Thursday, August 11, 2011

How We Make an Impact as Teachers

Ken Bain wrote about great college teachers at length, and in our workshops for new faculty, we start with a discussion of those teachers that we admired.  What characteristics did we appreciate?  In a recent discussion, we came up with qualities such as honest, personal, generous, competent, fair, responsible, resourceful, and understanding.  We also discussed how instructors can encourage and reinforce students in their learning, someone who can encourage creativity, someone who strives to move forward in their teaching and in their content knowledge, and someone who can create connections for students. 

How do our personal characteristics matter?  We can use our natural tendencies to great effect.  And, we can work on those characteristics that we want to adopt.  Some professional attributes are part of our areas--part of our content expertise.  How do we bring into the classroom our experience with the content and our knowledge and experience how that content is used in the world?

Two aspects of teaching stand out consistently as highly influential for students: engaging them in learning and connecting with them personally.   In the classroom, students are engaged when they are asked for input, which helps them connect new learning with previous learning.  They are also engaged through narrative.

We, as teachers, often speak about how good visuals impact student learning.  We know that technology has increased the impact of visuals in learning (we are already a very visual species).  We talk less these days about the importance of narrative, but narrative makes just as much impact on learning.

By narrative, I mean creating a story about your content.  When you walk into the classroom, what do you want to convey?  What is your objective?  How do you express yourself with passion?  For students who come to a physical classroom, they come to see us.  As UT acting professor Jed Diamond often says, we are the focus in the room--not the powerpoint slide.

When we step up, and we can create a story about our content, we capture student attention.  I do not mean that we have to be story tellers.  Yet, we can introduce a significant case with details woven into our lecture.  We can ask students a significant question and work our lecture around that question. We can inject our professional experience--adding a personal aspect--into our talk with students.  And we can build in activities around these cases and experiences, asking students about their ideas, opinions, and even their own experiences.