This week:

  • I share your stories about becoming a better teacher.
  • I ask for your opinions about learning science and research on teaching.

Learning to Teach

Last week I asked readers to share their stories of how they improved their teaching. Dozens of you responded from a variety of disciplines: ecology, biology, economics, communication, anthropology, philosophy, and religion, to name a few. Most people who wrote in have taught for 15 years or more, and their answers are illuminating, both about the challenges of being a professor and about the desire to become a better teacher.

For starters, virtually everyone said that they received little training in graduate school: perhaps a couple of one-credit courses, or informal guidance while working as a teaching assistant. This meshes with the reporting I did for a recent story, about the pervasive myth of the “natural” teacher — this idea that if you’re smart and know your subject, you automatically know how to teach it.

Guess what? You don’t. Effective teaching is a skill. To get better, you need practice and training. But that’s not always obvious. Many faculty members flounder in their first few years and fall into common classroom traps, like trying to cram as much information into each session as possible.

So what motivated these instructors to improve their teaching? For some, it was an intrinsic drive to get better. If they came from a family of educators or had good role models in college, they more immediately understood that effective teaching takes experimentation and reflection, and dove in enthusiastically. For others it was a general desire to connect with their students, some of whom were struggling in college or in their courses.

For another group, the pursuit of good teaching came from a bad experience: An unfavorable post-tenure review, or a course that fell flat: “I just felt like the class was not going well, and I didn’t know what to do,” wrote one instructor. “Something felt wrong,” wrote another. “It was unilateral, forced, and boring.”

Laura Le, a lecturer in biostatistics at the University of Minnesota, who had studied at a small liberal-arts college where she had “amazing” teachers, described what it felt like being put in charge of an introductory statistics course during her second year of a master’s program. “I was 24, had no teaching experience, and all they did was hand me a book and say, ‘Here ya go!’ I was flabbergasted! Are you serious? That’s all you are going to provide for me to teach? A book?”

So what are some common strategies these readers used to become better teachers?

Trial and error, reading, and reflection were mentioned frequently. Many found mentors, joined disciplinary networks focused on teaching, or participated in faculty learning communities. These groups could be built around informal gatherings to share challenges and ideas. Others might be more structured, working over a series of months toward specific goals, such as redesigning a course to be more equitable and inclusive.

Many took advantage of programming at their campus teaching-and-learning centers and signed up for workshops. Others earned online certificates (which they paid for themselves) and attended teaching conferences.

A couple of readers said they also learned from their students, sometimes asking what worked or didn’t in a class, and why. While she learned a lot from observing other teachers, reading, and participating in workshops, wrote Usha Rao, “I learned the most from students, by observing such things as what mistakes students made on exams.”

“Student course evaluations have known drawbacks and get a lot of flak these days, but they can be invaluable in letting you know if you are disorganized, confusing, or perceived as unfair,” wrote Rao, director of the office of teaching and learning, and an associate professor of environmental geochemistry at Saint Joseph’s University. “I think you have to be responsive to that kind of feedback.”

Workshops, learning communities, student feedback: This all seems common sense. So what stands in the way of improving your teaching?

As one instructor put it: “Time, time, time, time, time.” Faculty members are pulled in many directions. Part of the problem, too, as I found in my reporting, is that teaching often isn’t measured or rewarded effectively. As a result, fitting professional development into your schedule without squeezing out other obligations, like research, is an enormous challenge.

“Teaching is similar to being hired to deliver pizza and finding on the first day only a pile of orders and a kitchen full of flour, tomato sauce, and pepperoni,” wrote Nick DeMello, an assistant professor of chemistry at Cañada College. “You have to figure out and do the cooking on your own time, because the business model only recognizes and pays you for moving the finished pizzas out the door.”

Teaching is also ever evolving because students are changing as well. That makes improvement a challenge because it requires you to continually adapt.

“The other problem that I think is important to acknowledge is not so much about teaching but about learning,” as Andrew Nurse, an associate professor who teaches Canadian studies at Mount Allison University, in Canada, described it. “Our students come to our classrooms from different places. The postsecondary educational experience is remarkably uneven, and the lived experience can be alienating or dangerous.”

Nurse referenced campus protests against sexual violence, as well as intergenerational trauma that affects Indigenous students. “These are matters of which we need to be aware, and we cannot assume that each student is equally well equipped (by virtue of background; not intelligence) to learn.”

Sometimes colleagues are the barrier. Judith Robinson, a part-time instructor of creative writing, communication, and journalism at several Canadian universities, wrote that when she tried to share her teaching strategies, which focus on understanding how individual students learn best, “People told me it would be too much work to do it that way. Many also said they didn’t want to get that close to their students. They didn’t really want to know them — that that might affect their ability to objectively critique their work. They wanted to do their research, prepare their lectures, and just deliver them — assuming that the material would somehow magically be translated into concepts the students could readily absorb.”

What words of advice do seasoned faculty members have for those just starting their teaching careers? Here are a few of their suggestions.

  • Seek out mentors (different ages, races, religions, disciplines) to review your syllabus and lesson plans. Solicit feedback from students not in your courses about what they like/don’t like. — Cory Young, associate professor of strategic communication and director of the Honors program, Ithaca College
  • Look to your discipline’s professional association for teaching advice and materials. Depending on tenure requirements at your institution, consider scholarly work on teaching and learning. — Mark Maier, professor of economics, Glendale Community College
  • If there’s a learning center, take classes with them. Talk to people in the department and on campus about their teaching experiences. If you have trouble or difficulty, talk with others about it. — Reighan Gillam, assistant professor of anthropology, University of Southern California
  • Ask knowledgeable faculty what their favorite books on teaching are, the ones that really influenced them. Then read a minimum of 10 minutes a day, preferably right before doing something teaching related such as course planning, lesson planning, giving students feedback, etc. A 10-minute read can really put you in a great headspace, and it helps build that desire for continuous growth. — Cynthia Alby, professor of teacher education and lead developer for the Governor’s Teaching Fellows Program, Georgia College
  • Find a group that cares about teaching, even if it’s not in your area. You can learn a lot from these informal groups, and it helps to have a support system of people you can go to when things come up or you need to brainstorm or share ideas. — Laura Le, lecturer in biostatistics, University of Minnesota
  • Attend lectures of those considered to be excellent teachers, in your department and in other departments. Use resources that your university might provide. Have good teachers attend your lectures and give feedback; allow yourself three attempts at an entire course before expecting to “get it right.” — Tom Braun, professor of biostatistics, University of Michigan School of Public Health

Thank you to everyone who wrote in. I read every entry, and I may include more of your ideas in a future newsletter. If you have further thoughts, please feel free to write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com or fill out the Google form.

The Science of Learning

What do we really know about how people learn? How can — or should — that research be applied to college teaching? I’m digging into those topics now, and I’d love to hear from readers: both fans of this kind of research as well as skeptics. Have you done research on learning? Have you used research on teaching to inform how you design your course or engage students? Are you doubtful of the value of learning science or research on teaching? If you have experience or ideas to share, write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

— Beth

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.