At a General Education course training, I was disconcerted by a colleague’s presentation which showed carefully selected personal notes from students, which she made them write at the end of every session. I was equally perturbed by other news that one of my younger colleagues has been cooking(!) in his Southeast Asian History class; and another opted for a study tour in place of a written final exam.
I am not passing judgment on these creative or technologically-innovative ways of teaching, but this great pedagogical diversity is making me wonder whether as a University, we are losing sight of the nuts and bolts of our profession. Previous attempts at peer-to-peer teaching assessment, where another teacher sits through your class and offers suggestions for improvement have been rebuffed by worries of infringement on academic freedom.
With over twenty years in the business and with experience at a US institution for comparison, here is a summary of my own lessons on what works:
1. Focus on the takeaway.
Every class is about what students learn at the end of each encounter. I take to heart a former professor’s wisdom of delivering 3 or 4 maximum points per session, to arrange, reiterate and sum up my lecture or activity around those points and those points alone. Students have busy lives; they have other matters to think about. What makes your lessons stand out are their portability and enduring character. Vocabulary building, human stories–these are things that will stay with them longer.
2. One size does not fit all when it comes to class materials.
There is a need to customize reading selections with the type of students/nature of class (i.e. level? homogenous versus mixed majors? undergraduates or graduate level?). In the US, this is solved by the instructor’s choice of a textbook or a custom-made reading packet that meets the minimum criteria of (a) readability and (b) content match with syllabus themes. There is no merit in inducing undergrad student “nose bleed” by assigning them materials you were given as a PhD student (no matter how brilliant you think the material is).
3. Keep students busy with short and easily-done assignments.
I routinely have my students handwrite (an anti-plagiarism measure) reflection papers from audio files and deliver news reports for sharing. In one GE class on gender, I had them keep a diary based on themes I pre-assign. It’s a lot of work marking assignments for 20-30 students but well worth the effort of making sure some “internal” learning process have occurred.
4. There is no substitute for face time.
I insist on actual make-up classes for sessions I miss due to official travel for meetings or research. I pre-schedule individual consultations for reports, papers and thesis; 10-15 minute minimum face time turning my office into a never-ending queue of waiting students. Students I find, place value on those encounters. It’s also a foolproof way of flagging under performers and absentees, as well as giving positive feedback to those who do their job well.
5. Do not assume that students know.
My classes come with Lego toy-esque instructions. I spend time walking students through the rubrics of writing essays, the format of scholarly papers with correct citations, how to deliver good oral reports (do NOT read from your notes; limit slides to 10 and use parsimonious text; use summary tables), speaking and writing English properly (I correct grammar and punctuation), and how NOT to plagiarize. More than content, students need to know what and whether they’re doing things right.
6. Treat students with respect.
Contractual obligations in the syllabi run BOTH ways. If students get marked down for absences, tardiness and delay in turning in exams and papers, then the same holds true for the teacher. Scolding students for shortcomings in front of their peers or dismissing their responses as inconsequential show insensitivity. In my class, there is no wrong response when asked, but affirmation of how their answers link to the matter at hand.
There may be a thousand and one ways to be the best teacher one can be. To me, putting the student’s interest first, not your ego or your convenience, is key. That and remembering to always put yourself in their 16-18 year old shoes.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed