How To Teach College Students
This guide contains my thoughts as a seasoned college student on what makes a teacher good or bad. Nearly forty instructors over three years of college level education have constructed this understanding of educators. Some taught me how to deal with bureaucracy, some taught me how to transcribe slide shows onto lined paper, some taught me a little, some taught me a lot. In my experience, a number of good or bad practices exist which combine to determine the overall quality of a teacher. Hopefully this manifesto of sorts will drive beneficial change in the typical college classroom experience. Of course, the advice proffered below predominantly reflects my perception of education and does not represent an exhaustive collection of student opinions. I do believe, however, that many students would benefit if teachers put these principles into broader practice. At least my ideas might provoke discussion among teachers and students about efficient transmittance of knowledge.
Teachers must understand what we as students need to know and then clearly communicate it to us. This applies to the general course material in addition to individual homework assignments and exams. I find it frustrating, if not disrespectful, when teachers fail to clearly delineate what they expect of students. My best experiences with such clarity have come from math classes that were typically organized with a very manageable load of weekly homework, which applied concepts from well articulated lectures, and periodic exams that students entered possessing well-formed notions about the types of problems to expect. Here are the key points:
- When outside of class we should spend 90 per cent of our time applying concepts we already have a decent grasp of, preferably from prior teaching, and only 10 per cent on understanding the assignment.
- Some professors try to obfuscate their exam expectations by providing students with little to no information about what to expect. I understand the motivation behind this, but failing to produce either past exams or informative study guides only introduces ineffective ambiguity into the studying process. Students have to balance time between many classes, and with only a diffuse idea of what to expect on exams they will likely spend either too much or too little time preparing.
- Use a standard and understandable grading scale for the class. The fewer types of items that go into the final grade the better.
- Students should find all the relevant details for various course components in the syllabus.
Transparency goes cheek by jowl with organization. A minimal and consistent class structure helps significantly when establishing an accessibly organized (and hence transparent) class structure.
- Homework should come at regular, rational intervals; weekly rather than two periods after we finish each chapter.
- Keep notes and slides consolidated. No one likes printing five different documents just to understand one lecture (or the class structure).
- Slides, if used, should have a consistent organization. Think about those who prefer to take notes on blank paper when creating and presenting them.
- Again, we should spend 90 per cent of our effort on learning the material and 10 per cent on accessing it.
This is a little pet peeve of mine and perhaps less important to creating a good learning experience, but still influential. Good typography competes with good grammar when creating clear and professional communication. You can find several good resources for learning more about this essential subject online. (Here, here, here, and here).
- Learn how to choose a font (hint: not comic sans) and use it consistently throughout slides and documents.
- Do not use colored, capital, bolded, or underlined words (or some horrible combination thereof) without very good reason.
- Do not use myriad different font sizes. Pick two or three and stick with them.
- The same goes for the number of different fonts.
- Learn to use em dashes.
I believe every student should exhibit proficiency at independent learning. It forms an essential part of being a genuine individual. With that said, I am paying you through the nose to facilitate my learning. I expect you to teach me. All too often, however, a teacher’s attempt at encouraging students to learn a topic outside of class results in the pupil simply floundering around online, bouncing back and forth between Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia.
- Build a launch pad (with lectures or concise but sufficient instructions) that students can base their independent investigations on.
- Provide an accessible method of confirming results that students find (office hours or a scheduled time in lecture to discuss progress on the assignment before turning it in). Trial and error has never been an efficient learning method.
Do not set out to entertain us. College students know an infinitude of ways to keep themselves better entertained than attending class. Your attempts will simply muddle up the concepts and add to the effort students expend on extracting information from class. Focus on teaching your material in a clear, concise, and accessible manner. If some students find themselves enjoying class, so much the better.
A college education is rooted on the idea of a contract between the school (professors) and students. We have mutually agreed that the school will provide knowledge and the students will provide money. Besides the simple standards of professionalism and etiquette applicable in any social situation, this is the extent of any obligation students have to professors. Specifically, professors should not impose penalties on behavior they personally and individually disapprove of but which does not impede other students. For example, skipping class, unobtrusively texting, working on the crossword, completing homework from other classes, etc. Of course all these activities may be viewed negatively, but the professor still receives payment, the contract is upheld. Once such activities impinge on the ability of other students to receive instruction action may be undertaken. But setting strict, arcane rules at the outset serves more to create a degree of hostility between students and the teacher.
Some students may need to hear a concept several times in several contexts before comprehending it. Some may simply need a brief reminder of it. Do not treat these two the same.
- Lectures should form the backbone of a class. Students who quickly grasp the material should be able to learn everything they need from class. Required, basic, information should not be scattered through various learning outlets. Doing so presents an unorganized and opaque challenge.
- Additional veins of teaching should come as optional layers added atop the lecture. Requiring students to complete repetitive reading quizzes, homework, lab reports, online lectures, and recitation quizzes may help some, but it more likely burdens others who would do better spending time on another class they have a harder time grasping.
Digitization of homework or quizzes has never aided students and only added a depressingly high administrative and logistical barrier between their brains and course material.
- It shackles students to the distraction machine known as a computer.
- I have yet to see an online homework system that works well in a modern web browser and conforms to standard usability practices. This creates an unnecessary technological hurdle that wastes time and effort.