What is good teaching, and how can we know it?

poitiertosirwithlovePrompted by our discussion on Monday about “Teaching and tenure:  what counts (and what’s good?),” and by Dr. Crazy’s point that we ended up not “actually talking about how to evaluate teaching” on that thread.  She asks, “[s]o I’m wondering: taking the student evaluation bull$hit out of the equation, what makes good teaching? How do we determine that?”  To tell the truth, when I posed that question Monday, “what is good teaching?”, it was more a rhetorical question than one for which I have a clear answer.  After all, so many of us teach so many different subjects to so many different kinds of students at so many different kinds of institutions that pedagogies are nearly infinitely variable. 

So just to get our discussion rolling, I propose that good teaching shall be known by these three paramount qualities: 

  1. Organization:  Always ask yourself, what do I want to communicate to my students in this course?  Break it down to ask, what do I want students to learn in each lecture/class meeting/assignment?  Then organize your syllabi, lectures, and assignments accordingly.  In this, organizing your teaching is much like organizing your writing.  Just as every sentence should be in its place and every paragraph build on and reinforce something important about your overall argument, so you should focus your attention like a laser on your goals for the course and in each individual class.
  2. Rigor of material:  Students should be exposed to new ideas and information, and they should be challenged intellectually.  (Otherwise, what’s the point?)  To be rigorous, a lecture need not be 8 or 10 single-spaced notes delivered at top speed in a 50-minute lecture.  (This is a rookie mistake.)  Aim to present sophisticated material simply.  Treat  your students like adults:  those who aren’t in fact functioning yet as adults may pull their socks up and rise to the challenge, but more importantly, you don’t want to lose the bright and hardworking ones by appearing to patronize them.
  3. Clarity of presentation:  If your medium for communicating in a given class is mostly lecture, then be sure you’re speaking in a clear and intelligible fashion–not too fast, not too, slow, but (as Goldilocks preferred) just right.  (I’ve heard that videotaping yourself lecturing–while painful to watch–can help you eliminate unhelpful tendencies or annoying tics that might distract your students.)  If you are using PowerPoint slides while you lecture, don’t just show pretty pictures for the heck of it–be sure that your slides help organize and illustrate your lecture clearly and effectively.  If your medium for communicating  in other classes is mostly on-line, be sure your instructions to your students are clear and comprehensive, and that you answer their questions about assignments promptly.  In seminar classes, oral communications are critical–but in most cases, you’ll be communicating in all kinds of ways, across all kinds of technology platforms, so take care to be precise.

Beyond this, we all want style points, right?  We want to be funny but not glib or aggressive in our humor.  We want to appear smart, especially if we use technology (or at least we don’t want to appear like bumbling doofuses in front of our students).  Many of us have spent hours and hours searching for the exact right photographs of the perfect material culture artifacts, engravings, or paintings to use in lectures.  But–that’s all extra on top of the foundation of this three-legged stool.  Want one, and the whole thing is rendered useless.

I refuse to venture into rating things like “charisma” or “approachability” in a colleague, because that seems to me to be evaluating their personalities, not their work.  Besides, we all have our own styles, and that’s OK.  My personality is direct and (some say) bold.  Some students like it, but a lot of others find me “intimidating.”  (Yes, that’s a gendered reaction, but what are you going to do?  See the interesting later conversation in Monday’s thread between Kathleen Lowrey, LadyProf, and perpetua for more thoughts on the student evals and why “excellence” in teaching is a pretty silly goal.)  Even if I could change that, which is doubtful, that would be a fool’s errand–but I also can’t tell everyone else to imitate my particular style.  (This is of course the hazard of peer reviews of teaching, as John S. pointed out Monday.)  It’s perfectly fine to have some colleagues who are shy and understated, because the students who find me too much will likely find them much more approachable.  Let a thousand well-organized, rigorous, and clear flowers bloom, I say!

I know for a fact that many of you have much more experience (as well as much more success!) teaching than I have.  What do you think makes for good teaching, and how do you approach evaluating it in others?  (Hello, lurkers–and you know who you are!)  What would you add to my 3-point list, or how would you revise it?  Dish!

0 thoughts on “What is good teaching, and how can we know it?

  1. I think the one thing that I would add to your list is creativity. A creative approach to rigorous expectations, it seems to me, makes them a lot easier for students to swallow, and it also makes it a heck of a lot more interesting/fun for both student and the instructor. Note, “creativity” doesn’t mean changing one’s entire course every time one teaches it – or trying to be something that one is not – actually, it probably means investing a lot of time at the front end and then teaching a course or assignment a number of times with only tiny tweaks to really get the course or assignment solid. It means sticking with it long enough to work out the kinks, and figuring out how to make the creative ideas work better. In other words, some of the most creative teachers I know are also some of the most methodical and, I guess, confident about seeing their experiments through to the end.

    Thanks for picking this question up. It was so buried in the rambling list at my place that I suspect only a few hearty souls actually read far enough to get to the question, and then by the time they did they were too exhausted to have a conversation. 🙂


  2. Hi, Crazy–good to hear from you. I’m not sold on the value of “creativity” as a measurable component of teaching. “Creativity” almost falls into the category of personality, like “enthusiasm” or “energy.” How do you quantify it? How do you measure progress in becoming more “creative,” if that’s what you want junior faculty to do? (How do you tell someone to get more creative?)

