Dr. Nancy Simpson oversees all of the programs for the Center for Teaching Ex-cellence at Texas A&M, represents the CTE's perspective on various university committees, and remains active in the day-to-day business of consulting with faculty and conducting workshops. Dr. Simpson also teaches finite mathematics and calculus.
Dr. Liz Miller consults with faculty, conducts workshops, and is the creator of many of the programs offered by the Center for Teaching Excellence at Texas A&M University. As development officer, Miller travels Texas telling the Center's story to parent and alumni groups.
Jean Layne coordinates the Teaching Assistant Training Program,conducts work-shops and consults with faculty for the Center for Teaching Excellence at Texas A&M University. She has been with the Center since 1994.
What does it mean to teach well? What does good teaching look like? What characterizes an effective teacher? In the introduction of his book The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes:
" . . . teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great dealor keep them from learning much at all. Teaching is the intentional act of creating those conditions and good teaching requires that we understand the inner resources of both the intent and the act."
For the Christian professor, those "inner resources" are no small consideration. The call to teach is a challenge to be met with humility and courage: humility that springs from the realization that we are given the opportunity to touch and shape lives; courage that is born from confidence in the God who calls us. We can be encouraged by the knowledge that God has provided all that we need in order to accomplish His purpose for us; if His purpose includes teaching, His provisions include the inner resources to teach well. It is our intent in this article to discuss principles of effective teaching, as well as the inner resources we have as Christians to put these principles into practice.
In the paragraphs that follow, we describe four principles intended to guide our efforts to "create conditions to help students learn a great deal." These ideas spring from our own work as teachers, our interaction with faculty from all disciplines through our work at Texas A&M University's Center for Teaching Excellence, and our exposure to the thinking and writing of other scholars who have made college teaching their subject of study. We need to say at the outset that we make no claim that these are the "Principles of Teaching," or that everything that is known about teaching and learning may be subsumed under these principles.
Teaching, when it works--and sometimes when it doesn't, defies analysis. Nevertheless, we have tried, as good teachers do, to define principles and follow them with practical applications. Writing this article, for this particular audience, gave us the opportunity to go one step further. The best Teacher we all know is Jesus Christ. We wondered, "Could we illustrate each of these principles by using the example of Jesus as Teacher?" The textbox accompanying each principle is the result of this exploration.
1. Know our objectives and design assignments to accomplish these objectives
As self-evident as it may seem, this is a principle that many of us violate from day one. We communicate our course objectives by reprinting the catalog description of the course or we describe our objectives in such a way that we have only a vague idea of what we are trying to accomplish. We write exams without carefully connecting the questions to our original course objectives. We get involved in the "dailyness" of teaching and fail to assess progress toward our stated objectives.
All of our preparation--whether for a course, a unit of study, or a day's class session--needs to be grounded in our answers to the questions:
· What do I want my students to know?
· What do I want my students to be able to do?
· In what way do I want my students to have developed when they leave this course?
The more specifically we define our objectives, the more useful they will be. For example, writing "I want my students to be able to understand derivatives" is not as useful as "I want my students to be able to state the formal definition of the derivative and explain each component of the definition in their own words."
In Effective Grading, Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson advocate making our courses assignment-centered, rather than content-centered. This does not, of course, mean that content is unimportant. What it does mean is that the bulk of our time and energy is invested in creating minor assignments that will help our students accomplish the objectives we've defined and major assignments that will enable us to determine whether or not they have met those objectives. We want our students to invest intellectual energy in our courses. We stand a better chance of enlisting their participation if we are prepared to communicate clearly the purpose of their efforts.
In Classroom Assessment Techniques (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993) there is a Teaching Goals Inventory (TGI), which authors Tom Angelo and K. Patricia Cross encourage readers to use and copy freely. This is an excellent tool for identifying the goals we have for our courses. This same book contains a collection of tools that may be used to assess progress toward the goals that we have identified. One of our professional colleagues, Dr. Steve Richardson, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Winona State University, makes this recommendation to new faculty: Use the TGI to identify your five most important goals. Then make sure that every class period you do something to work toward the achievement of those goals.
Jesus clearly knew His purpose, and communicated that to His disciples in numerous ways.
