Pedagogies of Small Residential Liberal Arts College

by Nancy Chick

I’m fascinated by pedagogy. Not so much the practices and skills that make up teaching, but more how the visible acts of teaching are driven by what we think it means to teach and to learn.

As Trigwell, Prosser, and Waterhouse (1999) demonstrated, a teacher’s conceptions of teaching and learning (i.e., what they mean, what they look like, and how they’re connected) have a greater influence on the quality and depth of student learning than any specific acts of teaching. For example, we often hear that active learning strategies are effective, but any of these strategies can be applied by following the steps of its recipe–without much depth of understanding of the invisible stuff that should be happening in students’ minds. This surface-level execution of these activities then leads to surface-level student learning.

Chew and Cerbin (2017) go further and argue that this conception of teaching and learning should be more than any one teacher’s private assumptions: it should instead be informed by “what we know about how the mind learns and thinks,” resulting in an overarching “theory of learning” that is “complex, stipulating all the elements that contribute to learning and specifying principles of how these elements interact with each other.”

With these imperatives in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about the specific pedagogies of campuses like Rollins–small, residential liberal arts colleges.

  • How do we conceive of teaching and learning?
  • How do these beliefs inform how we teach and how students learn on our campuses?
  • And how do these teaching and learning experiences guide our students to a particular way of being in the world?

What is the constellation of beliefs about teaching and learning that informs the ways of teaching that prepare students for who we want them to become?

Lee Shulman’s concept of “signature pedagogies” is applicable here. In his work with medicine, the law, and the clergy, he saw specific ways of teaching that “provide the early socialization into the practices and values of a field” by helping students “form habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of the hand” of that field (Shulman, 2005, p. 59, 56). What are the ‘habits of head, hand, and heart’ we want our students to form–and how is our teaching effectively socializing them into those habits?

If it’s not, shouldn’t it?

Read the follow-up post, “Distinctive Learning Experiences” in which we ask (and answer) “Can we identify the signature pedagogies of residential liberal arts institutions?” (Chick, Anderson, Rolph, Sandlin, & Boland)


Chew, Stephen L., & Cerbin, William J. (2017) Teaching and learning: lost in a buzzword wasteland. Inside Higher Education.

Shulman, L.S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus. 134.3: 52-59.

Trigwell, Keith, Prosser, Michael, & Waterhouse, Fiona. (1999) Relations between teachers’ approaches to teaching and students’ approaches to learningHigher Education 37: 57-70.

Image credit: Constellation Orion from Grand Canyon, by InSapphoWeTrust

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