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Tips for Better Teaching
  1. Organize.  
  Among the factors contributing to great teaching evaluations is
the level of the professor's organization. Students universally seem
to love a class session that is well planned, clearly structured, and
presented with appropriate cues to take them from point to point.
Just half a dozen points on an overhead transparency or written on
the board might be sufficient to
provide this. Or a handout, or even a verbal announcement
("The four major concepts are . . .") could work. I'm sure we
all remember from our own school days profs who filled up
the class hour with a miscellany of topics ("Today's topic is
gallimaufric olla podrida"), and who kept talking aimlessly
until the time was up and then simply stopped. Not all
learning, thinking, exploring can be neat and presentable in a
fixed package, of course, but we often can do better in our
planning than we do.
The use of transitional markers during the presentation is also
highly effective for helping students understand parts, relationships,
and continuities. "Another piece of evidence for this," "In contrast to
the view of the biographical critics," or
"Now that we have examined the theory, let's look at the application,"--statements like this help students organize
their notes as well as their minds.
  2. Teach Incrementally  
  Studies of learning and of the satisfaction of learners reveal that
two of the best techniques for knowledge acquisition and retention
are the use of incremental learning (dividing learning
up into small, easily mastered units) and the employment of constant feedback about learning performance.
Giving frequent homework involves both of these techniques, while
giving frequent tests (such as on each chapter or unit) or
at least frequent quizzes satisfies the goal of constant feedback.
Giving only a midterm exam and a final exam is probably not
enough feedback for most learners, especially at the lower division
level. Most students are surprisingly enthusiastic about doing small
written assignments at frequent intervals because
the assignments help them either to understand and fix the
knowledge or to learn and practice the skills they are studying.
Incremental teaching allows students to sense their own
intellectual growth and progress, and to feel a series of
accomplishments, providing them with regular ego rewards.
Those who do poorly on early exams are forced to wake up
and apply themselves. And a poor performance on any given
test does not leave a student demoralized because there is always
hope for better performance later. And a single test will not by itself
doom the student to a low final grade.
Other ideas: give a two-minute quiz each meeting over the reading or
last meeting's lecture as a means of taking roll and
of encouraging students to read the texts carefully and take
good lecture notes. Or at the end of the hour, have students
write a brief statement of the most important thing they learned
or the most significant points of the meeting. Or have each
student write a multiple-choice question covering some aspect
of the lecture or reading for the day. Collect these and use
some of them for quizzes or exams.
  3. Move.  
  As you talk, don't remain fixed behind the lectern. Move around the
room, or at least around the front of the lecture area. Some studies
have shown that attention and retention increase in
direct proportion to the closeness of the speaker to the
audience. Thus, if you move around the classroom and
approach quite closely to different students at different times,
you can keep them paying attention better and help personalize your discussion. (You might even look into the eyes of a student you
happen to be near, lower your voice to a personal level, and ask,
"Do you see what I'm saying, Brad?") You'll no longer be a distant
talking head or an anthropomorphic cassette player, but
a conversationalist "up close and personal," a professor who
conducts "multiple simultaneous tutorials." You'll find that walking
down the rows of desks is very educational for you,
and that it really brings the students to attention. Some will
even stop writing love letters and doing their homework for their next
class and instead they will listen to you.
And use some gestures to emphasize your points. You don't need wildly windmilling arms, just some interesting movements. To emphasize a particular idea, feel free to point, draw a line in the air, clap your hands together, wring your hands, pound the lectern or table, or use some
other gesture. People will follow
any moving target, and seeing a little literal animation from the
professor helps them maintain interest.
Some gestures also serve as symbolic communicators and memory
aids. Hold your palms up to indicate the need for an answer, hold
your palms apart more or less (fish story style)
to indicate big or small problems, costs, sizes, etc.
  4. Modulate  
  Raise and lower your voice and change its tone as you talk.
Monotones are death to any lecture. Students will write down
whatever you say in loud enough tones, and if you add an
emphasis phrase like, "And this is especially important," "Here
is the key concept," "It all boils down to this issue," or even,
"Now write this down," you'll help your audience pick out the
gold from the bearing ore. A clear, sufficiently loud, varied, forceful,
confident voice is a handy tool for keeping any
audience listening.
As far back as the eighteenth century it has been noted that a  
speaker who appears unconvinced by his own arguments is
not likely to convince others. Try to maintain a confident
(not egotistical) tone, and be careful not to trail off into a
mumble at the end of a sentence or idea.
  5. Illustrate.  
  A really good classroom presentation should be accompanied
by two kinds of illustration: visual and verbal. Visual illustrations
can be pictures, slides, overhead transparencies, diagrams,
charts and graphs, or even lists of key points. The important
thing is to provide some visual cues to aid your audience in
apprehending the structure and remembering the content of
your talk. As students continue to come from an ever more
visual upbringing, this kind of illustration continues to gain in
The other kind of illustration is the verbal example, story, or
anecdote. The best kind is the personal "war story." Tell your
students a story about something that happened to you that
vividly exemplifies the point you are making. If you can say,
"I came face to face with this idea when . . .," you'll make
textbook concepts more real, believable, and memorable for
your students.
Abstract concepts are difficult to pin down, especially for students
whose abstract thinking skills are relatively newly developed.
If you are always ready with two or three concrete
and highly visual "for examples," you will be much more likely
to bring illumination into the darkest corners of any given
cerebral cortex.
