In a March 5, 2015, blog entry, I posted the results of a survey that I had conducted. I have 76 students this semester and they were each asked to identify the characteristics they believed exemplified great teaching. I read and classified each of their responses. I then ranked the various response categories by frequency.
This essay generated heavy traffic. It quickly jumped onto my all-time top five list in terms of the number of page views. Readers of my blog apparently have a genuine interest in what students say about great teaching. I hope you will consider doing a similar survey with your students just to see if the results are consistent.
Although I was fascinated by what my students had to say, they were clearly thinking about teaching from a student perspective. That is hardly surprising. However, having taught in college now for 44 years, the characteristics that I associate with great teaching are often different than what a student might believe.
For the past several weeks, I have been working on my own list of characteristics that I connect with great teaching. I started out to identify 8 essential attributes. As I wrote, the number quickly jumped first to 10 and then to 12. I have now settled on 14. The more you think about the idea of great teaching, the longer the list seems to get.
I doubt that any teacher is able to hit the target on all of these characteristics. For me, that is the point. This is a target list of attributes that you and I can work on as we seek to grow better as teachers. “Always be moving forward” is a good motto. Work hard every day to get better as a teacher. Ultimately, the goal is not to become great. The goal is to become better each day, each week, each semester. Strive to get better and, eventually, you will become great.
Here is my own personal list that serves as my target for greatness.
(1) - Great teachers are ambitious; they truly want to become great. I do not think anyone ever becomes great at anything by accident. To be great, people need deep desire burning in their stomachs. This desire pushes them constantly to do the (often tedious) work that is necessary. Great teaching requires a lot of time and energy. It is hard for anyone to expend all that effort unless they are driven and passionate about becoming great. If you are happy being average, you will never be good. If you are satisfied being good, you will never be great. A former student once told me: “Most people care more about the success of their favorite sports team than about their own success.” No wonder the world has so many problems.
(2) – Great teachers work to evolve. No matter how much you love it, teaching can become repetitious. Even the best lesson plans eventually start to feel stale. Over the years, it is easy to slip into complacency where you start settling for “good enough.” I often write that teaching should have an underlying rhythm: experiment, evaluate, evolve, experiment, evaluate, evolve. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Peter Drucker once wrote: “People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”
(3) - Great teachers spend an awful lot of time on their teaching. As mentioned above, I have taught now for many years. I always assumed the job would get easier over time as I came to understand more about teaching. It actually gets harder as I see more ways that I can help my students to learn. If you are looking for short cuts, you will probably never be a great teacher. You might become a popular teacher but, if you are not willing to invest a lot of serious time, you are unlikely to reach your potential as a great teacher. Someone once told me “Great teaching is not about the number of years you do it. Great teaching is about the amount of time you spend thinking about it.” If you want to become a great teacher, break the process down into its smallest component parts and then think about how each one of them might be improved. That takes time.
(4) - Great teachers manage to convince students to be prepared for class. In some ways, I have no better suggestion than this. If you want the quickest way to improve your teaching, this is the way to do it. From my point of view, student preparation is the idea that underlies the flipped classroom. If students prepare adequately prior to class, the teacher can create a wondrous level of education during the classroom experience. Without preparation, students can do little but sit and copy down notes. That is not education. That is stenography. Students are often reluctant to do any work in advance for fear that it might be a waste of time. I once had a student tell me quite openly “I never saw any reason to prepare before class if the teacher was simply going to tell me what I needed to know.” I believe you have to show students exactly what you want them to do in advance and then make sure they understand how that work is beneficial to them. Required preparation has to have a payoff in class. The better the student understands the payoff, the better the preparation will become.
(5) - Great teachers test students in such a way as to emphasize critical thinking rather than memorization. I often argue that the weakest part of our educational system is the testing. As I have asserted frequently on this blog, how a teacher tests is how students will learn. If you rely on a test bank that asks for memorization, students have no reason to do any higher level of thinking or learning. They simply assume you want them to memorize if that is how you test them. In an age where Google can answer millions of questions almost instantaneously, recall has become less important. More college-level questions need to ask “why?” I sometimes refer to that as "21st century questioning." In recent years, I have started allowing students to bring a page or two of notes with them to each test. The main reason is that this technique forces me to write questions that go beyond memorization. With notes available to the students during the test, I have to come up with better questions in order to test their critical thinking skills. Yes, writing good test questions takes practice but have some faith in yourself—you will get better and better at it over time and that alone will make you a better teacher. Your students deserve questions that you write and not questions pulled from a test bank created by an anonymous party who might well know nothing about good education.
(6) - Great teachers engage students during class. Students love to day dream. They will stare around the room as if those walls and windows are just fascinating. Students need to be actively engaged in the learning process or they mentally drift away. Whether you ask them questions or have them use clickers or have them break out into small groups or do free writing, you need some method every day to bring their attention into their own learning. Too much education is: (a) teacher lectures, (b) students copy down the material obsessively, and (c) students desperately try to memorize it all on the night before the test. No thinking is needed anywhere in that entire process. Great teachers get the students involved each day in every class.
