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Essay on lessons learned from the start of a college teaching career

19 Lessons About Teaching

August 14, 2013

I started teaching in May 2007. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

1. Teaching is a learning experience.

Every time I teach a lesson, I learn the material in new and deeper way. I also always learn so much from my students. I learn from their own life experiences. I learn from their insights and reactions. They see aspects all the time in the sources we use that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise – and these are awesome teaching moments. I also learn about pop culture – new music, new styles, and slang – from my students. My students have taught me that everyone always has some kind of significant ongoing challenge in their life, be it directly or indirectly with a friend/family member, in terms of health, work, money, or something else. These challenges provide the window through which they see the world and greatly impact success and opportunities.  

2. Understanding adult learning theory is important.

Adult learning theory or andragogy (in contrast to pedagogy) recognizes that as adults, college students, both traditional and nontraditional, have different learning needs and backgrounds compared to children or adolescents. College students have life experience. This life experience makes it harder for them to learn at times because of how the brain grows physiologically. Students need to be able to connect their life to classroom lessons. They tend to want to work independently, and they have more goals that are independent of their family and friends.

3. Getting students to come to office hours is very difficult.

No matter how hard we try as instructors, students don’t like coming to office hours. It may be because they are intimidated, shy, any number of reasons. I found a great way to get students quickly comfortable talking with me is to visit with them informally in the classroom before and after class. I usually try to get to class at least 10 minutes early, if not 15 or 20. I have found that by doing this, students start to come early to visit. When teaching smaller classes on small campuses, I like to have lunch with students. This makes students comfortable being around me and lets them know I truly care. As a result, when they need help or even if they just want to visit, they really will e-mail or text or even physically come to the office. Extra credit points also works wonders at getting a line of students at the door.

4. Students don’t truly and internally understand what is expected of them.

Students don’t realize that college is when they reach that point when it finally really is harder and different – where the grades finally really do matter. Students, by virtue of having been in the public school system 13 or more years, have had their brains rewired where they physiologically cannot critically think about or un-learn everything they learned incorrectly without a great deal of time and effort. When teaching, we have to allow for their past educational experiences (or lack of experiences). The best way to break this barrier and to get them to actually learn is by using very different methods to deliver and assess course material. Thought-provoking movies, songs, purposely very opinionated statements, and comments critiquing things (such as textbooks or schools) they have taken for granted as always being true and "the way it is" help begin the process where students can think freely and creatively.

5. Treat students as equals.

Of course, students are not our equals – we have more formal academic training and have leadership of the classroom – but we should treat hem as equals. They have their own set of unique talents and interests. Moreover, treating everyone with respect and kindness goes far in creating a successful classroom. In my history classes, for example, I tell them they are historians for the semester.

6. Teach subjects, not prerequisites.

Too often I think we get distracted by teaching the "required courses." Everyone knows that 90 percent or more of students in a freshman biology or history class don’t want to be there. This translates into "dumbing down" the lessons more than necessary. In my history classes, for example, we talk about historiography (something I didn’t learn about until my last semester as a history undergraduate) from the first day of class. I want my students to have a true, deep exposure to the study of history.

7. Make full use of the CASE method.

Copy And Steal Everything (CASE) for educational purposes. Don’t reinvent the wheel where you don’t need to. Especially when you’re first teaching a lesson, borrow things others have done. Also, when I do create things, I make them available to others. In my case, I probably really still tend to reinvent the wheel too much, but when I do use resources other professors have made, I always look at several similar sources and combine the best parts of each and my own take to make something new. In other cases, especially on websites with all kinds of resources that are noted as being for anyone and everyone to use, sometimes I use it as-is. As educators, under fair use laws and more recently creative commons laws, we have all kinds of cool privileges to use the best resources for our students.

8. Have everything covered in the syllabus.

I tend to have a syllabus that is at least six to seven solid pages of text. Much of this is "common sense." But given the nature of colleges and universities today and the nature of students (especially the "classroom lawyers"), it is helpful to carefully articulate all expectations, rules, and any exceptions. I have a “master syllabus” on my computer that I will add things to during the semester so the syllabus will be better for the next time. A detailed syllabus can also save time and stress, as students can consult the syllabus for course information.