    I agree with you that it can be an important element in good teaching. But–it seems very subjective.


  3. I agree with what you’re saying and would sum a lot of it up with passion (if one truly employs your three qualities they’re very likely passionate about their subject and about teaching). Students need to know you love what you’re doing (teaching) and that you care about the material- that is far more charismatic than being super friendly with students. A passionate teacher brings relevance to their subject and that makes it far more interesting/accessible to their students.


  4. I like your three criteria, but would add “engagement” to the list. Getting students to engage with the material is crucial to successful teaching and a successful class. This is most commonly done through discussion in all its variations (sections, small groups, a seminar etc.). I find lecturing easy and enormously fun, but leading a good discussion much more difficult. I know a semester is going well when my discussion classes are lively and the students are responding to the material with strong opinions.


  5. nicolec–passion is good, but what may look like passion to you and me might look weird or overbearing to others. Again, “passion” is one of those qualities in teaching that has more to do with personality than with work or skills.

    I suppose a diffident proffie could fake passion–but isn’t that like faking sincerity? (As in the old joke, “If you can fake sincerity, you’ll have it made!”) Having passion (and showing it to your students) may in the long run make you a more effective teacher, but that gets us into a chicken-or-egg question. Isn’t passion more an effect than a cause in and of itself?


  6. Widgeon–I agree. Engagement–through discussion, or through other means (BlackBoard, paper assignments, etc.) is very important.

    And, ADM: good question, but you won’t know whether or not any students are learning when you’re sitting in on a colleague’s class for one period this fall or next spring! (And beyond grades, how do you measure learning? I know the assessment gurus think that they have it all figured out, but I’m skeptical.) Your question about learning gets us into a whole other territory–that of a student’s responsibility for hir learning.


  7. I think what I’m thinking of as “creativity” is actually very close to what Widgeon describes as “engagement.” The idea being that if student engagement with the material is at the center of what we do, we find creative approaches for making that happen. That doesn’t, to my mind, mean reinventing the wheel always, but it does mean that if an instructor notes a *lack* of engagement in students that he/she attempts to determine what’s causing that and to create a solution whereby more students become engaged with the material. I suppose what I would call lack of creativity on the part of an instructor is an instructor who does the same thing over and over even when it’s clearly not working and then blames hir students for their lack of interest. Sometimes “creativity” is something as seemingly mundane as realizing that one needs to do a formal lecture about a particular topic, sometimes it is something more out-there like an experiential activity in place of traditional classroom instruction. In other words, “creative” to me doesn’t mean “wild and wacky” nor does it depend on a particular kind of personality. “Creative” in the way I’m thinking of it here is “I create an environment in which students get into the material, and if something isn’t working, my first step is to try out something different rather than to blame my students for being lazy good-for-nothings.”


  8. Perhaps a better word for what I’m talking about instead of creativity is “adaptability”? We the idea that good teaching means adapting to the specific teaching situation in which one finds hirself?


  9. Dr. C–I hear you. Yes, flexibility, ability to pivot, adaptability, suppleness, engagement with your audience–whatever you want to call it, it’s important. I think that’s difficult to assess when dropping in on one class, but it’s certainly something that can be gauged over the course of a few semesters or a few years.

    Maybe this is something that ADM’s comment was getting at?


  10. I’m not sure how helpful this is, but I would add two things. First off, when I think of great teachers I’ve had, I realize that they have almost nothing in common with each other. Their teaching styles and personalities were all over the map, which offers an important lesson to beginning teachers: don’t try to be your favorite teacher, just be yourself as a teacher. Students can sense when someone is being fake.

    Second, when I reflect on what really worked in my own teaching, and what didn’t work, I’m struck by how little my own preparation had to do with it. Rather, it was the connection between me and the students that made a class great, our sense of rapport and partnership in learning. This is obviously true in discussions, but I think in lectures as well. I can always tell if the students are engaged, and it gives me more energy as a lecturer. The problem is, I still haven’t figured out how to manufacture this connection with students. If it’s not there, is there any way to save the class?


  11. H – I think you’re right that this adaptability is not something that can be assessed well in one classroom visit. I do think, though, that if one reviews the course materials of an instructor from a number of semesters/years, and also what an instructor has to say about hir own teaching practices combined with student responses (one area in which evals. can give good information), this is fairly easy to determine.

    To Owen: I don’t think that you can manufacture this connection exactly, but I have found that the connection comes more consistently if I have students do a lot of interactive stuff early on in a semester with one another. Obviously this depends to some extent on feasibility in terms of class size (or tactics for getting students to interact in large classes if that’s the situation) but I do think that if one can get students invested in each other that the energy you describe comes much more consistently. It’s taken me years of teaching general studies classes to students who have little to no interest in my subject matter to get a program for doing this together, but I do think that lots of interaction early goes a long way to fostering the connection that you talk about.


  12. I don’t think the quality I’m about put forward should be considered one of the “core” qualities (in fact it might find itself under ‘clarity’ anyway), but I do think that presenting material with energy is an important part of fostering engagement and interest in (some) students. I think this might be nicole meant by “passion” (but I don’t mean to put words in your mouth!). For me it’s less about the way I personally feel about the material and more about presenting it in an engaging way. And while I know Historiann might categorize this as “personality” I really think it falls more under the category of clarity, because if we think speaking in a not-too-fast-not-too-slow voice is important, then speaking in a clear, strong voice with some energy interjected into it is also important. People just turn off when they a)can’t hear or b) when presented with a monotone. Monotone is one of the many personal ticks of presentation that can alienate or annoy students/ listeners.

