“My history teacher is sooooo boooooring,” I complained to my grandfather, rolling my eyes. I was 14.
“Think of it this way,” my grandfather said, looking at me intently. “At least this teacher can teach you how not to teach.”
I looked back at him with surprise. I liked this idea.
The following day, in history class, as soon as I became bored, I paid attention to why I was bored. And then I wasn’t bored anymore.
• • •
Throughout middle school, high school, and college, I continued to take note of what did and did not help me learn in a classroom setting. I also took note of what teaching methods worked for me, but did not work for other students, and vice versa. In graduate school, I began a more structured study of pedagogical techniques by taking a course in teaching college biology, as well as by enrolling in various workshops on teaching, public speaking, and visual communication. As a teaching assistant in a wide range of courses at Duke University, and in a course at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I have practiced applying these concepts, and have grown from being terrified of standing up in front of a classroom to enjoying and looking forward to it. Once I got over my initial fear of faltering and forgetting what I was going to say, I discovered that helping students learn tricky concepts, in a field that’s endlessly growing, is an incredibly rewarding experience, and allows me to use humor and creativity in different ways than I can in basic research.
There are five main techniques that I use to facilitate student learning. The first, and most basic, is consciously structuring my speech patterns to optimize student learning. Rhythm and pacing in speech have a greater influence on comprehension, retention, and note-taking than many people realize. When explaining a concept, I find that it helps students if I speak in complete sentences, or at least in complete thoughts. When I pause at the end of a complex thought, or at the junction between two complex thoughts or phrases, students are better able to follow my logical trajectory and have the time necessary to summarize what was said in their notes. I find it is also important not to pause too frequently in the middle of a thought or phrase, or else the student’s mind gets distracted, or forgets what was said before the pause. Humans can only retain a finite amount of information in working memory, and it helps to think about these limitations when structuring my speech patterns in the classroom.
The second technique I use is a dynamic approach to visual aids. While pre-drawn figures, taken from a textbook, can be fantastic learning aids, they are often too dense to be readable when projected on a screen in a large lecture hall. Furthermore, a dense graphic, presented all at once, can be overwhelming. I prefer to draw such images on the chalkboard or whiteboard (or, in a large classroom, as projected live video). Aside from preventing information overload, drawing figures by hand slows me down, and prevents me from rushing through the material faster than the students can comprehend it and translate it into their notes. Information density on PowerPoint slides is also an important consideration when designing text-based slides. I prefer to keep text to a minimum, so that students can concentrate on what I am saying, and not get confused by attempting to read and listen at the same time. Text-based learning is better relegated to the textbook and other readings assigned outside of the classroom, when the student can go through them at his/her own pace and not be distracted by my speaking.
The third technique I like to employ is holding students accountable for learning on a weekly basis. College students have a lot on their minds, academically and socially, and are in a rebellious phase of their lives, often living away from their parents for the first time. In addition, the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for planning and judgment, is not fully developed until around age 25. Given no assignments between exams, most college students will procrastinate studying for an exam until a few days beforehand. Although some students can perform well on exams using this strategy, cramming leads to lower test scores for many students, and does not facilitate long-term retention or understanding of the material for even the brightest students. For this reason, I think it is important to have one or more weekly assignments to encourage students to regularly revisit the material outside of lecture.
Although, as a teaching assistant, I have been limited in how accountable I can ask students to be in a course structured by another professor, there are several ways in which I would like to hold students accountable in the future when I am the main instructor. Although students frequently ignore assigned readings, I think weekly readings are an important supplement to a lecture-based course because they often cover the material more thoroughly than can be covered in the classroom. Readings are also important because information presented in a different way, via a different modality, is more likely to be retained. As a professor, I would quiz students on low-level information from the assigned readings every week. I would also assign a weekly problem set which would ask students to work through a few problems on their own that would require higher-level thinking than passively reading the textbook or listening to the lecture. By asking students to write and turn in short answers to problem sets every week, I would not only be encouraging students to think about the course material at a higher level, but would also be getting them to think about the material using different parts of their brains, ultimately helping them to better integrate new concepts and information into long-term memory.
The final technique I like to employ in the classroom is the assignment of group work and presentations. In the real world, we ‘grownups’ spend a lot of time discussing potential solutions to problems and presenting our ideas to co-workers or supervisors. Unfortunately, this is often a neglected aspect of undergraduate education. I think it is important to ask students to discuss problems amongst their classmates, and to present their ideas to the class, so that they can develop the ability to work together to solve problems and communicate their ideas orally in small and large groups. Despite the importance of public speaking in career advancement, when people are asked what their greatest fear is, more people cite public speaking than any other fear, including that of death. I have found that asking students to discuss problems in small groups facilitates their understanding of the material and empowers them to figure out answers to problems that would be overwhelming if they tackled them on their own. In addition, when different groups work on different problems, and are then asked to share their answers with the class, I have found that, without any prompting from me, the rotating spokesperson for each group is held accountable by his/her peers to speak slowly and clearly, so that students can follow along and take notes on each group’s answer. This is a fun way to get students to develop their ability to communicate complex ideas to their peers over the course of a semester, and I can say that I, as a teacher, enjoy standing back and watching this process unfold.
Teaching is a complicated process that borrows skills from a variety of fields, from theatre and graphic design to political science and psychology. As a student of pedagogy, I have looked to these various fields for insights into teaching and inspiring students, and will continue to jump at opportunities to learn more as I continue my development as a teacher.