Reading Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s The Spark of Learning (West Virginia University Press, 2016) made me want to tell people to buy it, especially teachers. Cavanagh is a college professor (Assumption College in Worcester, MA) who studies how learning happens and how people impact that experience.

Here’s the Amazon link for the book:

Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s engaging writing style and strategic use of narrative make the science behind her work understandable. Though Spark is geared toward college teachers, it’s practical and accessible reading for anyone who also wonders about learning.

Her book is an entry in the broad conversation about learning, and Cavanagh makes good use of other authors and researchers who already have joined that conversation.

Like Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs of Hamilton College, authors of How College Works (2014). She references their finding about what makes a college a healthy environment for student learning: “The best predictors of student satisfaction and success are whether students form close-knit friendships, have a mentor or two on campus with whom they develop a close relationship (it doesn’t even need to be a professor), or find a meaningful social group with which to identify.”

Other people play roles in OUR learning. Obviously, merely having friends, mentors, and peers doesn’t guarantee anything, but those people and one’s relationships with them matter. Learning takes work, but it’s easy to forget how much of that work involves dealing with others.

Take for example, Sarah Rose Cavanagh writing The Spark of Learning. She offers insightful interpretation of research along with creative and practical application, but she knows that other researchers and authors have established the context in which her work makes sense.

I recommend her book to all college teachers. Like me, readers who find it valuable may well end up checking out other books that she references. That’s how a good conversation works.

Again and again, learning hinges on what happens in key conversations, doesn’t it? Arriving at such an awareness can be a powerful turning point. Engaged learners look for those moments of insight. And wise teachers seek to create such opportunities.


Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the “Turning Points” weekly blog on City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. Bachus’s article, “Learning From Turning Points in Our Teaching Lives,” will be featured in the May issue of NEA Higher Education Advocate, which reaches over 150,000 college faculty in the U.S.