Posted by: CJ | August 30, 2010

Cardinal Sins and Virtues of Teaching

I went to a series of workshops this past weekend. Observing the teachers there reminded me of some of my personal beliefs about teaching. I have some cardinal sins and virtues that I think teachers should at least be aware of. Like any art, you can get away with a hell of a lot if you’re excellent. But if you’re not, then you should try to keep these things in mind.

1. NOT THINKING FROM THE STUDENT’s POINT OF VIEW. I think this is THE cardinal sin to avoid. Everything else is helpful tips in comparison. If you can’t figure out what the students do or don’t know, what their goals for the class are, what their attention span is going to be like, or how they’ll understand what you’re trying to communicate (regardless what you think you’re communicating), then there will be issues.

2. At the beginning of all meetings, tell the students clearly what will be covered. This helps the students focus. Do the same at the beginning of the semester. Students should be able to have a clue what they’re getting into. And if they get curious about something (for whatever reason, such as wanting to prepare themselves) they can they look things up online.

3. Pick a good textbook. There are always a group of students who complain about the textbook, so you can’t choose the perfect textbook. But if your textbook choice pisses off everyone, you’re screwed. And with sites like amazon that give recommendations, it’s not even that hard to figure out what the bad textbooks are. Even better, give a specific recommended textbook at a slightly lower level than the class filled with intuition, solved problems, etc.. You don’t have to explicitly use the book in the class, but tell students if they need something else then that’s the book you recommend. Then students don’t have to deal with the bewildering array of other sources for the material. IF you do this, you should make sure to reference the other book in class regularly. Not in a way the shows students they have to use it, but to let students know where more useful material is. Students sometimes need a very small extra push.

4. Make sure a sleepy student isn’t screwed over. If a student has to be fully awake, and completely comprehending what you say and write on the board every moment of lecture, then you’ve screwed over your students. And they will hate you forever.

5. Packing too much into a lecture unnecessarily. If your course doesn’t have a good textbook, and the only source of the material for the students is your notes, then you necessarily have to pack a lot into your lecture. But that case seems to be rarer and rarer. Afterall, if you have such good material to teach an entire course why haven’t you published it? Otherwise, the lecture should have a few good ideas–easily digestable–and leave the complicated details to individual readings, homework, and students coming to ask questions. Which brings me too…

6. The homework serves two different roles. The first is to get students to think about the material more so they’re more comfortable with the material. The second is to get them to pound out annoying details critical to a full understanding. These annoying details could be highly technical points or very difficult problems or more advanced ideas only touched on in lecture. Regardless, the two goals–comfort and mastery–call for different sorts of problems. If you’re nice, you’ll even tell the students which problems are meant for which. It’s often the case that problems should have a bit of commentary given after the fact to draw students to the attention of what, exactly, they’ve done. It isn’t always obvious.

7. Clear expectations. This is actually a fairly maleable goal. The more a student has been in a specific program or knows a specific professor, the more the expectations are implied. But if there are ANY students that are unclear on expectations, you have serious problems as a teacher. IDEALLY, students would set their own goals and work towards them and get the most they can out of a course. But that’s not the way the modern educational course is usually structured. Instead there are certain topics, the course covers those topics, and the professor assigns a grade that is some combination of how much the student worked, paid attention, and performed on various assessments.

8. Tone/Personality. A teacher should have a tone and personality that fits the class. In a group of neophytes, some excitement and encouragement is good. And praise for doing things appropriate to their level. But that sort of enthusiasm when talking to peers can come off as cocky or self-absorbed. In a sense, the personality should be tailed to how much nuance the audience can deal with. An audience that’s grounded enough to deal with nuance should be given it. An audience too clueless for details should be spared them.

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