    I agree that “engagement” should be added to the core qualities of good teaching, because it encourages active involvement rather than passive reception (it can also help them understand the relationship between lecture and written assignments). As a bonus, IME students love to discuss – getting them talking makes the class more fun for everyone, even if you can’t always get them talking to each other.

    @ Owen – sometimes it is not possible to save a class, in my opinion. Sometimes its the topic, the term, the class chemistry – sometimes these things are just *wrong* and can’t be made right. This is one of the mysteries of teaching. Sometimes you can save it, by switching styles, or structure, or trying to change the dynamic (are the students being quiet, for example, because one student is dominating?).

    I agree about being yourself, also. I decided early on that I was not going to be an amazingly charismatic teacher, so I intuitively opted instead for clarity, organization (though this could still use work), and engagement (getting discussions going). It’s worked for me.


  13. I’m with perpetua on the bad class problem Owen relates. So far it’s only happened to me twice, about once per decade seems like a reasonable hazard. (At least at that frequency, it doesn’t make me think the problem is ME.) Sometimes, no matter how organized, demanding, or flexible you are, nothing seems to work. That said, your perception of the class won’t necessarily be shared by all students. More than a decade ago, I taught a class that just wouldn’t DO ANYTHING. They wouldn’t talk (outside of a few smart women who kept the class going), they wouldn’t respond, they wouldn’t give me ANYTHING back.

    I threw up my hands on the last day (an exam review) when it was clear that none of them had done the assigned reading (or if they had, they weren’t willing to talk about it), and said, “OK, I don’t need to pass this exam: YOU DO. But you haven’t done the work, and you won’t talk, and I’m not going to spoon-feed you. So best of luck–I’m outta here.” And I left the room. Class dismissed.

    The following year, 3 or 4 students from that class signed up for a major’s seminar with me, and one of them told me (after I told her I was surprised she became a History major after that painful experience), “I loved that class! You’re why I became a History major!” So, you never know.


  14. And, perpetua–good points about energy. I agree, but again, like passion, it could shade into personality. (That said, smiling as you enter the room and talking AS IF you cared a great deal and were SO EXCITED about the conversation you were about to begin can sometimes help drag the students along. But not in all cases, as noted above.)

    I hope that doesn’t sound too Dale Carnegie/telemarketery, but there you have it. Faking passion has worked for me on days when it just wasn’t there to begin with, and it has buoyed me through my teaching day. Starting out low-energy has meant that that’s where I’ve stayed all class/all day long. So, my apologies to nicolec above–if you’re ordinarily an energetic/passionate person, faking it can get you through some rough days when you don’t start out feeling it. For those whose personality/style isn’t so energetic or passionate, it could come off as just strange or unconvincing, as Owen warned.


  15. @ Historiann: I don’t really mean “energy” like a cheerleader kind of energy – Hey class! let’s learn something today! That’s not me at all; in fact I’m pretty much an introvert. (I don’t smile, either, I have to admit.) But I’ve learned that by projecting my voice, making it strong and clear, letting it rise and fall (in addition I find moving around helps & writing on the board) it feels like a more successful lecture. I agree that it’s totally subjective whether or not this counts as “good teaching”(versus someone who is naturally more soft-spoken).


  16. I would add assessment as an essential component to teaching. It is an imperfect science, as Historiann notes, but it is the only way to know whether or not students are really responding to the material as presented in discussion, lecture, on-line, etc. It really is a way of keeping you honest. I remember being very impressed with a lecture I gave about popular political participation during the Revolutionary era. I was pretty certain that an anecdote I used to clarify the topic (the story of the shoemaker George Robert Twelve Hewes) brought things home to the students. And then I got back 50 final exams that mentioned the anecdote, but missed the entire point of the lecture. (One student did talk at length about “Johnny Twelve Shoes,” however, which I greatly enjoyed.)

    I have found that in an odd way, foregrounding assessment helps me focus on the students. As one of my mentors has tried to hammer into my head, “It’s not about your teaching. It’s about their learning.” I *try* (often unsuccessfully) to make sure that every time I create a course goal (students should be able to identify x, y, or z about colonial American culture) that I have not only picked a delivery form for the knowledge (book? scholarly article? individual lecture? set of primary sources?) but also a way of getting students to communicate to me that they have learned that material.

    (If I sound too jargonish, well, this thread happens to have caught me on the day that I am preparing my teaching portfolio for my tenure review. I will mention all of your feedback in a well-placed footnote in my document.)


  17. John, I see what you’re saying, but you’re not responsible for their learning. Your students are responsible for their learning. You’re responsible for setting the ducks up in a row so that their learning is facilitated, but you’re not responsible for their learning.

    This is why I’m totes with the AFT and the teacher’s unions who object to “merit pay” that in any way is based on test scores. I can see merit pay tied to (for example) the continuing ed. workshops or other activities that people do, or a real assessment of their in-class performance and the instructional materials they create and use.

    But–the learning is largely out of our control. At my uni, anyway, I know that pretty much every student has the skills they need to do college-level work. As far as I can tell, the differences in achievement are entirely due to effort (or lack thereof), not innate brilliance (or lack thereof), or poor teaching.

