After 15 years working as a university lecturer teaching courses ranging from languages to Social Science, I feel it is a good moment to write down what I consider to be some of the most important principles of good teaching – at least the ones that have inspired my own teaching practice the most.
What follows is a wholly personal reflection based on my experience as a student and as an instructor, and therefore makes no claims of academic validity. Still I hope it will spur some discussion
1.- Activate your students
There are a million ways of doing so, and your choices will depend on variables such as course materials, the profile of your students, or your personal style. By and large,I believe in capitalizing on students’ intrinsic motivation, and try to design class work that is engaging both personally and cognitively.
2.- Expect the best from them (and say so)
I still remember a lecturer I had during my degree in Canada who taught my group a History of Science survey course. Well, she’d constantly say things like, “well, I could explain such and such a theory, but I guess it’s too complicated”. We all felt like telling her that at the same time another lecturer was asking us to read (and understand!) Kant’s Critique of Judgment in a week. And maybe we didn’t quite get there – but which of the two managed to motivate us more?
Most students like to be challenged. And that’s understandable, because setting demanding yet realistic challenges is a sign of respect for students and their potential.
3.- Make your students think
Activation, of course, is not enough, if our students just end up cramming information into their short-term memories in order to eventually regurgitate it in the exam. Most courses will offer plenty of opportunities for thinking that goes beyond memorizing (sometimes called higher-order thinking) and it is your job to design activities that promote thinking in your class.
Taxonomies such as Bloom’s can be of help:
What taxonomies such as Bloom or SOLO suggest is that lower order thinking skills are necessary but not sufficient, and that coursework and assessment should factor in higher order thinking, too.
Evaluate the respective pros and cons of economic policy A in an economy described by characteristics C1, C2 and C3
is a better question than
Describe the main features of economic policy A.
as it asks students not only to remember and understand (as the second question does), but also to apply, analyze and evaluate.
4.- Shut up and teach
In EFL teacher training courses and handbooks there is big fuss about reducing teacher talking time (TTT) and maximizing student talking time (STT). Of course, in language courses the point is essentially to get students to communicate.
However, even in regular content teaching it turns out that students are usually more cognitively engaged when talking, negotiating, explaining, team-writing….in short, doing. Emphasis on collaborative class-room and flipped methodology goes in this line.
5.- Make sure your assessment techniques are aligned with what goes on in class
I’ve written about constructive alignment before, as one of the theoretical frameworks on teaching that I have found most inspiring. Still, it still surprises me how easy it is to fail to evaluate students on the same skills that we ask them to develop in class.
So what happens if most of the grade depends on a final exam that is based on memorization? Well, most students (except perhaps the most academically oriented) will adjust to that evaluation choice and, perhaps, not give their best when it comes to attending our fantastically planned, student-focused lectures, or submitting other assignments that we have designed in order to improve our students’ thinking, communication or team-work skills.
6.- Use authentic texts
Why do so many uni lecturers keep sharing their own notes (a.k.a “apuntes” in Spanish) or endless Powerpoint presentations crammed with way too much information? Generally speaking, and when compared to published materials, notes tend to be poorly written and insufficiently referenced. Further, as I see it, they are a reflection of an obsolete model of education, in which the instructor is primarily the source of knowledge and the student the “recipient” thereof.
Instead, I feel it is much better to expose the student to well-written texts in the discipline, whether it be teaching methodology handbooks, journal articles or research reports, and train students in critical reading of those genres.
7.- It’s not about knowing and doing: It’s doing for knowing, and knowing for doing
Maybe my bias here comes from my training as a language teacher, but I never quite bought the theory first, then practice sequence. In my experience, theory becomes most meaningful when it is taught in a real-life, practical context. This is the principle behind many teaching approaches such as problem-based or task-based learning. Further, I feel that students nowadays have a shorter attention span (or, if it’s the same as before, then they are worse actors) so introducing theory in a clearly defined practical context is the key to engaging them from the very beginning.
8.- Give quality feedback
As in other fields, convenient and immediate access to information using Internet has radically altered our roles in class. So, if we’re not here mainly to supply information, what is our main function? Well, in a student-focused scenario (see numbers 4 and 7, above), designing and managing meaningful classwork will take-up a lot of our time. But so will feedback, or the way we respond to student work and that should enable student progress on the targeted skills. In teaching terminology, we’re talking about capitalizing on formative assessment (for learning) v summative assessment (of learning).
There are almost infinite ways of providing feedback to student work: comments on paper or online, using evaluation rubrics or checklists, whole-class comments and clarification after correcting an assignment…
Generally, in recent years I have tried to take the extra step from teacher-focused feedback to more student centered forms of self- and peer-assessment. As I have described elsewhere in this blog, it turns out that this methodology, while not necessarily improving the performance of the stronger students, does result in a higher average performance for the class.
9.- Have fun
Yes – really. You’re a university instructor, not a prisoner breaking rocks in some God-forsaken penitentiary.Have you ever thought about how lucky you are to be in the position of cognitively stimulating human beings at the prime of their lives? We all remember some or all of the good teachers we had in the past. They were engaging, inspiring and mostly fun. Well, who says it won´t be us who’ll be remembered by our students twenty years down the road?