What Makes for Great Teaching? Listening to – and Learning from – My Students

13 Apr DSC02416

Introduction

The first post of our Spring 2015 term asked, “What do first year students want in a college instructor?” and reported on findings from a small sample here at UMinnesota.  With today’s post near the end of that same term, we share what Joe Hoyle has learned via a sampling of mainly juniors.  

What do we learn from students across these two posts?  Lots.  And as a main theme: Affect Matters.  As our January blogger puts it, “students are more concerned with an instructor’s affective qualities than with teaching skill and subject matter expertise.”

As you read on, you’ll find Professor Hoyle’s writing invitation to students – something we who teach can easily adapt to our own contexts as we consider gathering year-end feedback from students – and his students words that invite us to think about ways in which teaching matters to learners.

Asking the Question

How do we ever get better as college teachers?   Albert Einstein has been quoted as defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”   What can we do differently as teachers in order to improve our results?   How can a college teacher go from being average to being good and then move from good to absolutely great?

I think that is a legitimate goal for any professor.   From my own observations, not enough teachers make significant improvements over time.   Average teachers tend to stay average while good teachers tend to stay good.   I believe every teacher should push toward greatness.   I often tell my students that the secret to success is to experiment, evaluate, and evolve.   The same, I believe, is true of college professors.   Try something new and see how it works.   Experiment frequently.   You CAN get better in the classroom.   With continued improvement, before you know it, people around your campus will start pointing you out as a great teacher.

When I give teaching presentations around the country, faculty members often come up to me seeking some type of secret key to unlock the mysteries of excellent teaching.   They truly want to be better teachers but they seem mystified by how that goal can be achieved.   They sometimes seem to be looking too hard.   They often appear to be trying to spot a tiny sparrow in a huge forest.   I really do not think the characteristics that lead to great teaching are that mysterious.    Perhaps it is not the complexity of great teaching that is the problem but rather its simplicity.

To provide a new perspective for my thinking, I recently asked my students to identify characteristics that they associate with great teaching.   I was curious.   They have been in school for most of their lives.   They have surely had great teachers as well as some awful teachers.   What were the differences?   What makes one teacher so wonderful while the next person struggles every day?   Perhaps if I can identify those differences, I will know where to put my efforts in the future.

I have 77 students this semester (about 2/3 of them are juniors and the rest are freshmen).   I received a fascinating variety of responses to my query, almost all of which were well considered and explained.   Here is the actual assignment that I gave.   Then, below, is a catalog of the responses that I received.

What do you think?   Do you agree with my students or do you think other attributes need to be considered?   Can anyone become a great teacher by following the advice of my students or does some other talent come in to play?   Hopefully, I will soon provide my own list of teacher characteristics that can help guide a person to greatness.

If you surveyed your students as I did, what would they say?   Read on to see the prompt and writing assignment.  After you’ve surveyed these students’ responses,  perhaps you’ll want to try out the prompt with your own students.

The Prompt & Writing Assignment

I have a very short assignment coming up that I want you to spend some time thinking about in advance.

Yesterday in class, I mentioned that learning to lead and direct other people in an organization is one of the skills that often helps people succeed in the world after graduation.  I have seen many B students over the years do especially well after graduation because they had both deep understanding AND great leadership/guidance skills.

Most of you have not yet been in too many organizations for long periods of time so you probably have not picked up too much directly about leadership/guidance skills.  As you move on, that is an observation talent that you should stress.   Figure out who knows how to lead and try to determine how they do it so well.

However, there is one type of leader/guide/mentor that you do have years and years of direct experience watching:   your teachers.   Since kindergarten, you have been in a group of students each year led by teachers who take those individuals and guide and lead and teach.   My guess is that some of your teachers were great – everyone in class seemed to move forward with rapid speed and enthusiasm.   Other teachers were probably pretty bad and just confused and bored the class.  Nothing much was ever accomplished.

When I was in high school and college, I studied my teachers carefully.   I was fascinated by how some of them managed to convince 30 kids to become so interested and excited in things like chemistry and Shakespeare while others seemed to have the reverse effect.   In fact, in college, I gave each of my teachers a grade when the semester was over.   They gave me a grade so I figured it was only fair to award them a grade.   I had just two teachers in college that I truly believed deserved an A (I was a tough grader, even back then).  One was in Business Strategy and the other was in American History After 1900.   They were completely different types of teachers and they were both magnificent. 