    Has anyone ever noticed how so many A students can earn As in pretty much every class? Is that because all of their teachers are so incredibly brilliant? NO–it’s because A students figure out what they need to do to get the A. Some teachers make it easier than others, to be sure–either by pandering, or by just presenting course material in an incredibly organized and accessible fashion–but the A student knows where ze needs to put in more effort, and which classes one can let slide. But in the end, the As come from student effort, not from faculty achievement.


  18. I should clarify on my earlier point. I don’t think that professors are responsible for student’ learning–ultimately, the students are. Professors are responsible for setting up an accessible and rigorous system for learning, but the students have to do the work. But–and this is where I was going with my comment–the flip side of that is that I think professors need to think critically about the mechanisms by which they try to figure out how much the student has learned in the class, relative to the class goals. Learning may largely be out of our control, but the ways in which we try to measure and reward it (in the giving out of grades) is not.

    Put more concretely, I had more than one undergrad teacher where the systems of grading really didn’t match up with either the content covered or the material learned. In one class, for instance, we had a final exam that consisted of five short answer questions–it took about 45 min to complete. One of the five questions dealt with something the professor spent about 15 minutes on in class, another something that was covered over about three lectures. I don’t believe that there were any questions that dealt with material in the reading. (Seriously.) There was a disconnect between what the students were “supposed” to learn (as communicated by the construction of the syllabus and the assignments) and the way students were assessed and graded. I thought it bizarre as a student and professionally irresponsible now that I am a faculty member. But it does happen.

    I see similar things at my current institution, though on a much smaller order of magnitude. To use one example–I have a colleague who talks about how much s/he emphasizes critical analysis of primary sources and writing skills in hir classes. In each class, s/he asks students to write a 5 page paper that is not based on a primary source. Most of the grade for the course is figured through the midterm and final. Now, I am not suggesting that students don’t learn a lot in the class; they do. But they don’t learn how to read primary sources and don’t get a huge amount of practice writing analytic essays. Neither the assignments nor the grade match what the stated goals are. Getting an A requires work, but it doesn’t require being able to analyze historical sources and doesn’t necessarily require top notch essay writing skills. There’s a disconnect.

    I guess if I had to sum up my philosophy here, I would say that A’s do come from student achievement. But we are responsible for making sure, as best we can, that an A means what we say it does–a high level mastery of a certain set of knowledge and skills, outlined at the beginning of the term. Achievements in learning and achievements in grades (where students who learned the most get A’s and students who learned the least get D’s or F’s)don’t always match up. I think they only correspond where professors have developed appropriate ways of assessing performance.


  19. I think engagement should be added to the list. It involves several things, though, including our engagement with the subject matter, engaging with our students in a give-take relationship, and giving them something to engage with; a hook, an in. What I’m getting at in the last may be closer to relevancy; who cares? Why is it important? What does it have to do with anything? It’s the one thing that almost resulted in my dropping out of high school in Grade 10; I wasn’t getting any connections from my instructors about why any of what we were learning mattered (ok, except from my Art teacher).

    When students are engaged, and asking questions of themselves and of me, they are thinking; and when they’re thinking, they’re learning. I’m not big on regurgitation teaching, though there are key concepts they need to understand.


  20. Coming late to the thread, I’m struck by two things that aren’t here:

    1. Education theory. A whole doctoral discipline asks what good teaching is and how we can know it. I don’t know squat about what goes on inside ed schools, but isn’t there a professional literature to consider? Presumably at least some of what educator-scholars have found and published applies to higher education. Nobody here has proposed that we put the question to experts. Do we mistrust the field?

    2. “What is bad teaching, and how can we know it?” seems like the more urgent–and more answerable– question. It seems probable that inside our institutions are junior colleagues who could be rescued by an intervention (and we should distinguish them from those who can safely be left alone), while others have fallen beyond hope and need to be removed.


  21. I can go with organization, rigor, and clarity as being the core elements of good teaching. And a lot of the other *desirable* elements do have to do with personality—or perception of it. Here I’m going to give a dissenting opinion to the “be yourself” dictum. Sometimes it may be better to be someone else.

    My “self” does not go over well at Large Regional U. I can analyze why: primarily because of regional differences and gender expectations. My native vocabulary, body language, sense of humor, facial expressions, speaking style, all of these read differently in LRU-land than they did where I grew up and where I went to school. If I taught gender studies, I might find this an advantage. For what I do teach, it’s simply a distraction. So I’ve created a teaching persona. It’s not fake, but based on certain isolable elements of my “self” that are not the whole picture, with a dose of copying the mannerisms of effective teachers in my department.

    In some ways, it’s a nuisance to have to do this, but it has made the classroom more comfortable for me and kept my students’ minds on their work instead of on how weird I am. I can’t believe I’m the only person who has had this sort of experience.


  22. Dame Eleanor: You raise an important point. Does “be yourself” imply a great deal of white/male/straight/class privilege? I think it does. I think your example is one that many of us will recognize–you’re not NOT yourself, you’re a highly stylized version of yourself. I think that a lot of faculty have that experience, although maybe not to the same degree you report. (Some, perhaps more.)

