Tag Archives: STEM

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.


Teaching Creative Thinking: 2. Alternatives to brainstorming (RB)

When most of us think about teaching creativity, we think of brainstorming. Brainstorming is widely used in industry, but it has some limitations. Ideas may be lost because too many people are talking at once; individuals may withhold ideas out of fear of being judged; and dominant individuals may keep others with possibly better ideas from contributing.[1] An alternative to brainstorming that helps avoid these limitations is brainwriting.[2] Students are given the same type of prompt, but instead of contributing ideas orally, each person writes a list of ideas. The lists are compiled and shared with the whole group, which then brainstorms additional ideas. Check out some prompts for brainwriting activities and ideas for how to conduct them in our first blog on creative thinking skills.

Another interesting alternative to brainstorming is bisociation. This technique challenges students to use two unrelated things to stimulate new ideas. The steps in the approach are:

  1. Choose a stimulus
  2. Capture what you know about it on a whiteboard
  3. Make associations or connections

Suppose you want to get ideas for improvements to a tool (stethoscope, garlic press, etc.). You choose an unrelated stimulus (wireless speaker, ruler, etc.) and have students explore everything they know about it. Then you ask students to make connections between the original item and the new stimulus. The result is a much richer source of ideas because of the unexpected connections. Felder[3] used a variation of this technique in an undergraduate fluid dynamics course, when he asked students to brainstorm ways to measure the viscosity of a fluid and gave double credit for methods that involved the use of a hamburger.

To find out more about bisociation, take a look at a short 6-minute video by Ken Bloemer of the KEEN Engineering Unleashed program at the University of Dayton.

Give one of these ideas a try in a class you teach. You’re bound to get students thinking in new ways and having fun doing it!

[1] Heslin, P.A. (2009). Better than brainstorming? Potential contextual boundary conditions to brainwriting for idea generation in organizations. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82, 129-145.

[2] Van Gundy, A.B. (1983). Brainwriting for new product ideas: An alternative to brainstorming. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 1, 67–74.

[3] Felder, R.M. (1987). On creating creative engineers. Engineering Education, 77(4), 222–227. www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/Creative_Engineers.pdf.

Teaching Creative Thinking: 1. How can I teach my students to be creative when I’m not sure I am? (RB)

Creative thinking is a skill that faculty members are often nervous about teaching. If a suggestion is made that they incorporate instruction in it into their classes, they are likely to respond with (or at least to think) the title of this blog.

An easy way to integrate creative thinking into teaching is to include some idea generation activities in class. The most familiar activity of this type is brainstorming, in which participants come up with as many ways as they can to answer an open-ended question or solve a problem. Following are some illustrative brainstorming prompts.

List possible

  • ways to verify a [calculated value, derived formula]
  • ways that could be used to determine a physical property or variable [with no constraints, with no required instrument calibrations, as a function of one or more other variables, involving a stuffed bear]
  • uses for [any object, something that would normally go to waste]
  • ways to improve a [process or product, experiment, computer code]
  • real-world applications of a [theory, procedure, formula]
  • safety and environmental concerns in this [experiment, process, plant]
  • flaws or possible problems in a proposed [design, procedure, code, grading rubric]

Consider conducting a brainstorming activity for active learning groups in class. Tell the students to organize themselves into groups of 2–3, ask a question or pose a problem, and give the groups 2–3 minutes to come up with ideas. Then stop them and collect ideas on the board. (If you’re not sure how small groups would work in a large class, take a look at our introductory active learning tutorial at www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Tutorials/Active/Active-learning.pdf.)

Tips for brainstorming exercises[1]

  1. Focus on quantity. The goal of the idea-generation phase of problem solving is to generate as many ideas as possible, be they good, bad, ridiculous, or illegal. The more ideas there are, the more likely the best one is to occur.
  2. Welcome unusual ideas. A seemingly absurd idea can serve two vitally important purposes. It can move the idea generation process in a new and unexpected direction, possibly leading to good ideas that otherwise might not have come up. In addition, it can lead to laughter (approving, not mocking) and possibly serve as an incentive to come up with an even more far-fetched idea. Eventually the ideas may start flowing as fast as anyone can write them down.
  3. Build on the ideas of others. The power of brainstorming lies in the fact that hearing ideas often stimulates people to think of related but different ideas.
  4. Withhold criticism. Creative ideas flow best in a relaxed environment, and nothing kills a sense of relaxation more than trashing ideas as soon as they are raised. Once people start worrying about being criticized, the flow of ideas shuts down. If you think an idea is bad, don’t criticize it—just come up with a better one.

Answer to the blog title question. Yes, you can teach creative thinking without being creative yourself. The brainstorming activity described above provides a good illustration. You can ask students to brainstorm a list of anything, and evaluate the quantity, variety, and originality of their ideas, without having a trace of creativity. The fact is, though, that most faculty members—probably including you—are more creative than they give themselves credit for.

Additional reading on teaching creative thinking

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, pp. 222–230. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fogler, H.S., LeBlanc, S.E., & Rizzo, B. (2014). Strategies for creative problem solving (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Additional reading on active learning

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, Ch. 6. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


[1] Osborn, A.F. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (3rd ed.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.