Teaching effectiveness

Apr 23 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

More than other aspects, teaching has been one of the most difficult to learn on the job. There is no shortage of advice out there, both in person and on the intertoobs, but the gap between knowing and implementing can be wide at times. The first time I taught my main course I simply survived it. It was the most difficult semester I have had as a PI and there were times when I questioned whether I had made the right career choice. I was a terrible teacher at that point and made dozens of N00b mistakes, mainly because I spent most of my time on content and had nothing left when it came to effective communication.

In year two I was able to get my head around improving the organization and delivery. The third time around I overhauled several aspects of the course and gave it a central theme that wove through the semester. Now that this semester is winding up I think this has been largely effective, as have been several adjustments I have made to how I teach.

But every time I grow comfortable with the class, I realize it needs more. As I make up the exam for the class I am starting to realize that there are a significant number of slides I disregard when making test questions. Whereas some of them are important for context, I have to ask myself whether many of those slides add value or whether they just eat space. The need to fill the class certainly drove some of the content in the early stages of the class, but I feel like I'm past that now.

It has become abundantly clear to me that my students need about three main points from each lecture, and beyond that they get lost. And I struggle to balance my belief that they should be able to handle more if they put the time into the class with the repeated observation that these students do not effectively learn even core concepts without significant and repeated reinforcement. I can either fail a large number or adjust my teaching to the realities of the audience. It's easy to fault the students for not "getting" the material, but I'm not arrogant enough (yet!) to absolve myself of blame. Streamlining the lectures to demonstrate key points and engaging the students in discussion of those points are the goals that I am starting to focus on at this stage.

So, dear readers, what are the tricks you use to organize your lectures and deliver them effectively? How do you get students involved? Is something like clickers useful for a ~25 student class, or have you found different ways to get them engaged? I have tried a few novel (for me) strategies recently to get them talking in groups about certain concepts, but I'm not entirely happy with the outcome.

I feel like I am finally at a point with this class that I can experiment a bit and get out of the straight lecture routine. I make a lot of effort to get responses from the students during lecture, but at this point I realize the limitations of that style, as many students have never contributed a single time. I also think that mixing things up will keep the students involved and make the class more enjoyable for both them and I. I'm open for suggestions.

21 responses so far

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    A colleague of mine told me that he optimized his organic chemistry lectures so that the chunks of lecture presenting or explaining content maxed out at about 12-15 minutes, and so that between each of these was some piece of "active learning" -- solving a problem or working out a molecule name or trying to apply the bit of new content to a particular situation. He felt it recognized the limits of the human attention span and, once they came to expect it, it made them pay a lot more attention during the content-delivery intervals, since they knew they were going to be asked pretty quickly to do something with that content.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Coming up with those active learning pieces can be more of a challenge in classes that lack a "problem set" component than others, though.

  • Alyssa says:

    I have a GREAT resource for you. Unfortunately, I only have a hard copy. But, I'll scan it and send it to you. It goes over 18 different teaching strategies that support inqury-based learning.

    Just a couple of them:
    Think-pair-share: students are asked a question and are given time to think about the answer and write their thoughts. They then talk about their responses with a partner. Finally, the teacher asks for pairs to share their answers in the large group.

    Exit ticket: The teacher gives the students a short task to be completed before leaving the class and handed in on the way out (gives you a quick sense of the ideas and level of understanding of each student).

    I used to think, but now I know: students compare their ideas at the beginning of a lesson to how they have changed after a lesson.

    Many of them are from this book:
    Keeley, P. (2008) "Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning.", NSTA Press & Corwin Press

    I have tons of other resources if you're interested!

  • Assoc Prof says:

    Instead of 3 main points, I identify a single main concept for each lecture, and a design a class so that five years from now, the students in the class will still understand and be able to explain that that main concept. That class rarely involves a lecture or a powerpoint.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Baby steps, AP. I'm not looking to do a whole new course prep pre-tenure.

    Thanks for the resources, Alyssa.

  • Dr. O says:

    Another book to check out that I'm currently re-reading:
    Curzan and Damour (2009) "First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student's Guide to Teaching"

    Even though it says "graduate student" in the title, it actually presents some really great ideas for engagement during lectures, taking into account different lecture styles and content along the way. Some of the chapters seemed silly on first glance, but they sell themselves on instilling an environment for interaction in your course from day 1.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    There is an Army Field Manual on Instruction, maybe FM-07 or FM-17. This was back around 1960 for me. To advance in rank, from private to corporal, this was one of the FMs one was tested on. There were armies long before there were universities, and successful armies quickly figured out how to instruct to turn clueless civilians into proficient soldiers. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find a reference to the FM I had. As I recall, a 50 minute class included a short test on the previous class, 10 to 15 minutes of lecture at the most, the rest being demonstration and application, then a short final test over the class. In other words, very little relationship to the usual 50 minute university lecture.

  • Travis says:

    Think-pair-share: students are asked a question and are given time to think about the answer and write their thoughts. They then talk about their responses with a partner. Finally, the teacher asks for pairs to share their answers in the large group.

    Exit ticket: The teacher gives the students a short task to be completed before leaving the class and handed in on the way out (gives you a quick sense of the ideas and level of understanding of each student).

    I took a teaching course last semester that focused heavily on these two strategies (especially think-pair-share) and I've found them to be extremely useful and very easy to implement.

    I've used think-pair-share this year in both lectures and more informal teaching sessions, and it's been very useful at getting people engaged and breaking things up a bit. I was amazed at how well it worked, and it seemed like a nice way to ease into a more engaging format.

