I once thought that a good university instructor was simply a captivating lecturer. Being a skilled orator is undoubtedly useful for teaching, especially for larger audiences, but I now see it as single tool in any instructor’s toolkit. A good university instructor is someone who has developed a whole repertoire of in-class teaching tools and uses them in the appropriate situation, depending on the instructor’s educational purpose and particular audience.
Below is a list of tips I’ve commonly referenced when working with early-career university instructors. Broadly they represent a move away from
- Off-Load Heavy Lifting: This is based on a simple principle: those who do all of the conceptual work – the heavy lifting – make all of the mental muscle. Thus, effective teachers will strategically offload the cognitive work to students in a variety of in-class activities (or CATs). For example, have students offer the examples that illustrate the rule, or have them summarize and clarify the main issues, or have them create the links to the readings or other course materials. The key is patience and dialogue; student responses may not always be ideal, but that should be expected in the development of any skill, especially critical cognitive skills. The best way to build those habits of mind and ways of thinking is to have students actively engage with the material.
- Scaffold and Model Out Loud: Learning a skill is not the same as memorizing a fact. If you are having your students learn a critical skill, such as solving a problem, analyzing a text, interpreting evidence, or creating an argument, it is important to model how that skill is done and attempt to break it down into individual, progressive steps. Mastery is becoming adept at a series of steps which combine into a larger skill, thus being able to articulate these steps clearly to novice students is important. Not only could this be accomplished through listing steps on a slide or writing them on the board or a handout, but also narrating your thought process when a student asks you a question (i.e. not just giving the student an answer); this includes questions you ultimately do not have the answer to.
- Questions Drive Thinking: Knowing the final answer is often not as important as knowing how one got there. Remember to strategically ask students checking questions after they give their initial response to an inquiry. For example, give students a chance to clarify their own response if it wasn’t optimal, or ask them to justify their response, to explicate their rationale, or ask them to give an example that illustrates their idea. “What exactly do you mean here?” “Why, what’s your evidence or thought process?” “Can you give us an example?” Asking for clarification, justification, and exemplification are all effective checking questions that will allow students to think more deeply about the concepts you want them to learn.
- Culture Starts on Day One: It is difficult to change a classroom culture halfway into a semester; you need to create a learning environment on the first day of class that will carry through the course. The initial class may be a “low stress” day, but that doesn’t mean careful planning is unnecessary. For example, if you want an active, engaged, and collaborative environment, those classroom expectations should be established on the first day. Thus, be prepared to ask your students probing questions, or have students respond directly to one another in conversation, or to engage in small group work. This will set the tone of how students should expect to interact with you and their peers throughout the semester.
- Master your Time and Space: Try to make your classroom dynamic. For one, take advantage of your classroom space. If you can arrange seats, consider creating a circle or horseshoe (or double-horseshoe if you have more students) so students can more directly converse with one another. If you cannot move seats, do not hesitate to invite students to all sit in the front of the class, it will create a more intimate teaching environment. Furthermore, consider breaking you class into 15-20 chunks of time, sometimes referred to as “lectorials” or “lecturettes,” where lecture portions are followed by an activity, such as a discussion or group activity. These questions or instructions can be placed directly into your slides, and can help you plan out your overall lecture timing.
- Rehearse Before Sharing: One of the toughest social aspects of learning is the fear of being wrong or sounding inarticulate in front of your peers. If you are looking for more student engagement, instead of cold-calling individuals, consider ways in which students can rehearse their answers before offering them to the whole class. This could be a simple as having students think and write down their response before sharing. Additionally, students could share their thoughts with a neighbor or small group first (the traditional “think-pair-share” method). You can also “warm-call” students by telling a few individuals you expect to hear from them after their small group conversations. Having the chance to clearly articulate a response or receive feedback can empower students who are less inclined, or simply not fully prepared, to participate.
- Focus on the Ends: Consider starting and ending a class with an active learning activity or reflection. For example, to help activate the appropriate mental schema, start class with an “entrance ticket” by writing a challenging question on the board or distribute a handout with a passage to read and interpret. Or, have your students re-read their notes and select a concept they found confusing and share it with a small group. Likewise, at the end of class, have student reflect and complete an “exit ticket” or “muddiest point” where they note the most confusing idea of the day. This provides important information that can be revisited during the next class meeting. Active learning activities such as these need only be 5-10 minutes.
- Learn Names: If the class is small enough try to learn names (30 students is certainly possible) and use them regularly when talking to students. You could practice by taking role verbally as well as personally handing back assignments, both of which can be done while students are working on an activity early in class. Some may prefer to use seating charts or name tents.
- Teaching is a Skill, Not a Gift: In my experience, early-career instructors are often reluctant to talk with one another about their classroom experiences. This makes sense since we are trained to be researchers and scholars in our disciplines but are not necessarily formally trained or apprenticed in teaching. This means we should start by learning from each other, sharing our ideas for classroom activities, passing around drafts of our handouts or worksheets, thinking about how to build effective grading rubrics, and so forth. Like many things, teaching is a skill, and any skill requires practice, reflection, and an eye towards improvement. Share your successes and failures with your peers, it will benefit all of us.