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Teaching Principles

Teaching is a complex, multifaceted activity, often requiring us as instructors to juggle multiple tasks and goals simultaneously and flexibly. The following small but powerful set of principles can make teaching both more effective and more efficient, by helping us create the conditions that support student learning and minimize the need for revising materials, content, and policies. While implementing these principles requires a commitment in time and effort, it often saves time and energy later on.

Effective teaching involves acquiring relevant knowledge about students and using that knowledge to inform our course design and classroom teaching.

When we teach, we do not just teach the content, we teach students the content. A variety of student characteristics can affect learning. For example, students' cultural and generational backgrounds influence how they see the world; disciplinary backgrounds lead students to approach problems in different ways; and students' prior knowledge (both accurate and inaccurate aspects) shapes new learning. Although we cannot adequately measure all of these characteristics, gathering the most relevant information as early as possible in course planning and continuing to do so during the semester can (a) inform course design (e.g., decisions about objectives, pacing, examples, format), (b) help explain student difficulties (e.g., identification of common misconceptions), and (c) guide instructional adaptations (e.g., recognition of the need for additional practice).


Effective teaching involves aligning the three major components of instruction: learning objectives, assessments, and instructional activities.

course design triangle

Taking the time to do this upfront saves time in the end and leads to a better course. Teaching is more effective and student learning is enhanced when (a) we, as instructors, articulate a clear set of learning objectives (i.e., the knowledge and skills that we expect students to demonstrate by the end of a course); (b) the instructional activities (e.g., case studies, labs, discussions, readings) support these learning objectives by providing goal-oriented practice; and (c) the assessments (e.g., tests, papers, problem sets, performances) provide opportunities for students to demonstrate and practice the knowledge and skills articulated in the objectives, and for instructors to offer targeted feedback that can guide further learning.

Effective teaching involves articulating explicit expectations regarding learning objectives and policies.

There is amazing variation in what is expected of students across American classrooms and even within a given discipline. For example, what constitutes evidence may differ greatly across courses; what is permissible collaboration in one course could be considered cheating in another. As a result, students' expectations may not match ours. Thus, being clear about our expectations and communicating them explicitly helps students learn more and perform better. Articulating our learning objectives (i.e., the knowledge and skills that we expect students to demonstrate by the end of a course) gives students a clear target to aim for and enables them to monitor their progress along the way. Similarly, being explicit about course policies (e.g., on class participation, laptop use, and late assignment) in the syllabus and in class allows us to resolve differences early and tends to reduce conflicts and tensions that may arise. Altogether, being explicit leads to a more productive learning environment for all students.

Effective teaching involves prioritizing the knowledge and skills we choose to focus on.

Coverage is the enemy: Don't try to do too much in a single course. Too many topics work against student learning, so it is necessary for us to make decisions - sometimes difficult ones - about what we will and will not include in a course. This involves (a) recognizing the parameters of the course (e.g., class size, students' backgrounds and experiences, course position in the curriculum sequence, number of course units), (b) setting our priorities for student learning, and (c) determining a set of objectives that can be reasonably accomplished.

Effective teaching involves recognizing and overcoming our expert blind spots.

We are not our students! As experts, we tend to access and apply knowledge automatically and unconsciously (e.g., make connections, draw on relevant bodies of knowledge, and choose appropriate strategies) and so we often skip or combine critical steps when we teach. Students, on the other hand, don't yet have sufficient background and experience to make these leaps and can become confused, draw incorrect conclusions, or fail to develop important skills. They need instructors to break tasks into component steps, explain connections explicitly, and model processes in detail. Though it is difficult for experts to do this, we need to identify and explicitly communicate to students the knowledge and skills we take for granted, so that students can see expert thinking in action and practice applying it themselves.

Effective teaching involves adopting appropriate teaching roles to support our learning goals.

Even though students are ultimately responsible for their own learning, the roles we assume as instructors are critical in guiding students' thinking and behavior. We can take on a variety of roles in our teaching (e.g., synthesizer, moderator, challenger, commentator). These roles should be chosen in service of the learning objectives and in support of the instructional activities. For example, if the objective is for students to be able to analyze arguments from a case or written text, the most productive instructor role might be to frame, guide and moderate a discussion. If the objective is to help students learn to defend their positions or creative choices as they present their work, our role might be to challenge them to explain their decisions and consider alternative perspectives. Such roles may be constant or variable across the semester depending on the learning objectives.

Effective teaching involves progressively refining our courses based on reflection and feedback.

Teaching requires adapting. We need to continually reflect on our teaching and be ready to make changes when appropriate (e.g., something is not working, we want to try something new, the student population has changed, or there are emerging issues in our fields). Knowing what and how to change requires us to examine relevant information on our own teaching effectiveness. Much of this information already exists (e.g., student work, previous semesters' course evaluations, dynamics of class participation), or we may need to seek additional feedback with help from the university teaching center (e.g., interpreting early course evaluations, conducting focus groups, designing pre- and posttests). Based on such data, we might modify the learning objectives, content, structure, or format of a course, or otherwise adjust our teaching. Small, purposeful changes driven by feedback and our priorities are most likely to be manageable and effective.

Reflection on Teaching

Teaching is the central activity of the College.

