Priming Their Brains for Learning


Dawn Richards’ Inductive Style Fosters Interest in Social Sciences

Giving students a test before they are introduced to the material? It’s not the usual teaching strategy, but College of Southern Maryland’s social sciences instructor Dawn Richards has found that to help students learn, she must get them ready to learn.

Sometimes, that means beginning class with a true-false quiz. “I might give them five minutes to take it, off the top of their head, true-false, true-false–only takes five minutes. Then the material from the class is based on that,” Richards said. “It gets in their brains the important things to focus on…I just want to prime their brains for the information I’m offering.”

Richards, who was recognized as the latest recipient of the Faculty Excellence Award for Adjunct Faculty, has been interested in the process of learning throughout her 12-year teaching career. “I study how the brain works—what’s the best way to learn?” Richards said. “Studying and learning is really a skill. Textbook chapters can be dense, so learn to study smart. That’s a skill that’s not only applicable in a college classroom, but also in everyday life.”

Her courses, which range from sociology to world regional geography, offer plenty of opportunity to foster the critical thinking she seeks from her students.

Richards often poses a societal question in class, allows students to discuss it in groups, and then includes everyone in a back-and-forth dialogue. One example Richards has used is the question of whether society influences a person’s choice in a marriage partner in which she finds most students initially say no: in our culture, we get to choose our own partner.

Richards will ask, “Oh, OK, so you get to choose whoever you want. Well, OK, let’s pretend I’m in the market for a marriage partner. Can I marry anyone I want?”

Yes, absolutely, the students respond.

Richards then points out you can’t marry someone who’s already married as society frowns upon more than one wife. The students then consider other factors, such as if the person was of another race, religion or ethnicity, if the person was severely disabled and needed constant care or resources, or if the potential partner was a lot older, or a lot younger.

By the end of the discussion, students realize that society has a lot to do with the choice of a marriage partner, Richards said. “It’s not just [about] us and our desires and wishes. There’s also social control, these sort of unwritten rules of society.”

Richards has been using inductive methods of teaching after she earned her master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Hawaii in 1991. As a graduate student, she served as a teaching assistant in three cultural anthropology classes with three different instructors, “and it gave me an idea how the same subject could be taught different ways,” she said.

After she received her degree, the department chair then offered her an opportunity to teach cultural anthropology. “I wanted some more ideas about teaching, so I went to the graduate library and checked out a bunch of books about how students learn, how do our brains work, what are good teaching methods. One of the books talked about inductive teaching: rather than tell the students the definition of something, present the subject information and let them come up with the definition for it on their own. It’s more active on the part of the student. I started incorporating that into the class, and it’s just been the way that I’ve taught ever since.”

Richards returned to CSM in 2007 after a previous stint in the 1990s at the college. Over the years, she has followed her husband, Tim Rush, a retired meteorologist with the Navy, to different countries. Richards also worked as a flight attendant, so she has had an opportunity to see some of the parts of the world she discusses with her students, some of whom have not traveled afar. “It makes it exciting to be able to open their eyes to different ways of living, different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking about issues.”

As a social scientist, Richards enjoys the diversity of CSM’s student body, which ranges from recent high school graduates to returning students, all who hail from a variety of backgrounds. Studying other societies, such as India’s caste system, can be an eye-opener for students, Richards said. “Students say ‘I had no idea. I didn’t know it was like that.’”

Richards’s classes, particularly world regional geography, provide opportunities to use multimedia to study current events, from the social upheaval in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to the tsunami in Japan. Richards wants her students to realize that what happens overseas can affect their lives, and what goes on in the United States affects the world. “No one can afford to have an isolationist policy any more. We have to be aware of what’s happening.”

CSM Geography Professor Art Viterito, who nominated Richards for the award, noted that her experience enables her to teach across a number of disciplines, and she has even taken on a course on Western civilization. “It’s just remarkable to teach in three different disciplines and do an excellent job in all three,” he said, calling Richards one of the top teachers he has encountered in his 30-year career.

Viterito called Richards “a true academic” who is always seeking ways to keep her courses fresh and relevant to students. Viterito noted when nominating Richards that she has taught her world regional geography course in all formats – classroom, web-based and web hybrid, which is a combination of online teaching and a traditional classroom.

Richards says she prefers face-to-face instruction, however the web courses feature lively discussion because the anonymity can foster frank dialogue on divisive or touchy subjects. “People are more honest in their responses and willing to engage in a deeper level than in a face-to-face class,” Richards said.

A La Plata resident, she is enthused about teaching at CSM. “I really like being part of the college. It’s not just an income-maker for me. I really like being part of the whole community.” She praised the college’s adjunct training program, which provides all-day weekend sessions on everything from developing good tests to showing students how to study in-depth. “The faculty here are interested in doing the best job they can for their students, and the college helps [adjuncts] out in terms of the extra training they give us,” she said.

That training helps Richards prime her students for a world in which learning to think critically will carry over into other classes or the decisions they will face in their daily lives. She hopes, for example, that when considering political issues, “instead of just listening to sound bites, now maybe … [they’ll say] I’ll research this candidate to see what their voting record is. Maybe they’ll say I still have my own belief system, but now I understand that other people might have different beliefs or might think differently about the same subject than I do… the hope is that this will help them look at other things in life in a different way.”