Skip to main content

Great teaching can happen in many different ways…

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | April 21, 2010

but I believe it always shares a few features:

  • great teachers are concerned with whether students are learning, and less with how well they themselves are teaching.
  • great teachers understand that it is better to help students master a well-selected set of concepts than to let them flounder in a sea of content.
  • great teachers accept that some of what works will not make them popular with students, and that some students won’t realize how much they have learned until long after the course is over.

Taking each of these in turn:

learning vs. teaching: teaching is not a performance, no matter how much I may enjoy a good lecture. Students are not an “audience”, not passive viewers there to appreciate my virtuousity. Learning happens in the minds of students. It happens when they actively put ideas together and make their own sense of things. My job as a teacher is to enable students to learn: to create a classroom where it is safe to think out loud; to provide guidance through challenging readings; and to plan assignments that draw on a variety of skills and require students to truly make material their own.

covering the content: many beginning instructors I teach at one point or another admit they are anxious about “getting through all the material”. This is obviously a concern about the performance of the teacher, not the learner. It follows from the observation above that this is likely to stand in the way of a focus on student learning. It helps when you realize that you may have covered all the content you set out to convey, but somehow, not all of it has lodged in the minds of students. This can begin a process of winnowing content down, remembering that your goal is for each student to walk away with enduring mastery of concepts that they will use in other courses and even in conversation outside the academy.

time heals all wounds: while on sabbatical in 2001-2002, I had the pleasure of exchanging ideas with two cognitive psychologists who study teaching and learning. Their experimental work shows that teaching methods that work to promote long term retention of such things as foreign language vocabulary may involve slower learning than methods that produce rapid apparent learning that seeps away. One of their conclusions is that students are often poor judges of what actually worked to help them with long-term mastery of knowledge.

I was disturbed by what seemed to to be the implication, that students would fail to give credit where credit was due. Hoping my conclusion was wrong, I asked about it: yes, my colleagues said, that would follow. When we are being evaluated at the end of a semester, it is too soon for students to really appreciate how much they learned and worse, what techniques helped them learn.

The flip side of that, though, and what inspires me to continue, is that a regular stream of former students returns, or writes, even after decades, to say that what they learned has endured, longer than they expected, and that in retrospect they realize that how they were taught made a difference.

Great teaching may not conform to a simple pattern; but it is recognizable for students. And it starts with teaching that is about learners, not teachers.