  6. Enthuse  
  Quite a few students state on evaluations that they became
interested in the material because the professor was interested
in it. If you convey an enthusiasm for your material, you will give
it value and charm that it might not otherwise have. (Some profs
have reported ruefully on the results of going to class the first
day and saying, "I know you think this is boring, and I'm not
very interested in it myself, but let's see if we can just get
through it." Others get better results by doing some self
promotion: "Wow! What a concept! Isn't that great?" or even,
"Isn't this a great class?" Find your own style.)
Remember that teaching is a performing art. Remember also
that students, after having watched television for tens of
thousands of hours, have been conditioned to expect signs
of enthusiasm when something important is under discussion.
  7. Pause.  

Never underestimate the power of silence. Stop speaking from
time to time for fifteen, twenty, thirty seconds, to allow your
students to reflect on and consolidate what you have just said.
You're not a radio station where dead air is anathema: don't think
you have to fill up every tick of the clock with sound. An effective
silence at frequent intervals provides the rest from mental
processing that every auditor needs.

  8. Ask Questions.
  Find out what your students are thinking. Have them contribute
a little mental processing to the class. The best questions are
not fixed-answer ones, such as, "When was Henry VIII born?"
but more complex ones, whether they have several answers
like, "Why did Henry break with Rome?" or even better,
reflective ones, like, "If you were an Anglican Bishop, how
would you have responded to repeal of the Test Act and why?"
Fixed-answer questions too often produce a
"guess-what-the-professor-wants" response, while reflective
questions stimulate thought and encourage creativity.
Making questions personal is often better than leaving them
abstract. For example, instead of asking, "What is the
difference between Platonism and Aristotelianism," ask,
"Do you consider yourself a Platonist or an Aristotelian?
A useful exercise is to ask a student or the class as a whole
to construct an essay outline on both sides of an issue, while
you write the points on the board. For example, ask, "If you
wanted to argue against the trickle-down theory, what points
would you make?" After discussion and outline, ask, "And now
what would someone say who wanted to rebut this argument?"
Whenever you ask a question, be sure to allow sufficient wait time.
That is, relax and give students an opportunity to think about the
question for awhile. A frequent teaching error is to
grow impatient and answer a question for the students. Once
students realize that the answer is coming anyway, they will
stop thinking and volunteering. But if you show them that you
are willing to wait them out, their discomfort with the silence
will produce results
  9. Summarize and Repeat.
  It has been claimed that a typical listener actually
hears only twenty percent of what a speaker says. That's
why many TV and radio advertisers name the product at
least five times in each commercial and run each commercial
endlessly. It has also been said that the first and last five
minutes of class are remembered best by students, so a little
introducing and a little summarizing will help fix the session's
content in students' minds.
Don't be afraid to repeat an important sentence. Did
you hear what I just said? (Huh? What? What'd you
just say? What was that he just said?) I said, Don't
be afraid to repeat an important sentence. If you
think for a minute, you'll see why. Remember that
test you announced four different times, only to
have six students look surprised the day you gave it?
  10. Laugh.  
  A sense of humor not only will endear you to your students
but will help them learn what you want them to. As the classical
poet Horace noted, the mingling of pleasure with instruction makes the teaching more pleasurable. Or, to quote Jonathan Swift, "As wit is
the noblest and most useful gift of human
nature, so humor is the most agreeable, and where these two enter
far into the composition of any work, they will render it always
acceptable to the world." Think back on your own education,
on those professors who, because of the tightness
of their stuffed shirts, could find nothing amusing, and contrast
them with those other professors who could enjoy and share a
hearty laugh, sometimes even at their own expense. Weren't
the classes with the latter profs a lot more fun and enjoyable,
and didn't you learn more from them?
You need not (and probably should not) tell canned jokes, but
developing a willingness to laugh will be very useful. Most students
have sufficient grief in their lives so that it is not necessary for you
to add to it with your teaching style.
  11. Model.  
  Model in your own teaching behavior the lessons you want the
students to learn. If you want your students to become careful
thinkers, demonstrate careful thinking. Students will study what
you do even more than what you say, so you would be wise to
display the habits of fairness, circumspection, balance, justness.
Show that you understand with sympathy all sides of a
controversial issue. Show that the knowledge you are teaching
has a definite and useful impact on your life, attitudes and behavior.
And be sure to admit freely when you don't know the answer or
when you have made a mistake. Students report feeling increased
rather than decreased respect for professors who
admit their ignorance. After all, students are not looking for
someone perfect; they are looking for someone human and
  12. Use a variety of teaching tools.
  A given fact can be conveyed in any of several different ways.
A good way to maintain interest and foster communication is
to develop a repertory of information transmission methods and
use them throughout the semester. The blackboard, a flipchart,
an overhead transparency, slides, a video, a film, a handout--any
one of these could convey a concept.
In teaching vocabulary, you might use a multiple choice quiz,
a matching quiz, fill-in-the-blank quiz, a crossword puzzle. Or
have the students make a sentence from each word, write a
prayer containing all the words in the list, write a song
containing the words, teach each other in small groups, and
so on.
Illustrations can be drawn from fiction, music, film, cartoons,
newspaper articles, scripture, metaphors, personal experience,
technology, art, polls, in-class experiments, in-class ad hoc
minidramas, nature, etc., etc.
Take the class outside to an anthill to teach them about society;
bring an apple to class to slice up and divide among everyone to
teach the concept of limited resources; have one student lead
another blindfolded student around the room to teach about faith;
develop a field assignment that requires students to go somewhere
and discover something, interview someone, or find something and
then come back and report on it or write it up. In short, be creative.
There are hundreds of ways to make learning varied, dynamic,
and exciting.
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Copyright 1991 by Robert Harris
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