Four Ways to Teach More Effectively

“No scientist wanting to remain at the leading edge of a field would use a research technique judged no longer as effective as an alternative. Shouldn’t we apply the same standard to teaching?” (2151) Substitute the word “scholar” for “scientist,” and it’s a question that should be put to everyone who teaches. What’s no longer deemed as effective is lecturing compared to the alternative of active learning. Many faculty members don’t use much active learning even though many now acknowledge that they should. This article offers four ways to get started or to move forward in your use of active learning.

Design from Back to Front

Backward design as conceived by Wiggins and McTighe starts with course-level learning goals instead of content. You start with what you want students to know and be able to do at the end of the course. These large goals lead to learning objectives (i.e., what students will do to demonstrate that they’ve achieved the goals). Once you’ve got how the learning will be assessed, the content can be identified. Of course, students will need opportunities to practice and will need feedback to help them improve. Because backward design is so student-focused, it is difficult to implement without having students engaged in the hard, messy work of learning. It’s a way to design courses that promote active learning.

For those with heavy teaching loads, course design (or redesign) sounds daunting, and while it is time consuming, the authors point out that you don’t have to do a whole course all at once. You can start with one course goal and move back through objectives and assessment to content. The article also recommends some guides and other resources that can be helpful to faculty unfamiliar with backward design. In fact, at the end of this article there’s a reference to a recent article that contains an excellent planning tool for incorporating backward design.

The point of this piece is well taken. Most faculty don’t think seriously about course design. More often they’re focused on all that has to be covered in the course. Course design activities, most notably use of the backward design approach, can improve both teaching and learning.

Aim High, Beyond Just the Facts

Unfortunately, students get lots of practice memorizing facts. They become very good at it. What they aren’t so good at is understanding why the facts are important or how they connect. Moreover, a focus on facts does not give students opportunities to think at higher levels.

What do teachers want students to know and be able to do five years after having taken the course? Of course, that will include some facts, but in most cases the facts will be supportive of the larger, more central concepts of the field. Isolated information bits don’t easily coalesce into coherent understandings. Said another way, the content needs to stop being the end and start being the means faculty use to lead students to larger understandings and ways of thinking that typify how knowledge advances in a discipline.

Pose Messy Problems

Messy problems are those open-ended, rich, poorly structured, sometimes “wicked problems.” They can’t be answered directly. There isn’t one right answer. And these are the kinds of problems most professionals face. Students can start learning how to handle these big real-life problems by practicing in our courses. But they are hard problems, and most students prefer quick and easy answers, so teachers must provide support and have realistic expectations. Students’ abilities to deal with messy problems must be developed, but as their skills grow so does their level of engagement with each other and with course content.

Expect Students to Talk, Write, and Collaborate

“Through these activities, students can become aware of what they do not know or understand . . . which ideally prompts them to think more deeply or seek more information to clarify their understanding. The process of explaining requires students to integrate new and existing knowledge” (2153). Initially, these activities don’t need to be complicated. The teacher can ask a question and students can talk with each other before the teacher solicits answers. Clickers can record first answers, which can then be discussed with others before they are answered a second time. Ideas and opinions can first be written down then shared and discussed. Students can learn from each other, and teachers can design activities that make that a more likely outcome.

The article concludes with straightforward and sanguine advice about learning to teach more effectively. It’s good advice if you’ve just started moving in the direction of more active learning or if active learning is your preferred approach. All teachers can improve.

  • Avoid reinventing the wheel. All sorts of good resources are available.
  • Try one thing at a time. Start with something comfortable or tackle one of those parts of the students routinely find difficult if you’re more seasoned.
  • Learn from colleagues. Watch them teach, and let them watch you teach.
  • Be transparent with students. After explaining what they need to do, ask them why you’re having them do it that way. Don’t assume what’s obvious to you about your approach is equally apparent to them.

References: Dolan, E. L., and Collins, J. P. 2015. “We Must Teach More Effectively: Here Are Four Ways to Get Started.” Microbiology of the Cell 26(June): 2151–2155.

Reynolds, H. L., and Kearns, K. D. 2017. “A Planning Tool for Incorporating Backward Design, Active Learning and Authentic Assessment in the College Classroom. College Teaching 65(1): 17–27.

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