Every two weeks, I write here about a teaching tip (or two or three) that you can put to use in your classroom with relative ease. Sometimes I worry, though, that the whole business of teaching tips misses the point of why teachers do what we do. Let me explain.
The first time I taught at a university was in graduate school. I was a doctoral student at University College London, and I was to conduct one-on-one tutorials every two weeks with five first-year English students. There was a shortage of teaching rooms, so I taught that year in the office of Danny Karlin, then a big-shot professor there, now a big-shot professor at the University of Bristol. When I knocked on his door before my first tutorial, he must have seen how nervous I felt. He put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a few well-chosen words of advice. “Remember: No matter how little you know,” he said, with the slightest of smiles, “they know less.”
It remains good advice, particularly for inexperienced teachers. Those of us with too much education tend to be overly critical of ourselves, ready to assume we'll be found out as imposters by students who will see right through us. It’s important to remember that even if we’re not always the experts we expect to be, our experience—in graduate school, in the classroom—and our knowledge combine to give us plenty to impart to students.
But equally important to remember: While you can be assured that students know less than you, precisely how much they know is an open question. Students come to our courses from a variety of backgrounds, and their prior knowledge of our subjects can vary wildly. Their prior knowledge plays a huge role in how students learn—how they interpret, organize, and remember new information. You don’t have to read Jean Piaget to understand that new learning always happens, at least at first, through the lens of what the learner already knows. How could it be otherwise?
Although I strongly believe in the value of the teaching tips I write about, I worry sometimes that, as faculty members, we focus too much on what we do and not enough on who we’re doing it for. Too often when teachers try to integrate active learning into their classrooms, they merely replace lectures with discussions and creative in-class activities. The problem with lectures is not just that the teacher is the only one talking; it’s that the traditional lecture assumes that all students are the same: blank discs waiting to be filled up with new data. It’s undoubtedly a good thing to limit lectures and rely more on discussions and group work, both of which encourage students to take an active role during class time. But neither of those strategies does anything to resolve the one-size-fits-all problem.
If you really want to make sure that all students have the chance to maximize their learning, you need to tailor your teaching to the ones sitting in front of you. That means finding out how much they know about a topic, trying to discover how they learn best (and encouraging them to discover for themselves), and figuring out how the particular group dynamic in your class affects learning. It may also mean diverging from the usual way you do things.
So the next time you stand in the front of a classroom, instead of starting the way you usually do—however you usually do—begin instead by talking with your students. Ask them about their experiences with your subject before they enrolled in your course. Ask them what they think about the syllabus topics that you haven’t gotten to yet. Try to uncover their misconceptions, confusions, and prejudices. Take a little time, in every class period, through formal or informal means, to really listen to your students, and let that shape how you teach.
That’s not easy, but I assure you it is worthwhile. Aside from any effect on your teaching approach, such a gesture will show students that you respect them as scholars. It will signal that they are full members of a scholarly community. It will let them know that their learning is the point.
No matter how ingenious a teaching strategy is, it will not work in all situations, with all students. We all need to do a better job of listening to students, learning about them, and working to find the best way to get through to them. We’re right to have high expectations and to ask them to go that extra mile in the service of our courses. It’s only fair that we do the same for them.