Learning to Teach…One Good Habit at a Time

If you walked into the middle of a University lecture in a subject area you knew nothing about, would you be able to tell if the instructor was “good” or “bad”?

You betcha.

But, can you break down what makes it so?

As a recent consumer-turned-product, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about teaching.  (Research instruction is a large portion of the job, at the reference desk and in first-year research sessions, and, with little teaching experience under my belt, I don’t want to mess it up!)  There isn’t much time made for learning about teaching, but I realized I’ve spent a lot of time observing pedagogy in action as a student.  In the classroom, bad teaching was easy to spot and good instructors were like basking in sunshine.  What were the fundamentals that made those great teachers great?

So, after much rumination, the top three habits of a “good” teacher gleaned from my student days:

  1. Basic courtesy:  Start and end on time, be respectful, and create an agenda/syllabus that communicates expectations and stick to it.
  2. Subject competency: Know enough to teach what is expected from students, plus a little more.  (i.e., Be able to teach about the origins of the digest system, but don’t worry about knowing which individual wrote down the first digest topic.)
  3. Flexibility: Control the conversation, but do not dominate.  Incorporate hand-outs, technology, and hands-on exercises to engage students, but beware of death-by-PowerPoint.  (It happens. We’ve all been there. It’s not pretty.)

I considered adding ‘a sense of humor’ to the list and, although it couldn’t hurt, it wasn’t pivotal during my time as a student.  (Sometimes, it wasn’t appropriate, either.  Existential Psychology doesn’t lend itself to chuckles.)  Also, prescribing personality never ends well.

During the fall semester’s research sessions, I kept these three things in mind.  My students have  a general webguide that outlines the semester’s goals, how to use the library, their assignments, and additional study aids that can be consulted (e.g., CALI lessons, nutshells, treatises).  In class, they have ‘roadmap’ handouts with the session’s agenda broken down into parts, leaving room for fill-in-the-blank and notes sections.  After the session, they have worksheets that reinforce the session’s main points.  Also, I send out reminder emails the week before our sessions, and follow-up emails after the students have submitted their assignments.

So far, so good.  I’ve gotten a great response from my students; they participate in class (for the most part), they ask questions, and they ‘get it’ when applying the lesson to the worksheets.

The difficulty in applying these good teaching habits is in measuring effectiveness.  Insecurity brought the following question to a mentor: How will I know if I taught well?  She assured me that, eventually, I’ll develop a sense of how the class is going, who is paying attention, and how well I’m communicating with the students.   Hopefully, this sixth sense will kick in soon! In the meantime, I intend to keep plugging away at these three habits of good teaching, and will continue to ask for feedback from my students.

Enough about me, Readers.  Any other basics to add to the list?  Any effective teaching strategies to share? Let’s push beyond the top three!

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