    And LadyProf: by proposing what I see as good teaching, I mean no disrespect to a field of inquiry. It’s just not my field of inquiry, and this blog is not about me doing research in a field that’s not my own. I don’t pretend to be an expert, nor do I have “all” the answers. I have 14 years of experience, and the 4 points listed above are what I strive for. As I said at the top of the post, I was just getting the discussion going, and would welcome expert opinions. (I see your point about “bad” teaching, but I thought it was more constructive to focus on what people can do, rather than to point to things they shouldn’t do. That seems like it could be an infinitely long list.)

    (And, Digger–Wigeon above suggested engagement–I don’t know if you’re seconding that, but there already seems to be a consensus that that’s point #4. At least, I think it should be there!)


  23. Dame Eleanor: You hit on something that I was thinking about as I read earlier comments, which I was going to phrase as something like, “you have to teach at the place you are, and teach to the students that you have, and not to the places where you were educated or to the student that you yourself were.” But that was clunky, and it wasn’t a good “one word” addition. But I think you’re right: in order to be a successful teacher at a particular institution, you do need to develop a teaching persona that “fits” the culture of the university at which you are teaching. This *doesn’t* mean “dumbing down” one’s courses – it means an adjustment of personality and techniques. Which I suppose fits in with my “adaptability” addition. I know when I started at Regional U. that I did not hit the sweet spot of getting students engaged, both because of my teaching persona and because of my method of delivering material. I don’t assign less than I did then, and I don’t assign things that are less difficult, but I have shifted my teaching persona and the organization of assignments to fit the needs of my current students. Is this how I’d do it if I were in a vacuum? I doubt it. But it is how I need to do it to do the job that I want to do – and that I was hired to do – here.


  24. Well said, Dr. C. With one slight amendment: you need to teach to the students you have, but your students need to meet you where you are too (in terms of your assignments, other course requirements, grading, etc.) and do the work themselves.


  25. Historiann, it was a seconded!

    Re: teaching persona. Mine is currently relatively informal, and a little off-beat. It seems to be working well here at Medium Private U. But it took several semesters to find what works both for me and for the students. For me, teaching is akin to a performance, and I had to tweak how much of myself to include with my professor-self, tone, style, costume, and whether parts need to be “overacted.”


  26. Just on a little tangent, but I feel that some people get overly fixed on methods and tools. I often get sideswiped because I use PowerPoint in most lower-level classes. I hear a lot of slagging of the software based on egregious idiocies (pages full of tiny text, too-rapid passing of slides, etc.) that always seems to say “if you teach with PowerPoint, you’re a bad and lazy teacher”.

    Gah! If a peer comes into my classroom with that notion front-and-centre, they’re not going to evaluate my teaching fairly. I believe you can teach well (or poorly) with OR without such technology. I’ve seen people hold the most engaging classes with a slideshow system and I’ve seen them crash and burn. It’s more important to understand how instructors use all the tools they choose to employ and to see how well they work in their classes. And to agree to disagree on your own personal formulae when it comes to how you teach.


  27. First, I’d like to second Historiann’s points. Every teacher I’ve had that has shown that they have put work into their lesson planning and execution and has had confidence in what they were saying has been an effective teacher, regardless of other stylistic or personality differences.

    I teach only ten classes a year at a trade/technical program, and my effectiveness increases dramatically when I do what I call “being an a-hole,” calling on students by name to see if they’re getting the material. Repeatedly. I tell them I’m doing it to see how well I’m teaching, but it seems to make them pay better attention and get more out of the class. I don’t care if they like me or not. I want them to understand that it’s important to me that they get the material.


  28. Thank you for this great question and discussion. I like the three fundamentals approach very much and can easily see it as the basis for some of the best teaching I have experienced and witnessed.

    That said, I’m troubled by this particular list. I’ll get behind rigor, but I don’t see that organization or clarity are in any essential way correlated with good teaching. Their merit is highest in content-focused classes that require definite, measurable outcomes. They may actively get in the way if the goal is to develop students’ higher cognitive skills, in particular their ability to cope with ambiguity, learn for themselves, and flexibly adapt their knowledge to different situations.

    Here’s an example of a student comment from a professor’s famously disorganized, unclear class. It was collected by a colleague in philosophy who asked students to write about previous experience with the Socratic method. This professor was recently named his university’s professor of the year. See if this might be an outcome we could agree is positive:

    “I took a history class with Dr. X. In this class Dr. X used the Socratic method of teaching. At first I didn’t know how to think deeply enough to give him the answer he wanted. I would give the text book answer every time. As the semester progressed and Dr. X continued to challenge me and ask me why the answer was what I said it was, I learned how to think more deeply and truly understand why I answered the question he asked the way I did.”

    There’s a principle to a class that produces this reflexive ability to understand the relation of evidence and reasoning, but not an organization – certainly not one that appears in the form of a schedule on a syllabus. Confusion is created and managed as a productive stimulus and an introduction to life itself. There are course materials but they are incomplete and not obviously related to each other. Students are taught and then expected to recognize and fill in the gaps. The baby birds have to find and chew up some of their own worms.

    Class discussions start with a theme but are free-flowing so that students can hash out their own understanding. There is lots of discussion that seems to go in circles but is actually recursive and developmental as more hypotheses and evidence are drawn in. The professor guides and prompts these discussions, intercepting frustration with encouragement and asking clarifying questions, but does not otherwise impose a definite shape or lockstep agenda on them. Content outcomes are largely dependent on the particular ways that discussions and further research for essays develop in the particular learning community of the class as it happens to materialize through the term.

