Teaching Academy Panel 8.17.06

“Tips on Teaching: What Great Teachers Do” - Notes for response


The panel's topic:

"What makes for great teaching?"
Creating the most effective environment in the classroom, in terms of philosophy, psychology, and practical tactics.

Philosophical, psychological, and practical tactics
  • Philosophical: what are the goals and ethics of this situation?
  • Psychological: what perceptual environment do I want to create?
  • Practical: what tactics enhance concentration, attention, and participation?

Philosophical: what are the goals and ethics of this situation?
  • The pursuit of excellence
  • Intellectual and ethical rigor
  • Critical receptivity
  • Honesty, fairness, inclusivity, growth

Psychological: what perceptual environment do I want to create, in pursuit of these philosophical goals?
  • One of psychological, intellectual, and emotional safety
  • One of respect: for one another, the material, and the scholarly process itself
  • One of maturity, attention to detail, and, yes, of love

Practical: what tactics enhance concentration, attention, and participation?
  • Maintain the focus: you must direct the students’ attention in clear, specific, and logical directions. Like a searchlight, students’ attention needs to be pointed in illuminating and logical directions. Don’t expect that they know where to look or upon what to concentrate. You must help them learn this.
  • Make it a performance: by definition, if you are standing up and holding forth to a group of listening students, then you are “performing” for them. It is therefore your responsibility to hold their attention. Tactics that so hold their attention—take a cue from actors or standup comics!—enhance your delivery. Lack of or inappropriate tactics that erode their attention consequently erode your effectiveness.
  • Change it up: A successful performance employs a diversity of presentational methods in order to speak to a range of perceptual responses. Ergo, don’t be boring! Move around the space, change your inflections, extemporize, use visual aids, and so on. Don’t be manic, but recognize the disconcerting brevity of many students’ attention spans, and “change up” your mode-of-delivery with sufficient frequency to anticipate such (brief) spans. Recognize that clarity of presentation and clear articulation of goals can enhance attention. Example: if a clear goal and set of expectations (“listen to this piece, take careful notes about musical style, and be prepared to respond to the following questions…) are articulated, student attention can be held for 3-4-5-6 minutes. In contrast, if any unexpected
  • Create dialog: there is a direct relation between students’ engagement in the classroom and the range of contributing voices:
  • § one voice (for example, the lecturer’s) is the least engaging mode;
  • § two voices (for example, the lecturer’s versus the text’s; or the lecturer’s versus a single responding student’s) create a marginally more engaging mode;
  • § three voices (the lecturer’s, text’s and single student’s; the text’s plus those of two students, etc) are markedly more engaging, and so on.
  • There is probably an upper limit to the maximum number of separate voices which can feasibly be engaged in a workable discussion, but generally, the gains accruing from such polyphony exceed the losses (or the losses can be countered by emphasizing decorum and polite modes of discourse)
  • Respect and replenish constructive energy; do not dribble it away! Your real stock-in-trade is positive, constructive, engaged, and joyful student energy. With it, you can accomplish a lot. Without it, your productivity will suffer.
  • If you maintain yourself in the “plus” column of student energy (by facilitating it, respecting it, understanding what erodes it, taking steps to replenish it) you can accomplish much more learning at a cost of far less teacher energy. If you slip into the “minus” column (by losing student attention, hesitating, conveying disorganization or disengagement, etc) your ability to accomplish student learning will be immediately and negatively impacted.

Make technology a dynamic tool, not a passive prop: Our students are more accustomed to, receptive of, and able to engage with simultaneous multiple media than any previous generation. They are more comfortable receiving information in multiple simultaneous forms: print, speech, discussion, still images, moving images; charts, posters, powerpoints, websites, graphics-laden texts, etc. Therefore, multi-media “smart classroom” technology is a way to present complementary approaches to the same information in a multiple-input mode, which facilitates student attention, understanding, and (especially) retention.

However, technology is not a “magic bullet”: impressive technology deployed in service of bad teaching will still yield bad teaching. Generally speaking, I have had most success when I employed technology with a clear and consistent awareness of 21st-century students’ modes of processing information. The video, website, podcast, or powerpoint needs to make sense to them, much more importantly than that it must make sense to you.

Reinforce retention using multiple media:

Related to the technology comment above is this one: exploit “on-demand” technology. We teach the TiVo generation, and we should exploit the electronic technology to which they are accustomed. Students’ attention to outside-the-class study is largely a function of convenience: if a student can readily review material (lecture, audio presentations, powerpoints, web materials, etc) at his/her “on-demand” convenience (e.g., at any hour of the day or night, via iPod, Internet, cell phone, etc.), then s/he is much more likely to do so. Any factor (lack of access, inconvenient medium, and so on) that impedes such “on-demand” convenience lowers the likelihood of outside-the-class study.
Consider, as one very simple example, the possibility of audio-recording a brief précis of main points, immediately after completing a lecture, and posting to students via email. This would not replace attendance and note-taking at the lecture (despite the fact that some students will try to so employ it) but a student reviewing his/her lecture notes could listen to the précis at the same time, thus engaging the student in a multiple-input mode.

