The Best Teaching Advice I Have Received

Instructor teaching students in college classroom

This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on December 16, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

What makes some teachers more effective than others?

Throughout my teaching career, I have asked numerous colleagues, mentors, and associates for their advice regarding excellent teaching. Here is a sampling of the advice I have gleaned during the past 40 years from outstanding professors:

  • Be kind. This is the advice I have received the most often from great teachers. Being kind doesn’t mean being a pushover or watering down your content or academic standards, but it does mean following the Golden Rule when interacting in any way with students.
  • Let students get to know you. Students sometimes appear shocked to learn that faculty members have personal lives and interests outside of the classroom. Help your students get to know who you are and a bit about your life’s journey. The first day of class is a great time to begin. It’s easier to learn from someone you know and trust.
  • Help students get to know each other. At the same time, teachers can help students get to know each other as well, starting from the first week. As one colleague told me, “I think it’s a bit sad that most students are willing to sit next to someone for three to four months and never learn their name.” Many students won’t engage with one another in class unless you encourage them to do so.
  • Lighten up a little. It’s easy to take ourselves too seriously. Be willing to laugh with your students when it’s appropriate. Self-deprecating humor can be an excellent way to connect with your students. Humor can also be a useful way to manage some of the frustrations that can accompany teaching. A few years ago, one of my colleagues— after being asked for the umpteenth time at the end of a semester whether he would raise a student’s grade—sent the following email message to his students. It let them know that the answer was no but offered them an opportunity to smile at the same time. Here’s what he sent:

Dear students,

I don’t know why, but I’m getting an abundance of emails from students explaining to me that they are 1 point short of an “A,” and that if I don’t give them that one point, they will: (1) lose their scholarship, (2) get kicked out of their apartment, (3) forfeit their chances for medical school, (4) get cut from the Rugby team, (5) not be able to get married this June, or (6) have to work in a coal mine all summer.

Hey, it’s okay! Just take a chill pill and relax. A hot shower and a full plate of Pad Thai chicken will do you some good. Chase that down with a slurpee. I don’t even care what flavor that slurpee is—just don’t make it a blue one. Blue ones jack up your teeth.

Look . . . if you put $100 in a savings account, you cannot draw out $101— you will be overdrawn. Likewise, if you earned an “A–,” I cannot give you an “A” just for kicks.

I promise: Life will go on, you will graduate from college, you will work in honorable professions, and best of all, you will still drive all your children to soccer practice in a really nice minivan. Life is going to be great.

I have a hard time believing that this class is going to determine your future salary and potential for winning a Nobel Prize, much less who you marry, or if you will live in a nice home.

Cheer up. Eat some ice cream. Live a little! You can do this! But don’t lose any more sleep over an “A” or “A–”! Get some perspective! You will live to see another day! But, that’s just me. Sorry for the rant, but man, did that feel good.

I love you all!

  • Be straightforward with students. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but you don’t do yourself or your students any favors if you downplay or withhold important information from them. If a student is in danger of failing your course, for example, you need to ensure that they clearly understand their situation.
  • Capitalize on your strengths. Don’t try to copy others. Be yourself.
  • Always be learning. We live in an amazing time. Knowledge is moving forward on all fronts. Teachers have an obligation to continue learning. As one of my colleagues explained, “If there are few eureka moments for the teacher, there will be even fewer of those moments for their students.” You should be on the lookout for opportunities to learn from your students too.
  • Admit when you don’t know something. Never try to bluff. It’s a fact that you won’t always know the answer to every question you might be asked. Let students know that you will try to find the answer. Then, once you find it, teach your students how you did so. It can be extremely valuable for students to understand how questions can be answered. Equally important, if you can’t find the answer, let students know that as well.
  • Front-load relevance. Too often teachers seem to wait until the end of a lesson to put the pieces together for students. They sometimes act as if they are pulling back an imaginary curtain and saying, “Ta-da! Here’s how everything fits together!” That doesn’t work as well with the current generation of college students as it may have in years past. Today’s students want to understand the big picture up front—not wait until the end.
  • Watch others teach. Whether it’s negative or positive, you can always learn something from watching others teach. Take the time to visit the classrooms of other teachers and talk with them about their teaching successes and failures.
  • Borrow appropriately from other teachers. One of my teaching mentors taught me that it’s okay to borrow from other teachers if you do so with love and their permission. In fact, if we’re not sharing with each other, we’re all doing more work than necessary.
  • Learn to ask good questions. Questions that ask only who, what, or when don’t requirement much engagement from students. Generally, the questions that matter the most begin with why or how.
  • “Right-size” your course, your lessons and exams, and your assignments. Don’t try to cram as much as you can into each lesson, exam, or assignment. You can’t squeeze two hours of instruction into a 50-minute class, no matter how hard you try or how fast you talk. If you add 10 minutes of content to a lesson, you’ve also got to remove 10 minutes from that lesson.
  • Bad day? Shake it off! Every teacher has lessons that “just didn’t work”—even if the same lesson to similar students worked the hour before. Learn from the experience, figure out what might be improved, and then move on.
  • Show them, help them, watch them, let them. Teaching can often be viewed as a kind of progression in which the role the teacher plays gradually diminishes. You might think of this process something like this: it begins with show them (100 percent teacher effort), transitions into help them (75 percent teacher, 25 percent student), progresses to watch them (25 percent teacher, 75 percent student), and concludes with let them (100 percent student effort).
  • Consider next semester when preparing this semester. Too many teachers are in such a rush to prepare for the coming semester that they don’t take the time to generalize their preparation—so they end up doing just as much work the following semester too. Instead, look for ways to reuse lesson plans, schedules, syllabi, assignments, and exam questions instead of reinventing the wheel every term.
  • Share more stories. Stories are powerful and extremely flexible. They can be used to illustrate, explain, entertain, compare, contrast, and reinforce. Stories can enable you to teach without it being obvious that you’re doing so. Share more stories!
  • Remember, it is an honor to teach . . . and it should be fun.

When it comes to teaching, the bottom line is that there is always room for each of us to improve. What two ideas from this list might you investigate further?

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Kenneth L. Alford, PhD, is a professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and a retired active duty Colonel in the U.S. Army.

A version of this article appeared in the Best of the 2019 Teaching Professor Conference report. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.