Category Archives: Principles of good teaching

Six Principles of Good Teaching. (RF-RB)

The blog posts on this website will vary all over the place. Some will pass along ideas we’ve gotten from books, papers, colleagues, students, and workshop participants, and others will be things we came up with ourselves in our combined 87 years of teaching, Some posts will be fairly long and stuffy and cluttered with things like semicolons and words like “notwithstanding” (we were practicing professors—old habits are hard to break), and others will be short enough to tweet. Some will have quotes and citations of papers and websites we like, and some will just be things on our minds. We’ll completely agree with each other about most of what shows up, and occasionally we’ll have different takes. (We’re married—old habits are hard to break.)

If there’s a common theme in the posts, it is finding answers to the question “How can I make my teaching better?” Between teaching, writing papers and a book (Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide), and giving over 400 teaching workshops, we’ve managed to generate a frightening number of answers, most of which rest on one or more of six basic principles. In this post we list the principles and then say a few general things about teaching and learning. The next posts in this series discuss the principles in greater detail and suggest ideas for how you can use them to improve your teaching.

First, here are the principles, with links to the posts that discuss them. If there’s no link, it means the post hasn’t been written yet.

Six principles of good teaching.

Learning and skill development are facilitated by:

  1. writing clear and observable learning objectives and sharing them with students;
  2. presenting new material in the context of students’ interests, goals, and prior knowledge;
  3. actively engaging students in class;
  4. balancing instruction (big picture and details, theory and applications, lecturing and active learning, visual and verbal presentation,…);
  5. providing extensive practice in targeted skills, continual assessment of skill levels, and feedback on the assessment outcomes;
  6. teaching students to practice metacognition (thinking about their thinking process).

So, the goal is good teaching, but what does that mean? For starters, what does it mean when teachers say they taught something? To some, it means that they presented information to students. “I taught Gauss’s law yesterday” is the same thing to them as “I lectured on Gauss’s law in class yesterday.” It doesn’t matter whether anyone learned it or not—if those instructors said it in class, they believe they taught it. We mean something totally different by “teaching,” namely, “causing learning to happen.” If you cover Gauss’s law in class and Student A learns it and Student B doesn’t, then you taught it to A but not to B.

If that’s teaching, what is good teaching? Is it teaching that equips all your students with the knowledge and skills you want them to have? Not necessarily—how much your students learn in your course isn’t entirely up to you. Everyone has limits on the knowledge and skills they can master. The best basketball coach in the world can’t train everyone on the team to play like Michael Jordan, any more than the best physics teacher can teach everyone in the class to think like Stephen Hawking. Even when an instructor sets learning goals that are reasonable for most students in the class, if the goals exceed the limits of some of the students, those students won’t meet the goals. Also, even if students are theoretically capable of meeting the  goals, if they don’t do the necessary studying, they won’t succeed.  So, good teaching is instruction that leads to good learning among students who are capable of meeting the instructor’s goals and who do the necessary work.

Now, all we have to do is figure out how to do that. Stay tuned.

P.S. A previous version of this post ended with that last line, and alert reader Lee Chilvers offered the following comment: “I would also add in the importance of building a rapport with the students; it makes all the other objectives easier.” We couldn’t possibly agree more, and in fact we devoted a significant portion of Teaching and Learning STEM (TLS) to the necessity of building rapport with students and suggesting ways to do it. We just weren’t astute enough to include it in this series of posts. Let’s remedy that now, with one important amendment to Lee’s wording:

Principle 0: Build a rapport with the students. If you don’t, nothing else you do in your class—including following Principles 1-6—is likely to lead to the widespread learning you’re hoping to see.

We’ll probably write some blog posts about building rapport. Until then, you can find our take on it in TLS.


  • Have you systematically tried to integrate one or more of those six principles in your teaching (or tutoring or training)? How has it worked for you?
  • How about Principle 0. Any thoughts about rapport with students and how to get it?
  • Based on your experience as a student and/or teacher, would you add additional principles? What are they?
  • Any other comments?

To respond to any of these questions, click on “Leave a reply” at the top of the post.