In the familiar story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38 - 42), Jesus says to Martha: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her." Jesus knew that His objective was to reveal the Father to us. In this passage He teaches us that sitting at His feetlistening to His word and learning His mindis our most valuable use of time.
2. Know our students
We take it as a given that we must know our subject. It is equally important that we know our students. The characteristic that appears most frequently when students describe their best teachers is "caring" or some variation of that word. Taking time to know our students demonstrates in one of the strongest ways possible that we care about them and about their learning.
Initially, we need information regarding their prior knowledge, their past experiences and future aspirations, even their fears. To teach effectively, we need information about what our students know and don't know, as well as what they "know" incorrectly. When we assume knowledge/skills that our students do not have, they will quickly be at sea. We will see glazed eyes when we look out at the class and hear "I'm totally lost" when they come to our offices. Awareness of a "knowledge gap" enables us to take appropriate steps early in the course.
Knowledge of prior experiences and future aspirations enables us to connect with our students' lives. We can make use of our students' expertise and use examples that are meaningful to thembut only if we have taken the time to listen to and know our students in the first place. One student insisted that the only kinds of calculus problems he could reasonably be expected to handle were ones for which he'd seen an example. His teacher, knowing his aspirations for dental school, countered "If I am a patient sitting in your dental chair, I don't want to hear 'hmm, I've never seen anything like this before, I don't know what to do.'" Because it connected to the student's future plans, the point was understood immediately.
Throughout the course, we need awareness of their level of understanding, their attitudes, their habits, and their progress toward course objectives. We need awareness of their thought processes so that we can correct and redirect if necessary. We need to know if they understand the material we are presenting, or if they are following a particular discussion. We will handle question and answer sessions more effectively if we know whether their silence means "I'm thinking" or "I have an idea but I'm afraid to look like a fool with a wrong answer" or "I really do not know what you're asking." We will make more appropriate decisions regarding late work or missed classes if we know something about their work habits.
Many teachers use a first-day survey to gain information about their students. Others ask their students to send them an email, describing their past experiences with the particular discipline and their expectations for the course.
Classroom assessment techniques "The Muddiest Point" and "The Minute Paper" are excellent tools for finding out the state of student understanding on a given class day (Angelo and Cross--http://picce.uno.edu/SS/TeachDevel/Asses/CatEx.html).
When students come to your office saying, "I'm totally lost," instead of repeating an explanation given in class, try beginning with "Tell me what you do know." If we can get our students to think out loud, we will often be able to pinpoint the area of difficulty.
Jesus knew the hearts of His listeners. His knowledge enabled Him to respond in different but appropriate ways to the people who came to Him or who were brought to Him. In John 8: 1 - 11 we see His compassionate response to the woman caught in adultery: "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you? . . . Neither do I condemn you; Go your way and from now on sin no more." By way of contrast, in Matthew 8: 21-22 we see a response that our students might call hard-nosed, inflexible: "And another of the disciples said to Him, 'Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.' But Jesus said to him, "Follow me; and allow the dead to bury their own dead." Jesus shows us that being "fair" does not necessary mean treating all people in precisely the same way. Jesus is able to perfectly match His response to our needs because He knows us. We will better able to match our response to our students' needs if we take time to know them.
3. Actively involve our students, both in and out of the classroom
The faculty with whom we work sometimes lament, "students these days have to be entertained." The truth is, all learners, whether 18-year-old college students or faculty members at a professional conference, need to be engaged in order for learning to take place. And of course, engagement in the classroom requires something from both teacher and learner. Webster defines "engaged" in this way: "to attract and hold by influence or power; to hold the attention of; to induce to participate; to take part; to be in gear." The first three parts of this definition would be the responsibility of the teacher. Part of "creating conditions that help students learn" involves influencing or inducing our students to take part in the learning activities we have carefully designed.
"Active learning" is the phrase generally used to describe teaching strategies that actively involve students in the classroom. Dr. Ludy Benjamin, professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, defines active learning to be "hands on sometimes, minds on always." We like this definition because of its breadth; it leaves room for each teacher to choose methods that are suited to his/her style, to the subject, to the objectives, to the students. It is possible to lecture in such a way that attention is captured and focused, that students are being induced to think carefully about what is being said and where it fits with what they already know. It is also possible to lecture in such a way that students are lulled to sleep. Similarly, it is possible to design a small group exercise that focuses students' attention and challenges them to think, to work together to discover knowledge that (to them) is new. It is also possible to assign a small group exercise that students can complete with little thought or awareness of how it connects to what they are supposed to be learning.