Teaching is fundamentally about relationships, about not imposing upon the subject or upon the learners, but in fashioning an appropriate response to both. As in all relationships, it is dependent upon the ablhty to hsten and to make connections. So, it is grounded not only in interpersonal relationships, but also in a relationship with the subject matter. There is simply no substirute for knowing one's subject and for working that through in light of a variety of pedagogical processes. Teaching requires us to think our way from the subject maner as we understand it into the minds and motivations of those we teach. It involves imagining how others might come to grasp a concept or feel about a controversy. There are no absolute fonnulas to follow. "As teachers we cross the borders of chaos to inhabit zones of ambiguity." (Stephen Brookfield, The Skillful Teacher)

Teaching is not to be confused with telling or with technique (though both are extensively utilized). Teaching revolves around thinking (reason, logic, analysis, planning) for it is an intellectually rigorous activity. One learns to teach, though, by doing. But doing alone is insufficient; it must be deliberate doing, that is, a practice that is imagined, rehearsed, enacted, reflected upon and redone. A model of pedagogical reasoning and action could look something like this: comprehension (purpose, subject matter); transformation (preparation, representation, selection, adaptation, and tailoring to srudent characteristics); the instruction itself; evaluation; reflection; new comprehensions. (Lee Shulman,..."It's Harder to Teach than Be a Physician")

In teaching we are "led where we did not plan to go." (Sharon Parks). Indeed, rigorous preparation and attentive enactment neither assure us of achieving whatever end we had intended nor account for what happens in the students whom we teach. Three corollaries suggest themselves. First, the more painstaking our preparation, the more prepared we will be to lay it aside in order to follow the now of the process...[W]hen you teach, you must know when to forget formulas; but you must have learned them in order to be able to forget them." (Josiah Royce) Second, we will learn as much, perhaps more, from those strategies that failed or fizzled as we do from those which seemingly succeeded. Third, we will never know precisely what has been transformative in the student. We can, and should, assess whether someone has comprehended the vocabulary or understood key concepts or successfully synthesized material. We don't know what is happening deep inside the student. All of this requires us to negotiate a delicate balance between intense involvement in the pedagogical process and proper distancing. "How near should I come, how far off should I stay?"
Teaching involves playing many roles, most of which are not on center stage or at the podium but behind the scenes. Some of our most important roles are played off stage-designing creative assignments, crafting engaging questions, offering extensive response to papers, reworking a syllabus in light of student needs. Others are risky, such as committing oneself to rely less on the lecture and more on interactive strategies. Some of these roles come more naturally to us, and others impose new demands on us, demands for which we may feel prepared neither by personal predilection nor by professional training. We might take some risks, playing roles with which we might have some initial discomfon. Contented students who pen glowing evaluations may be good for our longevity, but they may distract us from the pursuit of wisdom. Satisfied customers may suffice for the marketplace, but not for the classroom.

In teaching we experience ourselves as both vulnerable and privileged. Teaching brings us face-to-fact with our finitude, with our own ignorance, clumsiness, narrowness, and pride. Teaching is a "place where one is constantly confronted with the incommensur-ability of that which cannot be reduced to a version of oneself." (Roger Simon, "Face to Face with Alterity: Postmodern Jewish Identity and the Eros of Pedagogy") "[Teaching] demands...a sturdy self on the part of the teacher, combined 'with a yielding and receptive character of soul' incompatible with undue concern for self·protection or advancement" (Margaret Buchmann, The Careful Vision: How Practical Is Contemplation in Teaching?). We do not always use our power and knowledge wisely or in the service of others. Our pursuit of knowledge may lead not to wisdom but to self-aggrandizement. We may use our "authority" in domineering and authoritarian ways. We may develop an inflated sense of our self-importance. We may vie with one another for places of bonar, counting citations of our own works and envying others the spotlight. If so, we fail one another, our students, our educational institutions.

Ultimately, teaching is about the desire that others flourish. So besides active presence in the classroom, laboratory, lecture hall or off-campus site, faculty are the primary advisors of their students in core curricular matters as well. We are to be "like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in due season and whose leaves do not wimer." (psalm I). Gerard Manley Hopkins ends one of his unnamed sonnets: "Mine, 0 thou lord of life, send my roolS rain." This is the desire and supplication of the teacher. Nourish my roots that I may be sturdy enough 10 enable others to nourish. Let growth be abundant.

In terms of mentoring or assisting a faculty member's development in this category of Teaching, the Dean and departmental Chair will review progress and nonnal support in order to ensure that any special need a faculty member might have would be accommodated in some way. The faculty member's mentor may also provide input and appropriate support for this process. The areas for discussion and review might include the following:

1. The concrete work involved in teaching, both wilhin the class period and without; discussion of preparation content, methodology, presentation, testing, grading; particular advice sought and shared on teaching based on student evaluations (both computerized and narrative) over time;

2. Teachers are effective thinkers (directed towards results) who pursue excellence (Dot perfection) in the classroom and they are self-motivated towards doing a good job (this is their habitual preference); so, as problems are surfaced, understood and responded to. teachers make needed changes, eveo take pedagogical risks;

3. The focus in teaching is first and foremost on the student; teachers share their knowledge generously with their students and care for their desire to learn; teachers need to pay anemion to the way their person and their material are being received by students;

4. The habitual attitude of the teacher is availability for the student and collegial inlerest in the successes and challenges of other teachers, especially those in their department.

In a word, excellence in teaching demands the best integrative and communicative skills as well as the imaginative capacity to foster the passion for learning, the ability to educe emerging ideas in one's students, and the skill to guide collective inquiry.

The above draws on the pioneering work of Professor Mary Boys, Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, who is also a project advisor to the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith.

Reflection on Research & Scholarship


Further Reading

A Framework for Effective Teaching
Characteristics of an Effective Teacher
Effective Lecturing
Guide to Quick Starters
Leading a Discussion
Teaching Strategies
What Best Teachers Do
Your Teaching Philosophy

Teaching & Related Topics