Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Some basic ideas about teaching

Over the past few decades, I have taught a wide range of courses in diverse contexts. Perhaps I have been slow to learn how to be a better teacher. Since I began teaching things have changed dramatically. Our goals and the content of most curricula have changed little, and should not. However, advances in technology provide new opportunities but also challenges and potential distractions. The social context has changed significantly in terms of the expectations of both students and institutions.

Here are a few of the ideas that I think are important to keep in mind.  Some seem obvious, particularly in hindsight. On the other hand, practical implementations are a challenge. I think keeping the ideas in mind is also important for maintaining your sanity and motivation.
The ideas are listed in no particular order and many are interconnected.

The amount of learning that happens is correlated with the level of student engagement.
Engagement happens at many levels and in many ways: through attendance, listening carefully, taking notes, asking questions, reading texts, talking to classmates about content, working on problems, watching relevant videos, thinking about content, ...
Consequently, a good teacher explores strategies to increase student engagement. However, there is a limit to what you can do. This is why I despair of the situation in most beginning undergraduate classes in Australia. For example, in the last course that I taught there were about 100 students enrolled. Only about 30 actually showed up for class, and only about 20 used clickers in class to engage. Videos of the lectures are available (because of mandatory university policy), increasing the temptation of students to not attend. But most videos have viewed a handful of times. This is quite representative. It sadly contrasts to some different contexts I have taught where there is a very high level of student engagement.

The curriculum should be your servant not your master.
Textbooks get thicker and thicker with time. More and more content gets crammed into curricula. This increases the pressure to "cover material", even if students learn little. I recently had the opportunity to teach a whole course and took the liberty to reduce content and focus on depth of understanding. I think the outcomes were much better.

Accept and work with the hand of cards you that have been dealt.
We all have fantasies of teaching a class with students that are all gifted, well prepared, highly engaged, highly motivated, and appreciative. However, it never happens! We need to accept who they are, where they are at and adapt our expectations, strategies and academic level.

Flip, blend and mix the classroom.
On the one hand, there is a lot of hype about the value of "flipping the classroom",  online courses, and peer instruction. On the other hand, I am told (and I have my own anecdotal experience) that there is significant research that does show that a "blended" class [i.e. a combination of online and face-to-face] instruction is effective. I find that regular online quizzes and reflections do increase student engagement and give me helpful feedback about learning progress. But, expect some student resistance and complaints. If you reduce traditional lecturing a few students will complain that you aren't "teaching them" or that they are ``not getting their money's worth''!
Different students have different learning styles. Furthermore, today's students are more video oriented than text-oriented and have shorter attention spans. Hence, in a single class hour, there is value in a mixture of traditional lecture, short video clips, small group discussion, ...

Be mindful of the undercurrent of complex social and psychological dynamics in the classroom.
Students are human! They come to class with a lot of emotional and intellectual "baggage",  both good and bad: aspirations, gifts, expectations, insecurities, prejudices, excitement, preconceived ideas, fears, hopes, ...
Furthermore, they are not just individuals but a social unit. Your students have a relationship with you and with one another: positive, negative, ambivalent, or non-existent.
All this complex dynamics has the potential to enhance or to hinder learning. Unfortunately, much of it we have no control over. On the other hand, if we can discern some of the dynamics and respond appropriately it can enhance learning significantly.

Learning is enhanced through personal relationships.
Even extreme introverts are wired to be relational and yearn for meaningful relationships. They just want a few select relationships.

Accept that you will never make everyone happy.
It never ceases to amaze me how polarised student feedback and teaching evaluations are. You are the best/worst teacher they have ever had. This is the best/worse course they have taken. The course is too hard/easy... This is all for the same course and teacher! Don't take the feedback so personally.

What do you think?
Any other things that you think are important.

1 comment:

  1. My two tips for being a good instructor:
    1. Be organized. Let the students know what to expect and when to expect it (and follow through).
    2. Be genuinely interested in your students' success and empathetic to them. If this is not true the students will figure it out pretty quickly.
    It seems to me that if you satisfy these two requirements, most students will grant a lot of leeway in terms how hard/easy, slow/fast, blended/flipped etc. your teaching is.