I think you can learn a lot about leadership by considering all of the teachers you have had over the past 15-16 years.  I think that type of thinking is good for you and your future.

At some time in the next couple of weeks, I am going to ask you to write a short paragraph (1-5 sentences, let’s say) on the question:   What are the characteristics of a great teacher?   I want you to think about that now so that when I give the assignment, it will only take a few moments to actually write down your answer.    Consider the teachers you have had who were great – a 4th grade teacher, for example, or a high school math teacher.   What made them truly great?   And, just in case you are wondering, this is NOT about me.   You can (and probably should) grade me if you want but you need to wait until the semester is over to figure out whether I am an A or an F.

I also hope to use your thoughts as I get ready for a teaching panel discussion that I will be leading.   The group wants to talk about becoming a better teacher and your thoughts should be helpful.

I think this is a super assignment and I hope you will take it seriously.   You will be in leadership roles before you know it and I want you to think about how YOU can be the best leader since George Washington.

So, start thinking now and I’ll ask for your answers in a week or two.

The Responses

I read all 77 responses carefully.   Some students wrote a few sentences while others wrote pages.   Some picked one specific quality to discuss.   Others wrote about 4 or 5 individual characteristics.   I tried to categorize each quality that a student mentioned.   Many talked personally about teachers they had experienced over the years in glowing terms.   The essays were often touching.

The results are listed below.   I realize that some of the categories could have been reconfigured.   Because of the open nature of the question, clear cut distinctions were not always possible.   Some categories could have been merged.   Others could have been separated.  However, I do not think that really affects the overall information value.   If you read the categories and a few of the comments that I have included, you should get a good picture of the results.

Maybe most importantly, does any of this surprise you?   Are you shocked by how students describe great teachers?   A teacher cannot be all things to all students but working on these characteristics is not an impossible mission.   I might not be able to play basketball like LeBron James but I can probably teach my classes with a little more passion for the subject.

Great teachers…

Motivate and inspire students.   They set high standards and challenge their students to reach those goals.  (33 of my students mentioned this characteristic in their essays.   Below are a couple of typical examples.)

  • A great teacher is one who aims to inspire—inspire students to feel passionate about learning.
  • I love being challenged in the classroom, and feel rewarded at the end of the year every time I have excelled in classes that took a lot of work and effort.
  • Any teacher with a degree can teach, but it takes a great teacher to get into the hearts of his or her students and inspire them.   Great teachers inspire their students to do great things.
  • As someone who is very competitive, I get the most out of classes in which teachers put some pressure on me to do well.
  • They are tough, and challenge their students without bullying them. Great teachers push students to think for themselves and come at problems in new ways.
  • If I am willing to explore relevant knowledge by myself after the class, 95 percent of the time it is because the teacher makes the topic so attractive that I desperately want to know more.

Are passionate and enthusiastic about the material they are teaching. (26 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • My most inspirational professors have demonstrated why they love the subject that they teach and conveyed this love for the subject to me.
  • Great teachers are those who are enthusiastic and passionate about the material that they are teaching, and exhibit this passion to their students.
  • A teacher can never be great if they do not show their passion for whatever they are teaching.
  • The teachers that I remember as having an impact on my life were the ones who were excited about the subject.   Not the kind of excited where they made up games to make the subject interesting, but the excited where they felt the subject was truly worth the time to learn.
  • Passionate teachers aren’t just teaching for a salary.
  • When a professor is enthusiastic about a subject, students suddenly get excited and actually want to learn the material.
  • A great teacher is someone who can communicate a passion about a subject and, in turn, can inspire the student to care about the subject.   I desire to be inspired, not to be lectured.

Engage their students in the learning process.  (25 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • When a teacher can thoroughly engross and maintain the focus of the class, I have found that it can be more impactful to a great learning experience than even a deep knowledge of the subject.
  • Their ability to transfer their knowledge to their students in ways that are interesting, intriguing, and easy for students to understand.
  • I cannot think of a single time where I enjoyed or became impassioned by the subject of a class where all the teacher did was lecture the students every class via Power Point slides or other means.
  • They are able to create a fun, engaging, yet challenging environment and inspire students to want to learn more.
  • They find ways to get the class engaged and interested.   They don’t just read off of Power Points and lecture you, they grab your attention, make you think, and find ways to relate the material to your everyday life.
  • A great teacher will not only give students the tools and the fire to explore a subject on their own, but the teacher will then keep the students engaged in class.