Six Principles of Good Teaching. 1. Writing and Using Learning Objectives (RF-RB)

Here is a common and spectacularly ineffective technique instructors use to clarify their learning goals for their students. It’s a short response to a time-honored and universally detested (by instructors) student question:

Student: “Professor Postolotz, are we responsible for ____ on Wednesday’s test?
Instructor: Yes, and for everything else in the 273 pages of the text we’ve covered so far and for everything I’ve said and shown in class since Day 1.”

(Rich has been tempted to offer an equally unhelpful response, “No, it happened before you were born,” but so far he has managed to restrain himself.)

Students have a much better chance of learning in a course when they have a clear understanding of the instructor’s expectations. An proven effective way to communicate  expectations to students is to write learning objectives—general statements of tasks the students should be able to complete if they have learned what their instructor is trying to teach them. That observation is reflected in

Principle 1. Learning and skill development are facilitated by writing clear and observable learning objectives and sharing them with students.

A list of learning objectives begins with a stem, such as:

  • “By the end of this [chapter, month, course,…], the students should be able to…”
  • “In order to do well on the next exam, [you, the students] should be able to…”

followed by a comprehensive set of tasks that might show up on assignments and tests (or if the second stem is used, on the next exam). Each task statement should begin with an action verb, such as define, explain, interpret, calculate, derive, solve, model, troubleshoot, critique, or design.

To be most useful to instructors and students, learning objectives should meet two criteria: observability and clarity. For an objective to be considered observable, the instructor should be able to either see the students carrying out the specified task or see the products of its completion. Verbs like know, learn, understand, and appreciate are not directly observable, and so should not be used in learning objectives. For an objective to be judged clear, after the relevant course material has been covered in class, the students should have a good idea of whether or not they could carry out the task if called on to do so.

Instructors frequently have only a vague idea of what they want their students to be able to do, often defining it clearly only when they make up their exams. When that happens, they often end up testing the students on material that hasn’t been adequately covered in class and on assignments. When you have written a thorough set of learning objectives for a course, you should clearly understand exactly what you’ll need to teach—namely, how to do the tasks specified in the objectives. You’ll then be in a good position to get constructive alignment in the course (Biggs, 2003), meaning that all of the lectures, in-class activities, out-of-class assignments, and exams consistently address the same knowledge and skills.

Even if students have your objectives, there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be able to complete the specified tasks: they’ll still need the necessary aptitude and have to do the necessary studying. What the objectives do is maximize the chances that students with the aptitude who put in the studying will end by meeting the objectives.

To equip your students with a clear understanding of your learning goals for them, consider posting your objectives in study guides for exams one to two weeks before the exams are given. The objectives should encompass every type of task you might include on the exam, especially tasks that require high-level thinking and problem-solving skills, and every exam should include a subset of the types of questions and problems specified on the study guide. Instructors who have never done this are often afraid they’ll have to list hundreds of objectives in dozens of pages. You won’t: every study guide we’ve ever written has fit on one double-sided sheet of paper. (Reference 2 below gives examples.)

Even if you deliberately include more high-level problems on a study guide than you normally would, you should see a significant improvement in your students’ average test performance compared to what it was without the learning objectives. A bonus is that you’ll never have to deal with that dreaded student question (“Are we responsible for ___ on the test?”) again. The students will quickly learn that the answer is “If it’s on the study guide, you’re responsible for it; if it’s not, you’re not.”

References on writing and using learning objectives

  1. Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university—What the student does, 2nd Edition. Buckingham: SRHE / Open University Press.
  2. Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, Chapter 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). “Introduction to learning objectives.” A short online tutorial that defines learning objectives, gives reasons for writing them and different ways to use them, outlines different levels of complexity of objectives using Bloom’s Taxonomy, and gives directions for writing effective objectives at different levels. The tutorial also includes an online multiple-choice quiz on the tutorial contents that provides feedback on incorrect responses
  4. Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2003). “Designing and Teaching Courses to Satisfy the ABET Engineering Criteria.” Journal of Engineering Education, 2(1), 7-25. A review of educational assessment terminology (educational objectives, outcomes, learning objectives, etc.), followed by suggestions for formulating course learning objectives, designing instruction, and selecting assessment methods that address Outcomes 3a-3k of the system used to accredit all American engineering programs.

Return to the list of principles.