One caution: be very wary of making too much material available to students outside of class attendance. Typically, students will do almost anything to avoid physical attendance: making your own lecture notes, or a full recording of the lecture, or even just your outline or powerpoint slides, accessible (via the web or the copy machine) to students not attending class will only enable such absenteeism. Such outside-the-class materials should, ideally, work very effectively as supplements to lecture notes, while at the same time working not at all as substitutes for attendance.

Dictum: master your classroom technology. Never employ a piece of technology in a classroom presentation of which you do not feel a practical command. Few problems erode classroom attention and concentration more swiftly than a breakdown of presentational technology. Conversely, always have a presentational “Plan B” in the event that a familiar piece of technology breaks down.
  • Develop improvisation skills: No class can, will, or should follow every detail of your lesson plan, lecture outline, or notes. Every group of students, every individual meeting by a group, is idiosyncratic and you can predict, in advance, every and all most possible strategies. Therefore, you need to be prepared to extemporize and to improvise: to alter content, pace, delivery method, and/or dialogic mode, moment-by-moment, in order to maintain the group’s course in the most productive and stimulating directions. “The map is not the territory;” hence, be prepared to “light out cross-country” (but, belaboring the metaphor, still using a map and compass) while projecting a sense of clarity, confidence, and adventure to the group. These can be the most stimulating classes, when the students can share in the experience of discovering and “mapping” new intellectual territory.
  • Articulate goals on micro and macro levels: it is a truism (but an important one) that student engagement increases in direct proportion to the degree that students’ understand (and ideally share) course, lecture, and homework goals.
  1. On the simplest level, this means that any such activity (a semester’s work, a given lecture or assignment, and so forth) should explicitly and immediately articulate its goals.
  2. On a more complex and psychological level, this means that the lecturer must convey and evoke a sense of confidence in the work’s goals and value.
  3. Anything that, in the students’ perception, intimates that the professor doubts his/her means and methods of accomplishing these goals works against this sense of confidence. A (perceived) lack of confidence—or of organization, of classroom authority, of command of the material—can erode the students’ confidence. In turn, this erodes attention and “net gain.”
  • Leave space for response: Many modern undergraduate students—while typically projecting an aura of jaded, blasé, world-weary, post-Paris Hiltonian sophistication—are also typically highly intimidated by the complex of analytical, critical, verbal, and textual skills required by effective scholarly discourse. Just as the lecturer must “model” the attitude s/he seeks to inculcate (see below), s/he must also provide both a psychological environment and, simply, the practical and chronological space for students to frame critical ideas and articulate responses. Students will stumble, hesitate, wait for one another to respond, avert their eyes, and otherwise seek to avoid engaging, in fear of being “wrong” or “stupid.” One of the most effective ways to counter this—provided a respectful and supportive classroom environment has been created—is simply to leave space: allow the student extra time to think up answers, allow silence in the classroom while you await responses, and so on. Don’t jump too quickly to fill that space—if the question is out there, and the onus is clearly on the students to respond—wait.
  • Don’t spoon-feed: related to the above: just as it can be important and valuable to allow space for students to slowly, laboriously, or even reluctantly speak up and formulate responses, it is similarly important not “spoon-feed” information to students. If a situation, idea, analysis, or other intellectual problem is complex, internally contradictory, or confusing, don’t dumb it down. Articulate clearly that the problem in question is complex, contradictory, or confusing, and be a patient facilitator as students work out the complexities and their critical responses. Contemporary students are prone to treating all statements from the lecturer as pronouncements of fact—avoid spoon-feeding these. You want critical engagement, not slavish transcription—even if this is what secondary-school education seems to prioritize.
  • Develop intentional and personal strategies for conveying and maintaining classroom authority: In the “new university,” students can tend toward what may strike their chronological or experiential elders as remarkably disrespectful, preemptory, or mercantile perspectives: the “my dad paid for this education for me so you better deliver the product!” attitude. Of course, students have always tested the limits of classroom behavior, but, now more even than in the past, it is important for the lecturer to develop effective, intentional, personal, and appropriate strategies for holding classroom authority. Such strategies will be deeply personal and are typically developed through a combination of observing other educators’ effective techniques, of trial-and-error, and of mentor feedback.
  • It is thus not usually possible for one lecturer to simply borrow another’s strategies. But every lecturer should examine, consciously critique, and intentionally customize his/her classroom behavior and strategies in order to establish and maintain classroom authority with sufficient clarity that students do not feel impelled to test that authority. Suggestion: begin simply by observing others’ approaches and recording your own. If you simply observe on videotape problematic conduct in your own teaching, you will have made an excellent first step toward lowering the percentage of ineffective strategies and thus enhancing your effectiveness.

  • Model the attitude you seek to inculcate: Generally speaking, our goals for students—desirable intellectual perspectives, conduct toward others, appropriate styles of discourse, an effective critical approach to reading, listening, speaking, and writing—can most effectively be taught when they are modeled by the lecturer. If we as teachers in the classroom think, speak, read, listen, write, and behave toward others in the way we desire from our students—if we model the conduct we wish to elicit—we are teaching by example as well as by dictate.

  • And that is our ultimate responsibility.