Develop effective teaching styles.   They are organized and well prepared for class.  (20 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • Laying out information and sequencing lessons in a unified and coherent manner not only improves learning but also helps students retain what they learn much better.
  • What comes out of his mouth makes sense
  • Using an effective structure, no class time will be wasted to repeat any knowledge and students will be able to observe the logic of his thinking.
  • Relying on a textbook is lazy.   It shows no deeper understanding of the material that would qualify someone to teach.
  • They are clear with their explanation, and if a student asks them a question, they will explain in a way the student may understand better.
  • Those teachers who make their classes seem like conversations or story telling do their job the best.
  • Great teachers push their students to find answers and evoke curiosity rather than simply telling them.

Invest in the success of their students (16 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • The professor ran a study session every Tuesday evening from 6:30 until everybody had left.
  • The ones who have the ability to leave an imprint in our hearts and minds forever; those teachers are the ones that truly care about their students.
  • Some of my best teachers have been ones who have been invested in my work in their classes as well as in me as a person.   I love when teachers want to get to know me outside the classroom, and who really do seem to care whether I do well or not.
  • Knowing all of our names and calling on us during class, and being friendly with us but not being our friend.
  • A good teacher will truly be vested in their students’ performance and will want to see their students actually succeed.
  • The best teachers were the ones truly devoted to my learning inside and outside of the classroom.   They were dedicated to my growth as a person.

Take an interest in their students and care for them as people (14 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • I specifically remember him helping me before our first test at 2 a.m. when most teachers would have been long gone from campus.
  • A good teacher truly cares about the student.
  • They cared about students and would do whatever they could to ensure their students receive a good education.
  • First and foremost, I believe that a great teacher is someone who truly has the best interests of their students at heart.

Connect with students personally. (7 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • It is important for a great teacher to have close connections with students both in class and after class.
  • I think a great teacher is someone who tries to relate to his or her students and connect to them on a deeper level than mere surface conversation.
  • She created a community in which everyone in the classroom belonged. 

Adapt their class style to teach all of the students.   (6 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • I had had a lot of teachers, especially at a young age, who seemed to only teach to the ‘smart’ kids.
  • A good teacher treats different students with different abilities with different methods, just as Confucius did.
  • Great teachers change their lesson plans according to their current class.   Great teacher prepare different modes of learning for their students.

Communication with their students. (6 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • Excellent and effective communication is everything.
  • They communicate exactly what is expected of students on both a daily basis and semester basis.
  • Great teachers are good at communication skills.

Are approachable. (6 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • These teachers made it known that their students could approach them any time with any problem, and they were genuine about it.
  • Knowing that a teacher truly wants you to seek their advice further encourages students to do so.
  • My favorite teachers have been available for help and questions, supportive of success, and encouraging of further education.

Have patience. (5 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • A great teacher should have patience to teach students and explain stuff to students, instead of ignoring students’ confusion.
  • A great teacher has patience.
  • This teacher should be patient when students are asking questions.

Have empathy for students and understand the importance of encouragement.  (4 of my students mentioned this characteristic.)

  • It is still important that a teacher encourages students despite a poor grade and shows them they still believe in their success.
  • A great teacher recognizes true effort when he or she sees it and makes sure that it is rewarded.

Students also mentioned that Great teachers…

  • require students to participate and allow them to make mistakes. (3 mentions)
  • are willing to do the necessary hard work.  (2)
  • teach students how to learn.  (2)
  • are honest with their students.   (1)
  • focus on reinforcement.   (1)
  • are knowledgeable about their subject.   (1)
  • have years of teaching experience.   (1)
  • teach others to become great teachers.   (1)
  • like to be challenged.   (1)

 Joe Hoyle is a professor in accounting at Robins School of Business, Univeristy of Richmond.  He blogs at http://joehoyle-teaching.blogspot.com/.

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