9. Challenge students beyond their comfort zone.

I have found through various experimentation that students actually try harder, do more work, come to class prepared, and make higher grades if the course is "hard." When the assignments are too easy, students slack off and fall further and further behind. Students will rise to the challenge. They secretly want to be challenged. For example, in a student success course, students are much more likely to complete and do so with care an essay requiring two to three pages compared to a worksheet/mini-project. In a history class, instead of in-class exams, I give longer take-home exams that require more thought and time. Students perform better because they know it is going to be harder, they know I have high expectations, and they enjoy the challenge. It’s for sure something different. Always go ahead and go with what is harder: If it turns out to truly be too hard, back off a bit and offer more help and guidance. As long as the focus is on learning, everything will be fine.

10. Numerous low-stakes assignments that use all of the senses are best.

Of course the number of students enrolled and the length of a semester, along with other tasks in a given semester, greatly influence the nature and number of assignments. Ideally, students should have as many opportunities to earn their grade as possible. College is about learning. Confining students' semester grade to a midterm and a final exam is not a true reflection of how much they learn and grow in a semester. Ideally, I like to have grades determined by a daily quiz (in-class), a book review or two (take-home), a midterm exam (take-home), a final exam (take-home), a semester project, and participation. Assignments are best when they are active – that is, they involve a mixture of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and moving, as they have to use their full senses. Assignments require a mixture of recall, application, and synthesis with fun and creative prompts. Using new and creative assignments every semester almost completely eliminates the opportunities for plagiarism. Finally, remembering that you don’t have to grade every assignment is important. Sometimes, I’ll pass back a quiz and say, "You got credit if you did it this time – let me know if you have questions about the content."

11. Quizzes guarantee students come on time and prepared.

I first started giving quizzes because so many students were always late. These students were distracting and somewhat frustrating. I also noticed that students were not doing the assigned reading, and if they were, only passively. As soon as I started using quizzes, students started coming on time and much better-prepared. These quizzes are given only during the first 5-15 minutes of class (time depends on various factors), and the questions are not released beforehand. All students know is that it will be over current course material – questions do focus on broad information.

12. Students will not do optional.

Unfortunately, most students only do what is absolutely required, if even that. We offer students extra credit or opportunities to do a revision, yet few if any will take advantage of it. And then, any who actually do more, do not need it in terms of improving their grade. Two important teaching implications result: One, I always offer to accept revisions or to review drafts early or to hold extra office hours. I used to worry that I would not have time, but so very few students take advantage of these opportunities that it always works out fine. Two, if you really want students to have a particular learning experience, make it required and an important part of the grade.

13. Let students talk and be active every chance possible.

Students remember far more of what they say than what I say. Although there is some disagreement with the exact breakdown, some educational researchers have argued, using Edgar Dale’s "cone of learning" as a launching point, that students remember approximately 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear, 30 percent of what they see, 50 percent of what they see and hear, 70 percent of what they see and write, and 90 percent of what they do. These percentages fit my experience in the classroom. My goal in the classroom is to engage all of the senses as much as possible.

In one example for a history class, instead of explaining to students why Indians were treated so poorly in the colonial period, ask students to call out reasons and explain them. They will almost always cover all of the reasons we could have in a lecture and usually they will think of more. If they leave anything out, I will go over it at the end.

In another example, sometimes when covering the Great Depression, I turn off most of the lights and play music from the '30s while they either make a political cartoon, skit, or something creative from the period. Then everyone shares their mini project and contextualizes it. The last 10 minutes of class, I play the closing scene from the musical Gold Diggers of 1933 where they are singing "My Forgotten Man." This style uses the full senses, and they really remember the lessons.

14. Off-topic lessons are sometimes the best.

I’ve found if I lead a class correctly (except for the occasional very quiet class), it quickly takes a life of its own. Sometimes, a discussion veers off into things that are off-topic. These are O.K. occasionally, and sometimes they can be better than the regular lesson. But as I approach history as being anything and everything, including what happened a second ago, it is hard to be too off-topic in a history class.

