Review of Nilson’s Teaching at Its Best

Review of Linda Nilson’s Teaching at its Best

Mike Burnes

Nilson provides a comprehensive guide to college teaching. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find any topic related to college teaching not covered in her book. For example, in a chapter on teaching in the sciences she includes a section on laboratory safety, and on several occasions she proffers advice in bulleted lists of more than 20 items. As she points out herself, when discussing methods to foster deep learning, too much information can overtax the brain. For that reason, this book is not one to read in a single sitting or even over a period of a few days. It covers so many topics and offers seemingly every tip for good practice ever published. I could never hope to remember them all. Unlike Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, Nilson’s book is not a breezy summary of attitudes and general strategies for engaging students in deep learning. Rather it is well-organized and detailed description of good teaching practices and, like Barkley’s Student Engagement Techniques, should be a frequently-consulted reference for anyone teaching a college course.

Nilson makes one of her more interesting and useful points early on when she describes the nature of knowledge which college students are supposed to learn. Her description of college learning as “a structured set of patterns” and “a grid superimposed on a messy world to make predictions and applications” is the best description I’ve read of what should be happening in college classrooms. Given that many students bring their high school notions of simply learning lists of facts and concepts to college, I think hearing Nilson’s views up front, in perhaps a first-year orientation course, would prepare students for the work ahead. This viewpoint sets the tone for many of the following topics as she describes methods and practices designed to help students learn patterns and grids which structure knowledge. Whether designing a syllabus, preparing for the first day of class, choosing appropriate methods to deliver instruction, determining assignments, or developing assessment tools, Nilson consistently argues that deep learning requires outcomes tailored to teaching the connections between concepts which in turn guide methods and assessments.

I found a great deal of useful information. Nilson is careful to cite research on student motivations, attitudes, and learning styles. I also enjoyed her no-holds-barred discussions of millennials’ attitudes toward college-level learning and problems in the K-12 system. At one point she claims that the system “does little to nurture a love of learning.” One of the more useful features is table 11.1 which recommends instructional methods for each level of Bloom’s “old” Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning. The following chapters in which she discusses the methods are useful for learning about the methods and include helpful tips, but they would be insufficient for faculty members looking to implement the methods. For example, despite carefully reading the chapter on problem-based learning, I would be hesitant to try the method without receiving training. Finally, I found Nilson’s chapters on assessment very useful. When I taught as an adjunct, designing fair and effective assessments was the most difficult task I faced.

Despite its many useful features, the book also contains a great deal of information which detracts from the central purpose of fostering better learning. Nilson seems so determined to examine every facet of the learning environment that she risks hiding her best points among a dizzying array of lesser points. Actually, she goes well beyond the learning environment with sections on student ratings and teacher portfolios. Sure, lab safety is important, but I’m not convinced she needed a section to cover it. Yes, preventing cheating is also important, but providing more than 35 bulleted points on how to prevent it was unnecessary. Psychologists claim that the brain can process five to seven points at a time; Nilson gives us 20 or more on even the useful topics. It would be impossible to remember and use every recommendation. As I finished the book, I overwhelmed by how much ground the author attempted to cover. For this reason, I think the best way to use the book is to read it once in order to become familiar with its wide variety of topics and then keep it as a reference, going to appropriate sections as needed.

One thought on “Review of Nilson’s Teaching at Its Best

  1. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughtful critique of this book. I agree that all the content in Nilson’s book can get a little overwhelming, and not all of this is relevant to every college teacher. However, I can say that those 35 points on plagiarism definitely reflect my own anxieties about dealing with academic misconduct with students, haha.


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