How University professors ought to be teaching…

I am not a teacher per se. As a professor, I define myself as a researcher first and I do not do research on teaching methodologies. So this makes me poorly qualified to tell the world how a professor ought to be teaching. Nevertheless, I do teach. And I think that some of the time, I teach better than some. In fact, in the last few years, 95% of all students who took my courses would recommend the course to others.

Here are the rules I follow:

  • Don’t focus on content. In most fields, the content, the information, is already out there. It has been organized several times over by very smart people. Books have been written on most topics worth the attention of your students. There is a growing set of great talks available on YouTube, Google Video and elsewhere. Your students do not need you to rehash the same content they can find elsewhere, sometimes in better form. You may produce really sharp Java PowerPoint slides, but the value of these slides is very tiny when your students have access to Google. Stop lecturing already! Only produce content when you really cannot find the equivalent elsewhere. (I would attribute this idea to Stephen Downes, though I can’t find a reference.)
  • Focus on assignments and exams. Many professors are frustrated that students come in only for the grades. Probably because they focus on nice lectures and then prepare hastily some assignments. Turn this problem on its head! Focus on the assignments. If your students are not very autonomous, and they rarely are, give several long and challenging assignments (at least 4 or 5 a term). Do make sure however that they know where to get the information they need. You don’t need to provide all the information, but you need to link to all of it, because most students lack the research skills to figure out where they should look. Provide solved problems to help the weaker students.
  • Be an authentic role model. Knowing that someone ordinary, like your professor, has become a master of the course material (or he can fake it well) means that you, the very-smart-student, can do the same. That’s the power of emulation. In practice, this means that I do stress to my students that I do research in this field or that I have accomplished some difficult tasks using this very same course material. I also stress the difficulties that I have encountered and I give my personal view on the issues.

Note. Feel free to disagree.

2 thoughts on “How University professors ought to be teaching…”

  1. The most effective class I took in grad school consisted of an assignment of 2 papers per lecture that had to be read and understood by the following lecture. The lecture itself consisted of the professor (Joe Pasquale) drawing names at random and asking them a question about the paper. If the person called failed to answer the question another name was drawn and so forth.

    This was amazing effective at engaging the entire class in learning because:

    – you had to read and understand the papers in great detail or risk public embarrassment.

    – the entire class was forced into participating, which opened the door to excellent discussions. We actually had meaningful discussions in the middle of the lecture between the students and the professor.

    – the papers themselves were excellent: the original unix paper, the multics paper, and so forth. You would understand the motivations behind the design decisions based on the context and the thoughts of the people who came up with the ideas.

    I easily learned more in that one class than I did in one year of undergrad. I haven’t seen that format before or after, but if the professor knows the material well enough to be prepared for on-the-fly exploration and deep discussion, I find it’s an excellent way to teach.

  2. I might have disagreed with you regarding the content point a couple years ago, but I would say I’m in agreement now. My experience has taught me that going over the content meticulously in a lecture encourages students to rely on lectures for the content. This results in laziness when it comes to reading any resources pointed to. Not all students succumb to this mentality, mind you, but the “middle” ones who may show some interest in the subject, but not enough to be considered “keeners”, fall victim to it the most. These are the students you don’t want to have that happen to.

    My new tactic is going to be about trying to describe the motivation behind why something is a certain way, maybe give some “war stories” if I have them, and try to give background information that is hard to convey in a textbook. Oh, and to make more of an effort to turn a lecture into an interesting presentation and not a dry slideshow.

    And frankly, I can’t disagree with your take on assignments. Challenging assignments are, in my opinion, the best way to teach students because they are forced to do some research, even if that research involves hanging around in your office asking a barrage of questions.

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