For example, this past spring semester on a day we were scheduled to discuss labor in the early 1920s I think it was, at the beginning of class a student asked me if I watched football (or something like that). I said no and explained why. One of the students said, "You do realize we have football players in here?" Then the main football player chimed in and we ended up having a really good yet brief classwide discussion about the history of football and some of the problems with the sport today. In the end, it tied back to labor, class, gender, and race – all issues relevant to the regular lesson that day.

15. Technology has many limitations. (Plus it fails mechanically.)

I’m very technologically adept, but I’ve learned that less technology usually makes for better face-to-face classes. Technology always risks adding too many competing factors for students’ attention – so many that they don’t pay attention to anything. Regarding PowerPoint: It’s a tricky thing. I never did just read slides to classes, but I did use them to provide rough lecture outlines, pictures, videos, etc., on the screen. I would spend hours preparing a given presentation to make sure all the images and text boxes were perfectly aligned (the OCD side of me came out in full force!). I found that even with this limited use of PowerPoint, students took far too few notes – partly because they did not really realize that they had to actually take lots of notes and partly because listening to me and watching the slides at the same time was too hard.

Now if I ever use PowerPoint, I only use it to show an image or show the spelling of a name or place. If at all possible, I provide handouts with the names and spellings. More and more often, I will have a folder for each class on my computer and manually open an image, song, or movie clip as needed to be displayed on the projector. It’s much simpler and actually has more of an impact than if it were all embedded in a PowerPoint.

For the most part, I also have nothing displaying on the screen if we are having a discussion or if I am lecturing. It’s too distracting for students if something is on the screen and something else is happening at the same time.

16. Don’t waste time policing cell phones.

I used to be picky: If a student had his/her cell phone out, I would dismiss him or her from class. I saw cell use in the classroom as among the ultimate taboo. Now, I’ve learned it’s much easier on everyone and creates a more productive learning environment if these students are usually ignored – except for the ones who actually answer their phone in class and try to have a conversation! Instead of "demonizing" cell phones, make them a non-issue. Additionally, I will frequently ask students to look something up on their phone using Google when a question comes up. Depending on the question, I will do this even if I know the answer because I want student to use resources available to them and to speak themselves.

I also use my own cell phone as a classroom tool. I use it as a timer for the daily quiz. I also regularly have students make lists on the whiteboard or do other in-class projects. I use my phone to get pictures of these.

17. It’s O.K. to sit down.

Actually, it’s a good thing. I have found that not always standing creates a free and equal environment. This is particularly useful in smaller classes and during class discussions. This one is also necessary for me because I physically cannot stand for a three-hour class. I sit on top of a table in the front of the class, as needed. Sometimes, if it is a really small class, we’ll all sit in chairs in a circle.

18. Students will disappoint, students will surprise, and grades are grades.

It’s important for us to remember that since we’re teaching college students, presumably we have pretty solid academic records. We love learning and studying and did everything we could to earn an "A" on everything. Many of our students are not this way. To many of them, a grade is a grade. They don’t take the grade personally or even think about it all that much. This is not to say that there are not students who are devastated when they come to college and make their first grade ever that is below an "A." Others start the course doing really well and/or they have very good “academic skills” but don’t do well. Others of them have other priorities, some are not ready for college, some have personal events come up, and some struggle more than we realize. On the other hand, there will be a few students who will make wonderful, sincere improvement over the course of a semester.

19. I love teaching.

I love teaching more than I ever dreamed I would. Teaching and working with students is extremely challenging and rewarding. I love that I have the privilege and opportunity to teach other people. I respect that this is a great charge and honor. I take the responsibility seriously and carefully pick every part of every lesson and assignment as to have the best educational impact possible. I love thinking on my feet and leading a discussion with engaged students. I truly love teaching beyond words.

Bio

Andrew Joseph Pegoda is completing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston, where he also teaches. He studies race, culture, human rights, and education. He blogs here and here.

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