(7) - Great teachers challenge students and then are available to help and encourage. When I was a student in college, I had teachers who bragged that they were going to give bone-crushingly complex examinations. And, then, many of them were never available to help me come to understand the material. I often say “don’t challenge a student to leap tall buildings in a single bound if you are not going to help them learn how to fly.” We have all heard of the non-aggression pact in college teaching: The teacher will not be too demanding of the students if the students, in turn, are not too demanding of the teacher. I think great teaching requires the exact opposite philosophy: If the teacher is going to push students to achieve great outcomes, the teacher needs to provide the assistance needed to attain those results. Last week, the senior class at the Robins School of Business named me the school’s “Most Challenging Professor.” Is that a compliment or is that a put-down? I think it is an opportunity. If I can challenge the students AND then help the students conquer those challenges, that is what I want to accomplish.
(8) - Great teachers are effective at communications. Great teachers always have something to say to students: look closely at this material, think about this problem, be careful with this issue, don’t get fooled by this question, make sure you have studied this case before class, etc. How does all of that information get conveyed to the students? Although there are many ways to communicate to students, I make extensive use of emails. I start the process two months before the semester begins in order to set the tone for the class. I like to explain how I teach and why. I want to “sell” the students on the importance of the material even before the semester begins. As part of this process, I tell my students that they will need to check their emails every day. I usually email them once a day on the average and I fully expect them to have read those emails. That certainly might seem obsessive but my students usually walk into class each day already knowing what I expect of them and with all the background information that I think is necessary for their success. I am trying to stack the deck in favor of success.
(9) - Great teachers help students fill in the holes in their knowledge. As I have said previously in this blog, students do not know what they do not know. They usually over estimate what they understand. I occasionally laugh about their “head nodding disease.” If I explain a complicated concept in class and do a good job, I can look out into the classroom and every student head will be nodding up and down in agreement. They are able to follow what I am doing and believe that is adequate. However, I sometimes point out that they have “Swiss-cheese knowledge.” Their understanding looks solid but it actually is riddled with holes. Because they followed the conversation in class, they don’t realize the weaknesses that exist in their knowledge. Many days after I leave class, I will send my students a question to answer or a problem to solve and it always starts the same way “if you understood what we covered today, you will be able to work this problem and get my answer. If you don’t get my answer, you still have work left to do before your understanding is solid.” Students are often amazed to discover that they cannot work a problem that looks simple. Those holes in their knowledge get in the way. My goal is to help them find those holes and then fill them in.
(10) - Great teachers teach all the students. I think this is one of the hardest challenges that any teacher faces. It is one that I struggle to attain. How do you push the top 1/3 of the students to achieve great things without leaving the bottom 1/3 lagging far behind? How do you focus enough time on helping the bottom 1/3 of the students without boring the top 1/3 and holding them back? Every student is a human being who deserves a legitimate shot at a great education. How do you maximize the learning of every student? For me this is especially difficult because I have 76 students this semester and I truly want all 76 to have a wonderful educational experience despite a wide range of abilities and interests.
(11) - Great teachers know what they really want to accomplish. It is easy to say “I want to teach the subject matter to my students” but is that really what you want to accomplish? On the last day of the semester, how do you want your students to be different than they were at the beginning? For the last few years, I have said that I want my students to walk out of the last class of the semester saying “I never knew I could think so deeply; I never knew I could learn so much; I never knew I could work so hard; and it has been a lot of fun.” That is a goal that seems to work for me and guides every action I take each day. But every teacher has to come up with a goal that works for them.
(12) - Great teachers teach beyond the topic. I know I will have people who disagree with me on this one but I think a college class needs to be about more than the subject matter. I want all of my students to have fulfilled and meaningful adult lives. For me, that goes beyond teaching accounting. During the semester, my students write essays on the best book they have ever read. They get extra points for going to the theater or to the opera. I want them to remember my class as more than just an accounting class. I recently read a Wall Street Journal review of a movie titled Seymour: An Introduction. The movie is about the concert pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein. In the review Bernstein is quoted as saying (and you can substitute your subject for the word “music” here): “The most important thing that music teachers can do for their pupils is to inspire and encourage an emotional response—not just for music but, more importantly, for all aspects of life.” I could not agree more.
(13) - Great teachers set high standards but also encourage the students who are struggling. One of the hardest but most important things a teacher can do is to challenge a student to be great but also encourage them whenever they stumble. When faced with difficult problems, it is easy for students to become discouraged and lose confidence. But if they do not stumble now and then, they are probably not being pushed to maximize their potential. I always think about this when I return the first test of each semester. In my classes, approximately 80-85 percent of the students do not make an A on that first test. How can I keep that 80-85 percent from thinking of themselves as stupid and not capable of success in my class? How do I convince them that they can do better? We all have a self-image that is very fragile. How do I help a student turn a 67 into a 94? Or, in different words, how do I keep students who make 67 on that first test from simply giving up on themselves? I cannot think of a more important and personal aspect of great teaching.
(14) - Great teachers realize that each teacher must develop his or her own individual style. No one wants teachers who are clones of other teachers. Each person must be willing to explore ideas and figure out what works best in their classrooms. In other words, take everything that I say and everything else that you hear about teaching with a bit of skepticism. Teaching is a path where each person must find their own best way. Ten great teachers will have ten entirely different styles. Go find the path that works best for you.
Okay, what should I have added to this list? What should I have left off the list? What should I have changed? Great teaching—how does a person get to that goal?