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What Makes a Good Course?

So, what is it? 

September 18, 2014

I’m teaching a one-credit class this semester in the Preparing Future Faculty program called College Teaching. In it, we are talking about, well, unsurprisingly, college teaching. Last week was our first class and we started by discussing what makes a good professor or teacher. The students had read the first chapter of The Courage to Teach, and they wrote about an experience or person who shaped their attitude towards education. We were in the right mind-space for talking about good teachers.

The students quickly identified what they thought made a good professor. We used Think-Pair-Share and the students happily debated the artificial ranking I had asked them to produce (most fun: listening to the table of humanist and science graduate students parse word choice). Knowledgeable was up there for everyone, as was approachability, and passion. Good communication skills, engaging, humble positive…it was a good list. And, of course, the only thing that your graduate training provides you with is knowledge, as I made sure they all noted.

(As an aside, I tweeted the following: “And using student-centered approach makes me feel superfluous.” The students spend 45 minutes on this activity and shot me dirty looks when I tried to hurry them along or even tried to listen in on what they were discussing. But, as I put it, I reminded myself that I am not superfluous, but responsible for helping to foster the environment where the students are free to learn. So there’s that.)

Once we had discussed the list, I then asked them to do another Think-Pair-Share but this time I wanted them to identify the qualities that make a good course. The students were stumped. They sat there is silence for a few minutes looking confusedly at their little index cards. When they finally got through the exercise, they clearly identified some important elements of a good course, including organization, level-appropriateness, fair and relevant assessments, and engaging activities.

I asked them why they had so much more difficulty coming up with the qualities of a good course, and one of the students rightly commented: “We don’t have rate my course, we have Rate My Professor.” If I had asked them to think about what makes a good course before asking them what makes a good teacher, I inevitably would have heard “a good teacher” for the top choice. But, once we remove the human factor (which is not insignificant), there are clearly elements that are necessary to make a good course. But it’s something they (we) haven’t often thought about.

The students also identified some elements that are often outside of the instructor’s control, like the learning space. Depending on where and what we teach, our classroom choices are often limited. Students shared their own “classrooms of shame” like teaching in a computer lab where the students couldn’t use the computers, or a humanities class in a chemistry lab. But, as I told my students, it is up to us to try and mitigate the space issue. Another example of the personal coming together with the practical elements.

What was missing, however, was the word “coverage” – no one identified coverage as being an important part of a good course. I pointed out that even though they didn’t identify coverage as being important, that might become their first concern when they design their first course. There was an interesting conversation around how coverage can actually be a bad thing (speaking from their experience), and I hope that they remember that when they feel like need to teach ALL THE THINGS.

So far, this class has been really great. The students are smart, engaged, and (like any good class) they are teaching me, too.

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Lee Skallerup Bessette

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