Tips for Better Teaching

March 11, 2002

"This university doesn't help its professors to teach better. It just expects them to." So observed a colleague recently. She went on: "In my department there is no attention to teaching, no regular meetings devoted to it, no special symposiums or outside experts or seminars. And that seems pretty true of the entire campus. The university-wide student evaluation schemes are of little help, and the peer evaluation is of no help at all; we just all say that each other is doing fine.

"What I want are some specific, usable ideas," she added. "I may reject them, but I'd like to hear about the techniques -- even the gimmicks -- other professors are using."

We've decided to take up her challenge, to offer a few techniques -- gimmicks maybe to some readers. Our suggestions are not couched in scholarly prose, nor are they supported by data that suggest that learning improves 17.4 percent each semester with the use of these methods. Many of them are informed more by common sense than by academic accoutrements.

We've gleaned them from a variety of sources: reflections on our own teaching, discussions with colleagues, our observations of other professors, our reading about classroom strategies. Our search for ideas has been focused on answering one question: What are some of the things that good college teachers seem to do?

They go to class 5 or 10 minutes early.

The stereotype, we fear, is all too common: the harried professor dashes into the classroom just after the session is supposed to start, throwing his briefcase on the desk, digging through it for today's notes, taking a breath and beginning his lecture. Such a picture conveys what we believe is a counterproductive notion about the importance of teaching -- that this instruction stuff I'm doing isn't as valuable as the research I just left or even the committee meeting I was in. No wonder our students question our commitment to teaching.

Getting to class a few minutes early allows you to ease into the teaching, to relax a bit. It gives you the opportunity to chat informally with your students. And we'll bet you a baked potato in the university cafeteria that, if you begin getting to class 10 minutes early, you'll discover that many of your students are getting there early, too.

They not only have a syllabus, they have a visible plan for the day.

Although a few professors argue against the value of a syllabus, we think its advantages are many and significant. The syllabus functions as a road map through the course, highlighting the shared journey you and your students will be taking. You can put material into a syllabus that you then don't have to spend as much class time on: course objectives, evaluation criteria, attendance policies, your office hours.

Good instructors of our acquaintance also have daily lesson plans that achieve at least two objectives: They suggest what the instructors hope will occur during that class meeting and, possibly of greater worth, they convey to the students that their professors have thought about the session and its activities.

Professors tend to be able to speak well and long extemporaneously (doubt us on this and we'll invite you to a faculty meeting), and can get by with little preparation beyond thinking, "Today I'm on the Battle of Blenheim" as they open the classroom door. But good teachers seem to believe that that kind of preparation is simply not enough, no matter how sparkling the Blenheim lecture. Advance planning is needed.

But they get off the syllabus and the daily plan now and then.

In our teacher-education classes we sometimes explain about the Tennessee Instructional Model, called "TIM" in the state's elementary and secondary schools. TIM provided a lesson plan format that teachers in Tennessee were expected to follow as their classes were observed by principals and supervisors. Points were taken off if these teachers were guilty of "birdwalking," the term used when teachers strayed from the plan of the day. But good teachers we've known often birdwalk, sometimes intentionally. They occasionally relate an anecdote about a recent trip to Europe, or tell the class that they're a bit sleepy because a junk novel kept them up until 1:30 last night.

Episodes of birdwalking of this sort permit breaks in the classroom routine. They reveal you as a person of many interests, among them, of course, the subject you are currently teaching. But you're also a European traveler, a reader of junk novels, a person of broader horizons than the mechanical engineering or the political science that is your first love. And letting students see that your first love is one of many may, in fact, enhance its appeal for them as well.

They vary their routines.

A biggie, this. Good teachers seem to have a lot of different activities going on in their classrooms, not concurrently, of course, but over time. True, they lecture, they have class recitations. But they do a lot of other things too:

  • They have students give occasional oral reports, say of three or four minutes in length. These might open the class and lead in to the professor's presentation.

  • They pause for what we'll call the "instant group activity." The math professor says, "Let's stop here and look at the problem on page 119. Get with the person next to you and solve it." The literature professor interrupts her remarks about the structure of the novel being studied to ask students to group themselves and find details that support this notion of the structure. And after the problem is solved or the details are suggested, there follows a general classroom discussion. These kinds of interactions are more than a bit worrisome for many professors -- trained themselves in the lecture method and long practiced in continuing its campus dominance. They ask, "What if my students don't say anything?" A technique we've found is simply to move away from the lectern, approach the students, and say, "Please talk with me." This courteous request usually elicits responses and it conveys to students a sense of, "Look, gang, we're all in this teaching-learning business together; let's help each other out."

