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:
- writing clear and observable learning objectives and sharing them with students;
- presenting new material in the context of students’ interests, goals, and prior knowledge;
- actively engaging students in class;
- balancing instruction (big picture and details, theory and applications, lecturing and active learning, visual and verbal presentation,…);
- providing extensive practice in targeted skills, continual assessment of skill levels, and feedback on the assessment outcomes;
- 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.