    Thanks for the suggestion on the books Alyssa & Dr O, I plan to order them tonight!

  • arlenna says:

    One thing we've found important is out-of-class time testing themselves; we use an online homework system to do this and it is really effective. It gives that feedback they need for the learning reinforcement, sort of like giving them a quiz that gets graded immediately and gives them some hinty-type feedback (rather than just the answer) for a couple of additional tries at the question. They have a deadline approximately every week, and engagement in using the system is significantly correlated with their performance on exams.

    Look for the Chickering and Gamson "Seven Principles for Good Undergraduate Education" when you're trying to find things to incorporate; it suggests a few, but mostly I've found it useful to judge resources and strategies against to make sure they hit at least a few of the principles. They seem "obvious" but still helpful as a beginner to have some metrics by which to make these high-time-intensive decisions.

  • Darwin says:

    From a student's perspective (recently finished my BS, now onto grad school), I really liked lectures that went beyond the textbook/posted lesson notes. When professors go beyond the basic concepts in class, I had to read and prepare more outside of class. The lectures are more novel and interesting this way too.

  • fizzchick says:

    Clickers are definitely useful even in smaller classes. They can be low tech, too (A/B/C/D on index cards). I often do my clicker questions as think-pair-shares. I.e., ask the question, get response. Talk to your neighbor, revote. Ask one or more students to explain their group's (key, so they don't have the ego investment of their personal) answer. I haven't gotten to using them as much for JITT, but they can be done that way too. (hence, you could cut some slides from your talks w/o having to write all new ones - replace with questions, in class activities, etc.) I think you're on a big R1-type campus, so see if you've got a Center for Research/Resources on Teaching and Learning. They may well have more discipline specific ideas.

  • Elizabeth says:

    As a student, I really needed to know the why in a topic: why is it important, and why do I have to learn it, especially if it was addressed in the beginning of a lecture. If a teacher never told me why it was important, I never bothered to learn it. I also liked having a brief review of last lecture or a summary at the end of a lecture.

  • anon says:

    What is a clicker? Sorry, I've been out of the classroom for a while.

  • Darwin says:

    A clicker is like a remote with the buttons A/B/C/D...etc. on it. The teacher can put ask a question and everyone in the class can enter answers, then the teacher can show the results on the screen.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    There's a link to clickers in the post.

    For those of you that use a Think Pair Share strategy, how do you keep from just getting the same answer over and over? For instance, if you have a class of 60, that's 30 pairs. I would assume you don't have them all share out, because that would take forever and be super boring for the class after a few. Bigger groups? Random selection of groups to share out? More than one question?

  • Alyssa says:

    PLS - for your last question about the think-pair-share, you can get a group to share their idea, then ask everyone who had the same idea put up their hand. You can ask those groups if they had different reasoning to get to the same point, and/or ask the other groups for their (different) ideas.

    You can also do think-pair-square-share: individual, pair, then group of four, then sharing. It reduces the number of groups and allows the students to try and convince more and more people of their ideas because each group needs to come to a consensus (you can increase this as many times as you want).

    I also second the advice of fizzchick - check to see if your university has a teaching support centre of some sort.

  • Jen says:

    Richard Felder, who taught chemical engineering at NC State, has developed a number of resources for incorporating active learning into large and small classes (he refers to this as creating a "student-centered classroom"). His website is:

    The very first link is a video where he demonstrates active learning in one of his classes - it is a modified think-pair-share where students take turns teaching each other a concept (a homework question, a thought problem he posts, etc.). I attended one of Felder's active learning workshops (excellent, by the way), and he used the same techniques, quite effectively, on the 30 or so attendees.

    Another strategy I use in my intro bio and genetics courses is to include case studies that illustrate a particular topic, combining directed learning and active learning. Many case studies incorporate clickers, but are easily adaptable. An excellent resource for case studies is the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. URL: http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/

  • anonymous says:

    About the think-pair-share and other active learning strategies,

    It's not about whether or not you get the same replies or not. It's about the fact that each student is actively discussing it with their neighbors - everyone has the opportunity to learn. This is supremely better than just asking a question and calling out a random person or getting a volunteer to answer.

    You may only ask one or two groups to share back their answers - but if you give everyone a minute or two to discuss it before anybody reports back, you don't deprive them of the opportunity to learn, which is what happens if just one person gives the answer before everyone else has had the time for formally think about it themselves.

    I usually arbitrarily select one or two groups to share back out - sometimes contrasting answers that are instructive - but sometimes when everyone has found the same answer, I don't ask anybody to and I just paraphrase myself very quickly.

  • Anonymous K says:

    I just got through my Noob year teaching ecology/evolution. Books I have found especially helpful:
    "Classroom Assessment Techniques" by Angelo and Cross (http://www.amazon.com/Classroom-Assessment-Techniques-Handbook-Education/dp/1555425003)
    "What the best college teachers do" by Bain

    These books are meant to be used across lots of disciplines, not just the sciences. "Classroom Assessment Techniques" helps with course design, and what sorts of assignments would accurately assess the skills you'd like to develop. In general, the better my course is designed before the semester starts, the better it turns out. Clearly define your overarching learning objectives, and check them at the end of the course with a final assignment/exam that you write before the semester starts. Have clearcut goals for your exams and big assignments, then adhere to those goals during classtime.

    I do find clickers helpful, even in a class about the same size as yours. If there seems to be confusion, I have students find another student with a different answer and discuss to a consensus.

    I also have had mixed results with discussions in class, and would be interested to hear what others have to say.

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