We are accustomed to thinking that the "active" part of learning takes place outside of the classroom, and indeed, much of it can. However, the assumption that student work outside of the classroom is active needs to be carefully examined. It is quite possible for students to "read" passively in the same way that they listen to a lecture passively. It is even possible for students to complete a problem set in a rather mindless way, simply following an example without thinking very carefully about what they are doing and why.
Whether in or out of the classroom, our part of the "engagement" process is to do all within our power to capture and focus our students' attention, to direct them to think about the topic at hand in productive ways, and to set tasks that challenge and lead them to ask good questions.
One useful framework for active learning is found in Meyers and Jones, Promoting Active Learning (Jossey-Bass, 1993). The authors describe the "building blocks of active learning" to be reading, thinking, speaking, listening, and writing. As we design our courses, we can ask ourselves, "What do I need to ask my students to read, write, think about, discuss, and hear in order to accomplish the objectives of the course?"
When we ask questions in class we frequently hear from the same subset of students and have no way of knowing what the rest of the students think. A simple way to ensure participation of the majority is to first give everyone time to write their response followed by time to compare answers with others. The whole-class discussion that follows will more likely command the focused attention of all students.
Some teachers prepare reading guides designed to focus student attention on key concepts and induce them to think about important questions. Holding students accountable for this reading is critical. In Effective Grading (Jossey-Bass, 1998), Walvoord and Anderson describe a variety of ways to accomplish this, using examples from faculty from several different disciplines.
As we would expect, Jesus is a Master at "engaging" His students, and we found many illustrations. Here are two:
Jesus did not simply talk about servanthood in John 13. He captured and focused His disciple's attention by demonstrating His own willingness to be a servant when he washed their feet. A demonstration is a wonderful way to actively engage students' minds.
One could imagine the feeding of the 5000 (John 6) as an exercise in passive learning. Jesus could have simply told the people to sit down and arranged for food to be distributed. Instead, He engaged His disciples throughout the process. He began by posing the problem ("Where are we going to buy bread, that these may eat?") This was not a problem for Him, but one for them. ("And this He was saying to test him (Phillip); for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.") Jesus allowed Andrew to discover the boy with the five loaves and two fish and to ask the question "what are these for so many people?" And finally, He asked the disciples to gather the leftover fragments, so that they could see the results.
4. Balance a high level of challenge with a high level of support
In our efforts to help faculty characterize and define effective teaching, we frequently ask groups of faculty members to identify their best teacher and to describe what made that teacher so effective. Through the years of doing this exercise, there is one theme that emerges: the teachers we think of as being most effective were those who were at once challenging and supportive. These teachers had high standards and looked for excellent performance; at the same time, they were available to assist, to encourage, to coach. The result was that we were motivated to work hard and to achieve much. One faculty member summarized it this way: "Our best teachers were the ones who were successfully tough." These are the teachers who respected us and made us respect ourselves too much to do slip-shod work.
It is important to note that if we remove the characteristic on either side of this scale, we lose the balance needed for successful teaching. Some of us work very hard to maintain high standards, to teach a course that has the reputation of being challenging. We pride ourselves in the academic rigor of our course. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that rigor is the root word in rigormortis, and that a course that is just rigorous has the potential to kill whatever love of learning our students bring. When we set the bar high, but leave our students to flounder with little help from us, we risk breeding resentment and destroying confidence. On the other hand, some of us bend over backwards to care for our students. We accommodate our schedules to their needs, and derive satisfaction from nurturing their development. When we do this without simultaneously maintaining high expectations, we encourage the development of sloppy habits and, worse, reinforce the expectation that the world will always bend to accommodate our weaknesses.
The challenge to us as teachers, then, is to set the bar high for our students and for ourselves. We can (and should) have high expectations for our students. At the same time, we need to be certain that those expectations are reasonable, that we are asking them to invest time and energy in activities that are thoughtfully designed to meet important objectives, that we communicate our respect for them, and that we are available and approachable when they come seeking our help.
