Saturday, March 26, 2011

Big Mistakes

This entry on my blog should prove two things: (1) I lead a relatively boring existence and (2) I spend way too much time thinking about teaching.

Yesterday for lunch, I went to a nearby Jimmy John’s Deli and got a sandwich. As I sat there eating it, I pulled out a piece of paper and across the top I wrote: What are the biggest mistakes that college teachers make? I immediately listed out 9 or 10 mistakes that I think college teachers are prone to make, mistakes that prevent them from moving from good to great. Then, I decided to whittle the number down to a “Top Five” list. That was tricky because several of my items appear to be quite prevalent. Finally, about the time I had taken the last bite of my sandwich, I turned my final five into a countdown somewhat like a David Letterman list on late night television. So, straight from Jimmy John’s Deli in Richmond, Virginia, here are my “Top Five Mistakes That College Teachers Make.” If you think I left something off, let me know.

Number Five: Overreliance on Power Point Slides. I never use Power Point slides in my own classes but, if I did, I would make sure to ask a question on the student evaluations each year about whether students liked my usage or not. I understand how they can be very handy (especially since textbook publishers will even create them for you) as a way of organizing material. However, I think they send a message to students that you are simply going to read Power Point slides to them as they sit there in the semi-dark trying to stay awake. Okay, I know that most teachers will say that they throw up the slides and then discuss the material but I have heard way too many students say “that lazy guy just reads Power Point slides to us that he didn’t even take the time to produce.” The way you view the process and the way your students view it may be radically different. Plus, I am not certain that it is easy to use Power Point slides to create active interaction with the students. If the slide provides the information, where is the conversation, where is the student thinking? My recommendation – just ask your students on their evaluations: “Should the professor use Power Point slides more or less or the same amount as now?” If a lot of students say “less,” I would pay serious attention to that advice. If they say “more,” then go for it.

Number Four: Failure to Engage Students with the Material. College teachers often seem to have a belief that students bring an active curiosity and desire to learn with them to class. If (when) that proves false, they appear to be mystified. “Why do they take my class if they don’t want to learn the material?” Well, they must take 30-40 courses to graduate so they have to sign up for something. Over my 40 years in this business, I have had a few students who walked in with an “I am dying to learn all about Intermediate Accounting” attitude. But, a vast majority of them walk in with a neutral attitude; they need to be convinced they are not wasting their time. After spending 80 percent of their lives learning stuff like the state capitals, the periodic table, how to outline a sentence, and the Pythagorean theorem, many students have had the joy of learning mashed out of them before they get to you.

How do you engage students? One possibility is to link the coverage to some personal benefit – how will their lives be better for knowing this material? “Learn it because I say so” doesn’t hold too much power over the young people of today. Or, show the student why you find the material interesting. If you have read this blog for long, you know that I’m a huge proponent of trying to puzzle students. Why is it done this way? What does this accomplish? Why was this action taken? How do these two things fit together? If you simply assume your students are truly curious about the Pythagorean theorem, you may be upset when they fall asleep in class or seem more interested in texting than in learning.

Number Three: Writing Tests that Reward Memorization. We all have heard that the purpose of college is to help develop critical thinking skills. That is a great and worthy goal. But students will learn based on how they expect to be tested. If you base your tests on memorization (“name the four criteria for a capitalized lease”), you can forget about developing critical thinking skills. If you want students to go beyond memorization, your tests have to go beyond memorization. “If the US had not made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, what are possible impacts on the growth of slavery in this country?” Okay, that may lead to an answer that requires some work to grade but it allows students to demonstrate their understanding. If they expect to be tested in a certain way, their learning will be directed in that same way. Textbook publishers often provide test banks. Those questions are primarily designed to test memorization. You set the tone for your entire course by the way you test your students. Work to write thoughtful questions and you will be surprised by how much more thoughtful your students will become.

Number Two: Most Teachers Talk Too Much. Teachers get nervous during silences. They feel uncomfortable. Consequently, they rush in to fill up the quiet with words and words and more words. The less the teacher talks and the more the students talk the better. The teacher should guide the conversation and make sure everyone gets involved. After that, the less said by the teacher the better. However, that is hard to do. The students would much prefer for you to do all the talking because then they can turn their brains off and just write down what you say. Don’t let them play that game with you. Push them to talk. I use the Socratic Method so I call on them in rapid fire fashion but you can push them to talk in many ways. If you have read my Teaching Tips book at https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~jhoyle/ you know that I believe in the 50-50 Rule. That is the teacher should never do more than 50 percent of the talking. Push your students to do their 50 percent.

Number One: Failure to Force Students to Be Prepared for Class. In my opinion, the single biggest factor in having a great class is the preparation level of the students. If they are not prepared, what can they possibly add to the class? They can just write down notes. But, when they are well prepared, they can add ideas, suggestions, a different perspective, and the like. A class with well prepared students can be a true joy as the conversation and the thinking range throughout the topics under consideration. To me, that is education at its very best. That is why I became a teacher.

How do you get students to prepare for class? First, I think you have to be very specific as to what you want them to do. Don’t just throw out vague assignments. College students do not do vague very well. They ignore vague. Tell them exactly what you want them to do. Second, make sure the subsequent class actually incorporates that assignment in some way so students do not feel like they were being asked to do busy work. I remember being infuriated in college when I would spend hours on an assignment that was never mentioned by the teacher in any way. I certainly did make that same mistake twice. Third, don’t hesitate to be confrontational if the assignment is not done to your satisfaction. College students are adults. If they had an assignment at a job and did not do it, they would face the wrath of the boss very quickly. You don’t have to treat them like delicate flowers. If you give an assignment that you use in class and students are not prepared, talk to them about the need for doing the work. I never scream and yell at my students but I certainly let them know if I feel they have not upheld their half of the class work. I often stop students as they leave class with “you did not seem prepared today and I fully expect better from you at our next class.”


If you want to see an improvement in your teaching, pick one of these five and work on it for awhile. Or, pick a different one that you think applies to you. But you do have to make an effort to work on it. Just contemplating mistakes doesn’t do you or your students any good.

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