    The three fundamentals of this teaching practice are: Engage the students, then push them. Repeat.

    Btw I definitely have a teaching persona. Because I’m shy. Goffman would have said this is quite normal – we deploy different selves in all of our situations.


  29. I’ve been out all day and missed the evolution of this fascinating thread, so apologies in advance for any partialities, discontinuities, or repeatings. But I’m going to second Historiann and disagree with John S. on the points made at mid-thread about teaching, learning, responsibility therefor, methods, organization, and the measurement of most of the above (i.e. assessment). I also liked Carl’s eloquent defense just above of unclarity and some tactical interim confusion (my paraphrases, not his words) along the way to knowledge.

    Based on those fairly frequent occasions where *I* learn something during a class (I don’t mean insights about teaching, but substantive things that I didn’t “know” at the outset) it’s almost never even remotely related to anything I plan to convey or expect to accomplish at the beginning. And from the informal feedback I get from students, their own most useful or valued insights seldom seem to match much that it says or predicts on the first page of the syllabus, and that’s just fine with me. So I teach to curiosity–a faculty of the intellect not very much treated in the Ed.D literature, from what I can see–and hope for the best.

    When I was in college I learned from charismatic gurus and I learned from lumbering dullards. I had a Intro to Psychology class from the Fifth Beatle, still finishing a doctorate at a nearby university, and we were in transport at hir insights and syntheses. But I don’t remember anything except for a flattering comment ze wrote on a paper of mine and those cool suede boots. The same semester I had an Anthropology course from a graying corpse with a five alarm iron burn (you could almost read the manufacturer of the iron!) on the front of a white shirt ze wore to class every fifth day. It was painful, but I remember to this day two points that ze made or shared. One a minute observation about the physiology of the skull that fused and synthesized everything I had ever learned about evolution, and created a template for what I still call “research.” And the second a cranky and technically off-topic attack on a regional airline, a point that drove me crazy then, generated real consternation about some basic values, and that I still think about every time I fly. [Appropriately enough, I guess, the tiny regional airline, Delta, eventually ate up most of its huge, now extinct dinosaurian rivals like Eastern, TWA, etc].

    Student evaluations were a sleazy bone that they cynically threw to my noisy generation, but one that had the grace not to actually land in the classroom until I was in grad. school and not doing too much teaching. I shudder to think about what I might have said about those two courses at the end of that long lost semester.


  30. Thanks Indyanna! I too am a big fan of the happy accident, which by definition cannot be created on purpose. Trying to standardize learning outcomes creates all sorts of mischief, even if we do leave no child behind.

    I think much of what we do is plant landmines in the students’ heads, some of which, and who knows which in advance, they’ll step on later when they’re stumbling around looking for a way to makes sense of something that’s happening to them.

    Agreed about evals, but don’t we want to be teaching our students how to be the kind of observers and thinkers who write actually useful evaluations?


  31. Carl, I appreciated your comments, but I don’t think I agree with you. This might reflect a disciplinary difference, or perhaps semantics. To me “disorganized” means the students have no idea what’s going on – they don’t understand the purpose of the, the prof’s expectations, the material that’s being covered, or why its being covered. What you describe sounds more to me like a different approach at getting them to the material, one which the professor clearly has under control. It sounds like he knows exactly what he’s doing in the classroom and where he wants them to go, which means on some level that must be communicated to the students, even if the “answers” are not spoon fed.

    But I’ve witnessed what I consider to be truly disorganized courses – the readings constantly change, the assignments are constantly modified, the professor wanders off topic all the time during discussion or lecture, and the students are incapable of connecting the dots – not because they’re lazy or can’t think critically but because the prof has really failed at hir primary duty at communicating clearly and effectively. The students literally did not have the core concepts of the class explained to them, or have sense of how the bigger picture fit together (b/c the prof had no bigger pictures was just rambling for the entire term). One small example – the prof repeatedly makes a reference to the Paris commune as a key historical moment central to the lecture, but at no time ever explains what it is. In a big lecture, students are too anxious to raise their hands and ask, so they spend the whole time not having any idea what anything means. To me, clarity and organization are paramount because these are the primary foundational structures to a class that permit all else to happen. Clarity and organization don’t have to look like a perfectly outlined lecture, done in a conventional manner. (Also in survey courses, there is a lot of “info dump” for good or for ill – just information the students need to know, and that material needs to be presented clearly. Not everything at a uni can be a critical thinking exercise.)

    That said, I feel like most of our discussion here reflects the reality of most of our classrooms – or I should speak for myself, it reflects the reality of my class experience: 40 students, mixed lecture and discussion (but technically a ‘lecture’ class), majors and non majors, students of all kinds of backgrounds and abilities. I rarely have the opportunity to teach seminars (1 time in 3 yrs). Seminar teaching and lecture teaching (even with discussion) are two different animals. The kind of discussion-based courses that Carl described is right-on I think, but at the same time the professor still has to be clear about the purpose of the course and the readings, and be organized (ie, have read the material thoroughly, have some sense of a few key elements it would be great if they got out of it, and be adept at subtly directing and encouraging conversation). A disorganized prof in a discussion class might not have done the reading, have not put any thought in how the class should go, and exert no control over how the discussion goes, so if it gets derailed ze has no idea how to get it back on track (or doesn’t care).


