GIVING TEACHING ADVICE TO SOMEONE YOU WILL PROBABLY NEVER MEET



I am giving a speech on teaching tomorrow evening here at the University of Richmond.   I look forward to it with great anticipation.   There is a genuine thrill in talking with teachers about teaching.   It is a wonderful way to get the new semester off to a great start.  

As always, I am a big believer in preparation – both my own preparation and that of the audience.   For this program to go well, everyone needs to spend some time and be ready.   To get that process started, I sent the 105 participants a message about an email that I had recently received.   I asked them to read the question that I had been sent as well as my response.   Then, I asked them to add one additional tip to my response.   What did I leave out?   What more should I have suggested?   What other idea should have I have given this young person?

Okay, I have the same question for you.   Read the question.   Read my answer.   Tell me what else I should have added.   That's your assignment.

THE EMAIL
I received the following email from a person whom I did not know and will likely never meet.   But, I appreciated her question and the sheer interest she had in reaching out to a stranger for advice.  

“I am a TA for Organic Chemistry at Ohio State University. Over the past several semesters, I have become very interested in teaching, and I started reading your blog a few weeks ago. I have found it incredibly helpful and insightful, and your passion for teaching is admirable. I was reading through your blog post about teaching tips for the new semester, and I would love to hear yours (at your earliest convenience, of course).”

MY RESPONSE TO THE TA’S QUESTION ABOUT TEACHING TIPS
Thanks so much for writing about my teaching blog (have you seen my Teaching Tips book -- it is also free on the Internet).   I'm always delighted to hear from teachers, especially new teachers.   From my perspective, it is one of the most thrilling and rewarding careers that you can have.   Enjoy every day.

As far as advice for you as you begin the spring semester, I could probably write three thick books of advice and honestly believe that each new idea was even more important than the previous one.   But, having said that, here are a few that I view as absolutely essential.

--Figure out how to get your students to prepare before they walk into your class.  99.9 percent of students are under-prepared when they enter the classroom each day and that sets a severe limit on what any teacher can accomplish.  There are a lot of ways to get students to prepare (threatening bodily harm might be one) but student preparation in my mind is the number one key to great teaching.  Without that, everything is a challenge.

--Communicate with your students early and often.   For example, I've already sent a couple of emails to my students ​ and my first class is not for nearly three weeks.   During the semester, I send emails to the students roughly once a day.   But, I work to make those emails worth their time.   I give practice problems.   I give study hints.   I talk about interesting developments that I read in today's paper.   I occasionally talk about books I'm reading or movies I've seen because I want my teaching to go beyond just accounting.   If you limit your interaction with students to 150 minutes in class each week, it is difficult to be a great teacher.

--Teach by using puzzles.   That, I think, is one of the most missed paths to great teaching.  I don't know anything about your field (organic chemistry) so I cannot give examples but think about questions that begin:  "Why would it work like this?"   "How might this be different in a science fiction story?"  "What happens if we do something backwards?"   "If X happens, what is most like to happen next and why?"  Everyone loves puzzles.  They make you think and reason.   Any boring class can become immediately engaging through the use of puzzles.

--Students come to learn based on how they expect to be tested (or graded).   No matter what you tell them, if they believe you are going to test their memory skills, all they will do is memorize.   The hope of developing their critical thinking skills will then fly out the window.   One way to avoid this problem is to give open book tests (I actually allow my students to bring in three pages of notes to every test which forces them to make decisions as to what they should include).   Open books tests are good for you because they will force you to learn to write good test questions and that will make you a better teacher.   They are also good for the students because they will quickly understand that you are not going to test them on memory since you are allowing them to have access to notes or books.

--I don't know how big your classes are but, if possible, never say more than 50 percent of the words in class.   Teachers are hypnotized by the sound of their own voices.   Teachers love that they can easily fill up the passing minutes with their own words.   Students let the teachers rattle on because they like to sit and daydream.   Force your students to do half of the talking.   I do that by using an intense Socratic Method where no student can hide.   But there are other approaches that work.   Teachers feel an obsession to convey information.   Get over it--there are books and videos that do that.   Use the class for talking—especially student talking.  

--Follow the three E's:   Experiment, Evaluate, Evolve.   You are never going to stand out by doing things the way everyone else does them.   Try new things each week or each month just to see what works and what does not work.   This is especially important as you get older and the age gap between you and your students gets wider.   Most teachers experiment less as they get older.   They settle into a comfortable rut.   You should experiment more as you get older to keep things fresh for you and your students.

--Care for your students.   These are real people and not robots.   Yes, they can be lazy.   And, yes, they can be annoying.   But this is their one chance at learning this material.   Whether you are good or bad as a teacher, you have a big impact on their lives.   Care enough for them to push them to be great.

Hope this helps.   One warning:   Sometimes you have to read a lot of ideas to find one that really helps you.


ADDITIONAL TIPS THAT MY AUDIENCE FOR TOMORROW NIGHT SENT TO ME (I challenged these folks to add one tip and I got loads – here are a few that I received, selected somewhat randomly)

--Establish a class culture of respect and provide a safe environment for sharing diverse opinions.

--Make each class real, relevant and riveting.   Find examples of the subject matter you're teaching, and weave them into every class to help students connect with the content. Tell stories and share examples.

--I give students "mini cases.”  The case is related to the topic for the class and presents a hypothetical situation in a company. The students work in small groups to develop a response and then report that to the class.

--Be willing to fail and open to learning from failures. Risk-taking is not well-rewarded in academic circles because failure is seen as an ending rather than a transition. Be willing to try, fail, and admit failure to students. And be willing to let students fail at certain aspects of the class without earning a failing grade in the class.

--Captivate the students with good openers, words of wisdom, useful tips.   Collaborate often because we learn from each other.  Celebrate all accomplishments and "understandings"... no matter how small

--Differentiate your instruction based on students’ readiness for the content, their interests, and the different ways they approach learning.   This is the most challenging aspect of teaching and requires you to get to truly know your students as individuals.  Remember that your students are very much alike in some ways and very different from each other in many ways. 

--Remember the power of active engagement, which allows students to interact and reflect on the content.  This type of learning increases meaning and understanding.  It provides an opportunity to communicate with others in order to share perspectives and experiences.


--Part of each student's grade is participation in class. I give them class labs that they have to solve and each student must participate. Also, I assign each student (prior to class or during the first night of class) to write a one page paper on their expectations of the class and me. This allows me to evaluate their writing ability and it helps me design sections of my class.

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