The Work Matters

A Guide for New Faculty Teaching at City Tech


"In my country, only children of the rich could touch such old things."
This is just one example of how the signature City Tech approach to education that melds theory with hands-on experience, long familiar to students in their science, technology, design, and professional studies courses, is becoming a more frequent experience for students in liberal arts courses, as well. By using artifacts and real world problems and case studies, connecting courses across disciplines into learning communities, and composing teams that link students in liberal arts courses to colleagues in technology and design, professors are designing experiences that make learning not merely active but real.

Real learning, real work, depends not only on materials however, but also on understanding, skill, and technique, which are the products of practice or repetitive use. Comprehension, apprehension, and prehension all spring from the Latin root prehendere, to seize or grasp. And although the moment of apprehension is often described as a light bulb switching on or a thunderclap, these dramatic illuminations more often announce the moment that one becomes conscious of understanding, a moment that may come only after long and repeated effort, as the result of many attempts, and as Richard Sennett, describes in his wise and powerful book, The Craftsman, after purposefully "dwell[ing] in error."

Hands-on learning in any discipline is mindful, reflective learning that uses our attempts, successful or not, to advance our development of understanding or skill. What motivates us to persist in spite of repeated mistakes is—when it’s not sheer stubbornness—conviction that it matters. Precision matters. Skill matters. The work matters.
If this is true of learning, it is equally true of teaching. It is all hands-on work.
i New Haven and London: Yale UP (2008): 161

Bonne August, Provost December 2011 Nucleus: A Faculty Commons Quarterly Volume 3 – Issue 2

Supporting Students to Succeed


Useful Resources for Students


The methods of how course content is imparted to a new group of learners depend on the objectives of the course. While you intend to cover specified material in the course(s) you are teaching, often decided by departmental policy and course level, you may realize that your students do not understand what you are trying to teach them. You may realize this at the end of the course, as few demonstrate your expected capabilities of what adequate student performance may constitute. Or you may realize this shortly after teaching the material, when students are given a quiz or other feedback mechanism that has only a few questions (whether solving a problem on a quiz, multiple-choice, or short answer essay) but which allows you to gauge the level of knowledge of the students in your course.


Prior Knowledge

Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning (Ambrose et al., 2010)

Prior knowledge of a subject or topic may be well-grounded or may be non-existent. Students may have been taught the course material in prior schooling, or this may be their first encounter with the field. Students may have learned something albeit not in a formal structure, or they may have learned the material in a different type of educational or workplace system. The amount and type of prior knowledge may call for different strategies by the instructor for those with and those without prior knowledge. The only way you will know what your students already know is by determining what prior knowledge is retained or known about a subject.


Organizing Knowledge

How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know (Ambrose et al., 2010)

There are several strategies instructors can use to reveal and enhance knowledge organization in the course and discipline. Making connections from one topic to the next, and one concept to the next supports the construction of mental models.



Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning (Ambrose et al., 2010)

Practice is any activity in which a student engages actively with knowledge and skills, and the organization and use (for example, creating an argument, solving a problem, writing a paper, building a circuit board, making a dessert). The practice opportunity is scaffolded to “refine a repeated set of skills” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 126, quoting Ericksson et al.). Deliberate practice more specifically can be defined as working toward a reasonable yet challenging goal.



Feedback is information given to students about their performance that is expected to guide future behavior. Feedback is provided to students who must then have the practice opportunities to improve their performance. Feedback and practice must be “efficiently combined” (Ambrose, et al., 2010, p. 126), so that “learners achieve a desired level of performance” (p. 137). Effective feedback provides information about a learner’s current state of knowledge and performance that can guide him or her in working toward the learning goal.

Effective feedback can tell students:

  • what they are or are not understanding,
  • where their performance is going well or poorly, and
  • how they should direct their subsequent efforts (Ambrose, et al., 2010, p. 137)



Reading is a skill that instructors expect students to have mastered, but as Bean (2011) notes, students with difficulty in writing often have difficulty in reading.

“Many of today’s students are inexperienced readers, overwhelmed by the density of their college textbooks and baffled by the strangeness and complexity of primary sources and by their unfamiliarity with academic discourse. Armed with a yellow highlighter but with no apparent strategy for using it and hampered by lack of knowledge of how skilled readers actually go about reading, our students often feel overwhelmed by college reading assignments” (Bean, 2011, p. 161).



Many students are afraid of writing and are afraid of the freedom that an assignment predicated on their interests might suggest (Bean, 2011). A reason for students’ reactions is that they are concerned about exposing themselves as not being proficient writers. This is a concern not only for students whose first language is not English, but also for those whose first language is English. Scaffolding assignments to provide practice and improve performance can be encouraged in multiple ways through formal and informal writing. Further, scaffolding writing assignments allow students to learn more critically as they improve their work.

Informal writing, also called exploratory writing, or expressive writing “is the kind of exploratory, thinking-on-paper writing we do to discover, develop, and clarify our own ideas. Exploratory writing is typically unorganized and tentative, moving off in unanticipated directions as new ideas, complications, and questions strike the writer in the process of thinking and creating. Examples of exploratory writing include journals, notebooks, marginal notes in books, nonstop free writes, reading logs, diaries, daybooks, letters to colleagues…memoranda to myself” (Bean, 2011, pp. 120-121).


Critical Thinking

Asking students to “think critically” depends on moving away from testing their recall skills, to having them explain their understanding of a concept or example, to applying the knowledge to a problem. These three skills are “lower-order thinking” skills. Critical thinking asks learners to use “higher-order thinking” skills to analyze a document, a situation, or equipment, examine alternatives and evaluate the proposed final draft, action, or test, and consider the results, which may lead to creation of new knowledge.



To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned) (Ambrose et al., 2010)

To succeed in the academic setting, students must be taught how to think about and plan their own learning, to think about learning or metacognition. In a scholarly context, instructors’ expectations and students’ experiences often do not match. As Ambrose et al., (2010) note, students do not have an understanding of, for example, “what constitutes a substantive argument based on thorough research” (p. 125), how to construct such arguments, and present them.



Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn (Ambrose et al., 2010)

Psychologists have found that offering extrinsic rewards to learners who are intrinsically motivated to learn something will have the effect of damaging their intrinsic motivation (e.g., Deci and Ryan, 2000). The performance follows a similar trend: achievement follows interest. Learners must feel that they are in charge of what they are learning. If presented with external rewards which are not meaningful to the learner, their performance will decrease. They will act as “strategic learners” focusing on learning just enough to get a good grade, and unwilling to take on challenging learning tasks (Bean, 2004, p. 34).


Handouts for Students

[Instructors may wish to provide the following handouts and this explanation to students.]

New and improved study strategies are necessary to succeed in college. “Studying” can no
longer mean cramming the night before the exam or highlighting everything in your textbooks. Adopting the strategies for studying provided in Appendices A-H may be helpful to get “A” grades. Learning that you are in charge of your actions, including learning strategies, is part of realizing your new responsibilities. Everything you learn in college will help you build a coherent sense of the complexity of the world around you. You are responsible for learning content (the knowledge provided in a course) as well as new ways of mastering how to learn.


Dreyfuss, A.E., Jordan, J., Rajaram, K., Caka, M. (2014). (2nd Ed.). The work matters:
A guide for new faculty teaching at City Tech. New York City College of Technology, CUNY.
Online at

Faculty Commons

The Work Matters: A guide for new faculty teaching at City Tech. New York City College of Technology, CUNY by A.E. Dreyfuss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.