CSUN Launches ‘Five Gears’ for Activating Student Learning

Five Gears Learning Group

Pictured are the 2014-2015 members of the Five Gears Faculty Learning Community. Standing from left: Heidi Schumacher (Liberal Studies) Rachel Mackelprang (Biology), Theresa White (Africana Studies), Matthew d’Alessio (FLC co-facilitator, Geological Sciences), Cynthia Desrochers (FLC co-facilitator, College of Education, Special Projects), and Nanci Carr (Business Law). Seated from left: Ellen Stohl (Educational Psychology and Counseling), Leigh Bradberry (Political Science), Yoko Mimura (Family and Consumer Sciences), and Stefanie Drew (Psychology).

“Everything we teach has some component that students are familiar with that we can highlight to give students a starting place for new learning.”

That’s just one of five principles California State University, Northridge’s Teaching Learning Group plans to share this academic year with faculty in the Five Gears for Activating Learning project. Cynthia G. Desrochers, professor of education and head of the project, said connecting prior knowledge to new concepts — one of the five gears —gives students a starting place to build new learning.

Combining neuroscience research, best teaching practices and cutting-edge research from across disciplines, Desrochers’ group has developed a shared language for talking about how learning happens. The Five Gears for Activating Learning are:

  • Motivating learning
  • Organizing knowledge
  • Connecting prior knowledge
  • Practicing with feedback
  • Developing mastery

“The Five Gears condenses 100 years of research into a common vocabulary that CSUN teachers can use in the classroom to FiveGearsLogoimprove learning and make teaching more enjoyable,” said Desrochers. With money from CSUN’s Judge Julian Beck Learning-Centered Instructional Project grant and a donation from Michael D. Eisner College of Education Dean Michael Spagna, Desrochers and co-facilitator Matthew d’Alessio of the Department of Geology plan to expand the project in 2015-16.

They are organizing a multidisciplinary faculty learning community to apply the Five Gears to student learning challenges and obstacles.

“We share the vision that faculty teaching and our classroom impact on student learning should now be our focus for increasing student success at CSUN,” Desrochers said.

CSUN faculty can apply online to participate in the yearlong Beck Grant Five Gears Faculty Learning Community for 2015-16. The deadline is noon on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

Desrochers, who has worked in education for more than 45 years, including as the founder of CSUN’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and former director of the CSU Institute for Teaching and Learning at the Chancellor’s Office, initiated the project in 2012 with participation from a small group of faculty leaders from various disciplines.

The group read How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, a book that brings together much of the relevant research by cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and others over the past 100 years, particularly in the last few decades. The group’s work has been supported by the Office of the Provost and the Michael D. Eisner College of Education.

“Every teacher, from the novice to the expert, can incorporate the five gears into their classroom teaching,” said Michael Neubauer, vice provost and one of the original members of the team involved in developing the gears.

Heidi Schumacher, a professor in the Liberal Studies program who participated in a test study of the principles last spring, said the strategies have helped her become a better teacher.

“I wanted to make what had been intuitive in my teaching more intentional and explicit,” Schumacher said. “I learned over the course of the Faculty Learning Community that I had been using many of the gears without knowing it — one of the very valuable aspects of this FLC was learning a common language with which to think/talk about effective learning and teaching.”