  32. Thanks, all, for carrying on for me out here in the Mountain time zone.

    I agree with perpetua’s response to Carl, although I think he raises an important point for discussion. Perhaps “organization” suggested that I think a roman-numeral rigid outline for each day’s lecture or discussion is the way to go for every class, all the time. That’s not what I meant to imply. Sometimes that works–but perhaps I should have called point #1 “have a plan.” I think it’s fine for discussions to meander somewhat to ensure that students have an opportunity to let ideas roll around in their heads and to respond to each other. (Indeed, I spend a minimum 1/2 or 2/3 of my classes in discussion, so I’m very open to serendipities of discovery, I think!)

    I like Geoff’s trick for harassment of students in the guise of “how’m’I doin’,” a la NYC Mayor Ed Kotch in the 1980s. I think I might borrow that for my big survey class this term. Brilliant!

    Do some people *still* think that PowerPoint is teh evilll? Janice’s comment strikes me as back to the 1990s, for some reason (not b/c of you Janice, but because of that silly accusation that PP = bad teaching.) I switched to PP mostly because I teach a 123-person survey every once in a while, and the students had a hard time seeing my outlines on the overhead machine. Then, I came to really appreciate and enjoy the ways in which one can integrate text and images in PP, so I use it in all but my seminar classes, all of the time now. I agree with you Janice: people can either teach well or indifferently, with or without technology.

    I think Indyanna makes some interesting points about what sticks with students, and what doesn’t. Some people think that if they’re talking at the front of the room, that’s the only way in which “learning” happens. I don’t think that’s the case at all, and in fact it behooves us to mix up the activities in our teaching. What works for some students won’t work for all. (And thanks for the bid for the crusty old coots! I had about a zillion of them at Bryn Mawr in the 1980s and 90s, and we made fun of them, but a number of them taught some really interesting and valuable classes. Imagine that!)


  33. Carl,

    First I should have said evals were a *cheesy* bone, rather than a sleazy one. Sleazy is too harsh, while cheesy does enough damage to the condescending cynicism by which students were initially invited to be co-pilots in the course and tough customers of the final product. We had scared the hell out of the administrators, and they wanted to see us gnawing on something besides their ankles. With some good reason, I would say.

    We assuredly do want students to become those kinds of observers and thinkers. But it took me years to realize that the cranky doofus with the iron-burned shirt had been throwing some pretty hard curve balls at us, while the “Little General” (as we called the cool psych guy) had been, at that early point in his career, mostly just styling. How I would have pronounced on the matter a week before finals is mostly just a curiosity now. I really sort of meant what I said the other day (in the other thread) about the obit. as the definitive evaluation tool. We could wish it otherwise, but wishing doesn’t make it so.


  34. This is a fascinating thread!

    I work (for now–who knows if we’ll survive these budget cuts) in a teaching center at a huge University of California campus. So I totally get the concern about teaching very large classes, and I think Historiann’s list works well as a starting point from which to evaluate individual class meetings of these kinds of courses.


    I have to disagree that teaching is disconnected from learning to the extent you seem to be saying, Historiann. Yes, students are responsible for their own learning, but at my campus, at least, students are coming from high schools where they’ve been subjected to a regime of high-stakes testing. So they’re very, very good at absorbing information and reproducing it–at the level of “knowledge” or “comprehension” or maybe “application” in Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain. But push them further, to analysis, synthesis, or evaluation, and they stumble. And these are the top 12.5% of high school graduates in the state. At this point, I think, we do become responsible for their learning, particularly for lower-division students. These are intellectual skills they need to be taught.

    Course evaluations, at least as conducted at my institution, don’t always ask the right questions. They don’t ask about an instructor’s success in motivating and enabling a student to learn. Plus, coming at the end of the course, evaluations are really, I think, about how much students like the instructor’s personality and what each student believes his or her grade in the course will be. (I believe there are studies backing me up on this, but I don’t have them at hand.)

    To evaluate the teaching of a course, you need to look at more than just what happens when the person stands in front of the class. You need to look at the syllabus, at the readings, at the activities or labs or field trips, at the assignments, at office hours. This doesn’t get done enough, at least at my institution, and the people who come to me for help are either (a) really motivated to improve their own teaching because they genuinely give a damn or (b) going up for tenure and need to beef up the teaching portion of their portfolios with a report from us.

    Briefly, on PowerPoint: It’s not used well by the majority of faculty on my campus. I observe courses where people use PowerPoint, and I work in a large classroom building, so I sometimes lurk in the hallways and watch people teach through open doorways. In the sciences and social sciences in particular, the slides they show, in concert with their lectures, have very little pedagogical purpose. Edward Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint should be required reading for these folks.


  35. Leslie, thanks for weighing in. My starting point for the 3 points I listed was merely a starting point–as I said in my introduction, pedagogies are almost infinitely variable because of what we teach, where we teach it, and to whom we teach. Also, in the previous thread we talked about the many varied ways that teaching must be evaluated, so you won’t get any argument from the faculty in these threads about doing more than visiting one class or looking at student evals.

    I find your comments about the consequences of “high-stakes testing” on students very interesting. I’ve noticed that my students at Baa Ram U. now are less capable than they were when I arrived 8 years ago at thinking creatively or tackling an intellectual problem without a great deal of coaching. I think this is very much the No Child Left Behind generation now at our doorstep.