  • They vary the furniture arrangement if they can. If the chairs move, they move them, in a semicircle one day, rows another, a circle a third. And if they use seating charts, they change them every so often.

  • They bring in occasional guest speakers, a colleague in their field or someone from beyond the university's walls, to provide variety in presentation and viewpoint.

  • They sometimes give collaborative assignments. Universities are highly individualized places, with classroom competition the norm, even though we know that many of our graduates will enter an economic world where cooperation is often demanded of them. Why can't professors provide their potential graduates with some group experiences, asking them to prepare debates to be delivered in class, to write joint papers, to create dramatic presentations that augment what the class is studying?

  • They allow different modes of intelligence to operate. Although we pledged no footnotes in this column, we can't resist a mention of Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, first published in 1983, and his later books in which he posits that, in addition to the verbal and quantitative intelligence so privileged around the campus, students also possess other kinds of intelligence that instructors should think about when they teach -- spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. Can you develop activities and assignments that might tap into these other modes of intelligence that your students bring to class?

Good college teachers help students get to know each other.

University classes are frequently impersonal kinds of societies where no one knows anyone else at the beginning of the semester -- or at the end. Good teachers recognize the rich resource that friends, and acquaintances even, can be in a classroom and set aside time for students to get to know each other. Use first names when you talk with students in class. We like to use manila folders, with the student writing her name on the outside with one of those visible-at-forty-yards markers and then hanging the folder over the edge of the desk so that we and the rest of the class can see it.

They expect good work from their students.

Teachers who regularly receive high marks from their students about their teaching are often very demanding; they aren't teaching the gut sections. These professors recognize that teaching and learning are serious enterprises, and they convey that recognition to their students in many ways and not simply, we hasten to add, by harsh grading. They give challenging and insightful homework assignments, make up imaginative assessments, provide a variety of exciting in-class activities that provoke student thinking and encourage student involvement.

They expect good work from themselves.

The many good teachers we know are a diverse bunch, but they all possess one trait -- they work hard at their teaching. 'Nuff said.

They consider how they grade.

We all want our grading to be seen as "fair." But in fact, to be fair, we should remember that grading is always somewhat subjective, even on the most objective-appearing tests. How many points off because the decimal is placed one digit over in an otherwise correct answer? Do we grade the physics exam on an absolute scale, below 60 equals "F," no matter the number of students above or below that pre-set standard? Do we use curve grading, even in advanced classes made up of juniors and seniors majoring in the subject?

Good teachers think about their grading and discuss it with their classes, not to its overemphasis but enough so that students, too, understand the mysteries of describing what a student knows and should be able to do with an "A" or any other grade.

They talk to their students about teaching.

Just as good professors talk with their students about grading specifically, they also talk about teaching generally -- about, for example, their planning and motivational techniques, their desire that students learn, their hopes that students will be frank with them about the class. One fine professor we know urges his students to tell him about his teaching whenever they feel disposed to do so, what's good and what's not. He uses a mid-term evaluation of his teaching so that the very students he has that semester can benefit from the recommendations they make, in contrast to those end-of-term evaluation instruments that may aid posterity and next year's students but do little to modify the class of those who complete the forms. The suggestions he gets in the middle of the semester he can use to shape his teaching right then and there. And his students develop a useful sense of participation in the teaching of his classes.

They talk with their colleagues about their teaching.

Most of us share scholarly accomplishments with faculty members in our departments, being sure to mention the article that is about to be published, the paper that was given, the pending book contract. We even talk about our service on this committee or that task force. How often do we talk about our teaching, about the problems we are having, about our classroom success stories? Would such talk over lunch or an afternoon beer make a difference? To us? To our colleagues? To our students? We think it would.

And how about asking a colleague to visit your class, with a proviso that you later visit hers? For professors who have seldom, if ever, been observed by anyone but their captive students, such visits may require advance preparation of the Valium sort, but the experience can be valuable. What your colleagues can tell you -- the good, the bad, and the truly ugly -- can help you become a better teacher.

They reflect on their teaching.

Good teachers think about their teaching -- all of it, their own classroom behavior, the plans they have, the activities they use, what and if their students are learning. We professors are often given to contemplative moments; good instructors urge that the contemplation be, on occasion, about teaching.

Ted Hipple is a professor of theory and practice in teacher education, and Tricia McClam is a professor of educational psychology and counseling in the College of Education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.