never had any experience reading, and we were given no instruction on how to go about it.”

Ms. Andrist, who teaches the survey course on cognitive psychology, saw the teachers overcome those early difficulties to the point where they now enjoy reading the research.

“That’s an important step,” she says. “If teachers want to know what’s happening in terms of research, they need to be able to read those journals and be able to evaluate what they read.”

Susanne Tomaschek, who is returning to teaching after taking time off to raise her children, says she finds cognitive psychology “very, very interesting.”

“To me, this is a really new concept,” says Ms. Tomaschek, who earned her undergraduate education degree from Notre Dame College. “It gives a very different perspective on teaching than when I went to school.”

Final Papers

Seated around a table in a cozy library seminar room that offers refuge from the fierce Great Lakes storm brewing outside, Ms. Andrist’s students give oral presentations of their final papers.

During the semester, they have studied the theoretical bases of cognitive psychology, as well as looked at how cognitive research is applied in the classroom with such fields as reading, writing, mathematics, and science. For their final papers, the teachers review and critique the research literature on a topic that interests them.

Although they are just finishing their first semester, the teachers who plan to complete the program are also gathering ideas for future research projects. For now, they stick to reading research journals. But eventually, they will move on to primary-research sources, and their studies will culminate with a final research project that must be conducted in the classroom.

With Ms. Andrist asking occasional questions to check their understanding of the material, the students talk about topics such as problem solving in early childhood, the teacher’s role in promoting critical thinking, and reading-comprehension strategies.

Sister Judith Ann Sabau, an elementary and special-education teacher, has clearly picked up Ms. Andrist’s message about the importance of process in students’ learning. Although the teacher plays the leading role in guiding the process, Ms. Sabau says, she realizes she should serve as more of a model for her students, helping them build on what they already know, instead of being the dominating central force in class.

For instance, Ms. Sabau explains, she has tried to use questioning techniques to push her students to think more deeply about the subject matter, rather than rely so much on lectures. And the research in cognitive psychology has taught her that she needs to give students ample time to form their responses before she jumps in.

That is just one of many areas in which Ms. Sabau finds herself trying to apply the lessons she has learned with her own students, she says.

“Now, when things happen in my classroom,” Ms. Sabau says, “it’s like a light bulb goes on and I think, ‘This is what we’ve been talking about.’ I’ve found the course to be extremely enlightening and energizing in many ways.”

Building on the Fundamentals

The Notre Dame graduate program attracts teachers like Ms. Sabau, who brings more than 20 years of teaching experience, as well as those who have spent only a year or two in the classroom. Most have taught for at least five years.

Unlike an undergraduate program, which must of necessity focus on the fundamentals of teaching, such as classroom management, student evaluation, and basic instructional skills, a graduate program gives teachers a chance to build on those fundamentals, says Ms. Dugan, the department chair.

“Teachers with classroom experience have all that personal experience they can draw on,” Ms. Dugan says. “It gives them a tremendous firsthand base for honing their skills and cognitive processes. I think that’s one of the strengths of our master’s program.”

Whatever their background, all teachers can benefit from analyzing their teaching, Ms. Dugan argues. She hopes the program’s graduates learn to “do the successful and effective things on purpose.”

“Teaching would not be so much of a routine,” she says, “it would be much more conscious.”

Take, for example, the study of different models of teaching. “We’ve known about models of teaching for a long time,” says Ms. Dugan, pointing out such methods as lectures, problem solving, discovery, and the behavioral model. “But to approach them from the point of view of using cognitive processes consciously is exciting.”

Teachers should be able to evaluate each model and understand the relative degree of flexibility, teacher control, and student control involved, she says, so that they master a complete repertoire of teaching approaches for every student and every situation.

For veteran teachers, furthermore, a program geared to the classroom provides something no administrative training can offer, says Ms. Heintschel, the director of graduate programs.

“We hear so much about teacher burnout,” she notes. “Sometimes what teachers need is some re- education. To come back and get a master’s degree could be just the vehicle for invigorating them and keeping them in the classroom a little bit longer.” .

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 1992 edition of Education Week as College’s Curriculum for Teachers: The Latest Research on Cognition