    But, here’s the reason I harp so much on student responsibility for their own education: At my uni, many students apparently think registering and paying for a course is all they have to do. Many don’t attend class (or they text-message and update their facebook pages while in class), they don’t take notes, they don’t do the reading, they don’t do assignments. (I think on-line courses have encouraged this model of “no work” as the ideal for college courses, but that’s another subject I guess.) If a student is unwilling to do these things, then they’re unwilling to earn a college degree, and that’s NOT my problem to fix. You may think that’s too absolute a viewpoint, but that’s where I am. I can honestly say that a student who attends my classes and does all of the readings and writing assignments with a modicum of pride in their work will take home a B or better. The differences I see in my students all have to do with effort, not with natural brilliance or having been home-schooled or sent to a private school versus public schools. My A students went to the same schools and took the same dumb tests that their classmates took–they just have figured out that WORK is required of them, and that’s a rather counter-cultural view of education on my campus.

    Another beef: too many parents have bought into the notion that college is a 4- (or 5- or 6-) year party, so they tolerate their children sitting in my survey classes and bringing home Cs, Ds, and Fs. I just don’t get the waste of time–mine and theirs–and money. And the even weirder thing is that many of them are paying their own money to flunk out or do poorly. Again: what’s the point?


  36. I totally agree Historiann, esp with your penultimate paragraph. I’m so tired of the “passive consumption” model of learning, which students embrace, largely b/c unis have started promoting it in weird ways (student-as-customer). (in addition to the No Child issue.) Many students think it’s OUR responsibility to give them a road map that will lead directly to an A (even if they are willing to do the work in said map) or don’t want to do any work at all, and think anything required of them is unnecessary or unfair.


  37. perpetua, my university (or rather, the online “CSU global campus”) is running ads that say literally, “Think you don’t have time for a Master’s degree? What with work and family responsibilities, etc.? Think again!”

    Yeah, because earning a Master’s degree shouldn’t take EFFORT, should it?

    When universities are selling themselves as no-work, no-hassle places that will just print up a diploma to order, I suppose it’s inevitable that that’s the kind of student we attract. I just feel badly for the students who come here to learn something and to be challenged, and I feel more of an obligation to serve them than to serve the lazy and unmotivated students.


  38. Historiann,

    I’m completely with you on wanting to blow off students who feel entitled to a degree because they paid tuition, who don’t pay attention in class, who don’t put in the time or work, or who don’t show up to class at all. The students I’m concerned about are the ones who are in class, taking notes, doing the reading most of the time, occasionally showing up to office hours–but who are still struggling because there is a huge gap between learning in college and getting good grades in high school (which some students mistake for learning).


  39. I’ve been following this with a lot of interest, so I don’t want the fact that I am going to wander off in another direction to give the impression that I haven’t read anything upthread (I totally have!).

    Something that seems pretty right-on to me about Historiann’s original list is that it is *course focused* not prof focused. This is an important distinction that I think gets lost in the way most uni evals are administered — they are called course evals, but students and profs alike tend to think of them as “professor evaluations”. This is really bad and wrong and universities ought to work against it.

    When I think back to my undergrad & grad experience, *mostly* how much I liked a course and a prof correlated well. But in retrospect, I did also learn from a few profs whom I actively disliked at the time and with whom I still would not want to be at, say, a dinner party. Nevertheless, they were knowledgeable and able to transmit that knowledge effectively. Things I learned in that class still shape my current thinking. But had evals existed at the time, I would have been *dying* to slam them.

    Because you sit there looking at the profs all semester long, and courses start to feel like they are as much about them and how you feel about them as they are about the content. This of course operates with double force on women, people of color, people with an accent, a disability, anybody generally subject to an evaluative “gaze” and/or general social prejudices — and then eval time comes, and the evals encourage this by asking not just about the course but stuff like, “did the instructor show enthusiasm?”

    I mean, come on. A prof who taught me 25% of what I know sat slumped in a chair and lectured in perfectly-formed paragraphs (my class notes read like a text) delivered in a monotone with occasional sardonic asides. He was in fact passionate about the material, but he didn’t exactly “show” it.

    We can’t escape the fact that our personas affect everything, but it should be part of the process to make everyone aware that evals grade the course, not whether the prof is groovy. I think person-directed questions should be re-phrased or eliminated. We do this as teachers, and rightly so — who among us has not gone out of our way to be scrupulously task-focused in grading a paper by a student who gets under our skin, or by the same token a student we find funny and charming?

    This would also really help us to face evals more forthrightly — if we read the results as not about *us* (“but I don’t suck! Those kids are mean little sobs!”) but about the courses we teach and how they are going it could be much easier to face the task of dealing with what is not working. Because there are, really, limits to how much we can (or should be willing to, and certainly to how much we should be pressured to) re-tool ourselves to meet the demands of student audiences. But we should be endlessly willing to re-work courses until they are successful.


  40. Kathleen, I think you’ve hit on perhaps THE biggest problem with student evals: they tend not to separate their evaluation of the professor from the evaluation of the course, and as you point out, several questions prompt them to blur those lines.

    This is where my friend’s trick (noted in the previous thread) of asking the students to step back, to see their evaluations of us as reflections on themselves, and to use the opportunity for professional development is really smart, and perhaps can help a lot.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s