Find out how much time your students are spending outside of class. An English professor asked her students to keep an honest record of the amount of time they spent on the reading for the class. When she discovered that she had underestimated the amount of time required, she made adjustments.
Uncover (and challenge, if appropriate) students' assumptions about how they need to be spending their time and what they can reasonably expect to achieve. Take time to ask questions: Why do you need to work? Why do you need a new truck? When students' nonacademic time commitments are necessary and real (e.g. a family to support and spend time with), it is possible to empathize, to be flexible and to work with the student, without compromising academic standards.
The Bible abounds with evidence that Jesus has unquestionably high standards for us and that He supports us in a way that does not weaken but strengthens. Perhaps the best illustration is found in the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 19 - 20): "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Clearly, these principles intertwine. We will design more effective assignments and active learning strategies if we know our objectives. We will more successfully engage our students' minds if we knowing something about them. We will be able to provide support for their learning if we do know their questions, frustrations, fears. Our students will be most likely to invest time and energy and to seek our assistance if we have communicated clear objectives, high expectations, and respect. Teaching well requires all that we are, all that we are willing and able to give . . .and still it seems not enough. So we return to our point of departure: the call to teach is a challenge to be met with humility and courage. Where do we find the strength and ability to meet this challenge?
What are the inner resources God has provided to enable us as Christian faculty to teach in a way that glorifies Him? As believers in Jesus Christ, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to draw on in all that we do--including our teaching. When we are filled with the Spirit, He produces the fruit listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
Love is listed first because it is the foundational fruit of the Spirit. We know from I Corinthians 13 that love "hopes all things," that it is "patient," and is "not arrogant." As teachers, we need to communicate that we believe the best about every student by expressing confidence in their potential, showing that we understand mistakes as part of the learning process, and refusing to allow our expert level of knowledge to make us cavalier in our attitude toward their discoveries and experiences.
Joy is the ability to remain confident and positive no matter what the circumstances. In the classroom, this means that we need to be glad to be there. Why should our students be excited about learning if we do not communicate that our discipline is something to get excited about? Remember, joy is infectious. If we are enthusiastic about our subject and our students, they are more likely to have a positive attitude toward our class.
Peace refers to inner contentment that transcends circumstances. If we let peace be the umpire in our decision making about our teaching, we can create a relaxed environment in which more learning takes place because students feel safe--intellectually and emotionally.
Patience refers to calm endurance or to constancy. We are told that the Lord "changes not." Our students desire this from us. They need to know that our opinion of them as people is not performance-based and that we are willing to continue to walk along side them as they seek success.
Kindness expresses the idea of a helpful nature. In an environment that is emphasizing the concept of service learning, our daily walk should make us individuals who serve as examples of kindness to students by being available and helpful in their time of need. This helps students know that we care about them.
Goodness can best be expressed in the medical admonition to "do no harm." As teachers, we have tremendous influence to build up or to tear down our students. We must strive to have a positive impact on the individuals we encounter in our classrooms. This communicates to students that they are more than just a number on a roster.
Faithfulness can also be described as diligence. In our teaching, this means that we are true to our objectives, that we stay focused and that we are prompt at dealing with bureaucratic issues like grading and returning papers, being available for office hours, etc. This communicates to students that we value their work and time as much as we do our own.
Gentleness refers to being considerate or to not being harsh. As teachers, part of our role is to direct students from erroneous thinking to valid thinking within a discipline. We must commit to perform this task in a way that is respectful and motivating to students. This lets students know that we value their feelings as much as our own.
Self-control refers to exercising control over feelings with the will. While we experience challenges as human beings and in our role as teachers, we must always seek to respond in ways that are fair and balanced. This shows students that we value others as ourselves and that individuals are more significant to us than circumstances.
We are called to be light and salt to a dark world. By allowing the Holy Spirit to cultivate His fruit in us, we can give a testimony without saying a word. Colleges and universities are mission fields ripe for harvest. May He speak through us alwaysright where we are.
Angelo, T.A. and Cross, P.C. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Meyers, C., & Jones, T.B. (1993). Promoting active learning: Strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Palmer, Parker (1998). The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Walvoord, Barbara and Anderson, Virginia. (1998). Effective grading. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.