Rethinking University Teaching With Ten Simple Suggestions

I was just asked to write a “listicle” for a friend about anything and this is what I came up with. It’s about teaching and, for me, does a good job of summing up how I have actively worked to improve over the last twelve years. As some of you may note, a lot of this is directly connected to training in improvisational comedy. Other parts, not so much. Anyways, these have helped me more than you may think and I use them every day, whether I am with a student in a tutorial or in a large 100 plus person classroom. Take em or leave em. It’s up to you.

  1. Don’t deny your student’s reality — Remember, they have their reality and denying it is a form of negation, not engagement. You may disagree with your student, but don’t deny who they are or their opinion. If you deny them you run the risk of losing them.
  2. Be light, for lightness is harder than being hard — People confuse lightness with easy or lack of intensity. It isn’t. In fact, providing a light, uplifting classroom takes a tremendous amount of skill and energy. It is something that you should aim to provide your students.
  3. Take the stage, stand proudly, lecture and remember: only boring lectures are boring — Think of your lecture as a performance that can be interrupted and played with, not “something that we need to get through”. If you must lecture ask yourself this: how can you get your students to find the playful and attractive elements that excite you in your topics. If you cannot answer this question then you may want to rethink your lecture and even why you teach. No one wants to learn from someone who sees teaching as “obligatory”. If you treat your classroom as an obligation, your students will feel the same way you do: bored.
  4. Embrace the silence — You will have moments of silence in a classroom. They are there for a reason but you may not know what it is. Do not rush to fill in the silence. Embrace it. Be still. See what happens and connect with what emerges.
  5. Loop back and repeat — A class that is 10 to 16 weeks long can suffer if you don’t provide your students a chance to revisit themes and topics that they encounter earlier. Think how you can loop back to a point you made in previous classes. Repetition can be productive. Furthermore, people like repetition and, well, you are teaching people.
  6. Show up early and talk about anything other than the class — You are a human as are your students. All too often I see teachers who talk about their students in terms of the impediments they bring to the class. They are too poor, too rich, too busy, too dumb, too smart, too unprepared, etc. Stop this. Instead, start with their humanity. Show up early and ask them about their weekend, their night out, what they are eating, what they are wearing, anything. Just talk to them. You will be surprised what you learn and you may be able to use that in a lecture or discussion later that day or in the semester. It will help you connect to them and, perhaps, with the subject at hand.
  7. Wear your subject lightly like a veil so you can shine through — YOU want to shine through your topic. Not because your topic is unimportant, but because the topic as it relates to humans is important. And remember, you are a human. Each of us is influenced by film, literature, engineering, animal behavior, etc. Your subject needs to come through you. This takes time, perhaps years. It is the mark of a maturing teacher. Indeed, the best preparation for this is a) teaching a class many times, b) take notes of your work, reading and prep, c) reread your notes and annotations from the last time you taught an hour or two before the class, and d) write down a lesson plan and then go do something else. Remember, students want your knowledge, experience and opinions. You don’t have time to re-read everything. However, if you have done a thorough job the first several times then you know the material. The process described will reenergize and may even surprise you. It will allow you to bring yourself and an energy to the classroom that you may not notice, but your students will. Trust me.
  8. Accept gifts when they are given — You will have an agenda but sometimes your students will derail it with questions you cannot anticipate. Many times these questions are gifts. Accept them. For example, if you are lecturing and your student asks the meaning of what you think should be a basic part of their vocabulary, treat the question as the gift it is. In other words, be nice, accept it, unwrap it and describe it to others. Heck, even talk about how you will use it. Here’s the thing: odds are other students in the class may not know the same word and are afraid to look dumb. If you treat it like a gift then you will teach rather than shame them because there are words and other items that they “should know” but don’t. There is no bigger turn off to learning than shame. Shaming a student because they don’t know is something that a student may do to themselves when they receive poor marks on tests and quizzes. You need not do that in a lecture or discussion.
  9. If you feel comfortable, talk about yourself and your life experiences — Students connect to people before topics. The topic should shine through, but, again, it should shine through you. So, let them know who you are. Do you fish? Play piano? Have cats? Be a human. It’s your competitive advantage when compared to the Internet.
  10. Allow yourself to suck and never blame the students — Most professors are perfectionists and obsessives. This got us to where we are. However, once you are in a classroom you will make lot of mistakes, most of which you cannot anticipate. Forgive yourself and, and this is important, do not blame your students for having a bad class. Students may, indeed, present problems. However, once you blame them for a bad day in the classroom you run the risk of spoiling your relationships with them. They feel your resentments and poor attitudes acutely. The best way to avoid this is to simply not harbor and encourage these feelings. Don’t blame your students. Instead, let yourself have a bad day so you can come back to that class again.