19 Things I’ve Learned about Teaching Undergraduates (so far)

Since I began teaching in May 2007, I have learned so much about effectively reaching students. In this blog posting, I want to share some of these with you in no particular order – some are more teaching tips than things I’ve learned per se. I should underscore that these are things I have found that work for me and my students. Nothing here is intended to criticize anyone for how they teach. I have taken and taught many different classes with all kinds of teaching techniques and philosophies. More than anything else, of course, an instructor must find styles that work in her/his own classes, a search that should never end. I would love to hear feedback about these items and hear things everyone else has learned about effective teaching.

1. Teaching is a learning experience.
I always learn so much through the process of teaching. When you’re busy taking classes and writing papers, sometimes actually having time for learning is hard. It’s true – you learn information best and deepest when teaching. Every time I teach a lesson, I learn the material in new and deeper way. I also always learn so much from my students. I learn from their own life experiences. I also learn from their insights. They see aspects all the time in the sources we use that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise – and these are awesome teaching moments. I also learn about pop culture–new music, new styles, and slang–from my students.

2. Understanding adult learning theory is important.
Adult learning theory or andragogy (in contrast to pedagogy) recognizes that adults have different learning needs and backgrounds compared to children or adolescents. College students have life experience. This life experience makes it harder for them to learn at times because of how the brain grows physiologically. These experiences also must be allowed for in the classroom. Students need to be able to connect their life to classroom lessons. This also relates to that adult students tend to want to work independently, and they have more goals that are independent of their family and friends. Adult learners must also see the relevance of a class and a lesson to be successful, and they must have active, hands-on lessons. (See Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide for more details.)

3. Getting students to come to office hours is very difficult.
No matter how hard we try as instructors, students don’t like coming to office hours. It may be because they are intimidated, shy, any number of reasons. I found a great way to get students quickly comfortable talking with me is to visit with them informally in the classroom before and after class. I usually try to get to class at least 10 minutes early, if not 15 or 20. I have found that by doing this, students start to come early to visit. When teaching smaller classes on small campuses, I like to have lunch with students. This makes students comfortable being around me and lets them know I truly care. As a result, when they need help or even if they just want to visit, they really will email or text or even physically come to the office. Extra credit points also works wonders at getting a line of students at the door.

4. Students don’t truly and internally understand what is expected of them.
Students don’t realize that college is when they reach that point when it finally really is harder and different – where the grades finally really do matter. Students, by virtue of having been in the public school system 13 or more years, have had their brains rewired where they physiologically cannot critically think about or un-learn everything they learned incorrectly without a great deal of time and effort. When teaching, we have to allow for their past educational experiences (rather lack of experiences). The best way to break this barrier and to get them to actually learn is by using very different methods to deliver and assess course material.

5. Treat students as equals.
Of course, students are not our equals – we have more formal academic training and have leadership of the classroom – but we should, however, treat students as equals. They have their own set of unique talents and interests. Moreover, treating everyone with respect and kindness goes far in creating a successful classroom. In my history classes, for example, I tell them they are historians for the semester.

6. Teach subjects, not prerequisites.
Too often I think we get distracted by teaching the “required courses.” Everyone knows that 90% or more of students in a freshman biology class or history don’t want to be there. This translates into “dumbing down” the lessons more than necessary. In my history classes, for example, we talk about historiography (something I didn’t learn about until my last semester as a history undergraduate) from the first day of class. I want my students to have a true, deep exposure to the study of History.

7. Make full use of the CASE method.
Copy And Steal Everything (CASE) for educational purposes. Don’t reinvent the wheel where you don’t need to. Especially when you’re first teaching a lesson, borrow things others have done. Also, when I do create things, I make them available to others (see the resources section on this page).

8. Have everything covered in the syllabus.
I tend to have a syllabus that is at least 6-7 solid pages of text. Much of this is “common sense.” But given the nature of colleges and universities today and the nature of students (especially the “classroom lawyers”), it is helpful to carefully articulate all expectations, rules, and any exceptions. I have a “master syllabus” that I will add things to during the semester. A detailed syllabus can also save time and stress, as students can consult the syllabus for course information.

9. Challenge students beyond their comfort zone.
I have found through various experimentation that students actually try harder, do more work, come to class prepared, and make higher grades if the course is “hard.” When the assignments are “too easy,” students slack off and fall further and further behind. Students will rise to the challenge. They secretly want to be challenged. Go ahead and go with what is harder: If it turns out to truly be too hard, back off a bit and offer more help and guidance. As long as the focus is on learning, everything will be fine.

10. Numerous low-stakes assignments that use all of the senses are best.
Of course the number of students enrolled and the length of a semester, along with other tasks in a given semester, greatly influence the nature and number of assignments. Ideally, students should have as many opportunities to earn their grade as possible. College is about learning. Confining a student’s semester grade to a midterm and a final exam is not a true reflection of how much they learn and grow in a semester. Ideally, I like to have grades determined by a daily quiz (in-class), a book review or two (take home), a midterm exam (take home), a final exam (take home), a semester project, and participation. Assignments are best when they are active – that is, they involve a mixture of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and moving, as they have to use their full senses. Assignments require a mixture of recall, application, and synthesis with fun and creative prompts. Using new and creative assignments every semester almost completely eliminates the opportunities for plagiarism. Finally, remembering that you don’t have to grade every assignment is important. Sometimes, I’ll pass back a quiz and say “You got credit if you did it this time – let me know if you have questions about the content.”

11. Quizzes guarantee students come on time and prepared.
I first implemented quizzes because so many students were always late. Students coming in late were distracting and frustrating. I also noticed that students were not doing the assigned reading, and if they were, only passively. As soon as I started using quizzes, students started coming on time and much better prepared. These quizzes are given only during the first 5-15 minutes of class (time depends on various factors), and the questions are not released before hand. All students know is that it will be over current course material – questions do focus on broad information.

12. Students will not do optional.
Unfortunately, most students only do what is absolutely required, if even that. We offer students extra credit or opportunities to do a revision, yet few if any will take advantage of it. And then, any who actually do more, do not need it in terms of improving their grade. Two important teaching implications result: One, I always offer to accept revisions or to review drafts early or to hold extra office hours. I used to worry that I would not have time, but so very few students take advantage of these opportunities that it always works out fine. Two, if you really want students to have a particular learning experience, make it required and an important part of the grade. College should always be a learning experience, so I do my best to keep this in mind when selecting required assignments and providing help.

13. Let students talk and be active every chance possible.
Students remember far more of what they say than what I say. Students remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they see and write, and 90% of what they do. My goal in the classroom is to engage all of the senses as much as possible.

In one example for a History class, instead of explaining to students why Indians were treated so poorly in the colonial period, ask students to call out reasons and explain them. They will almost always cover all of the reasons we could have in a lecture and usually they will think of more. If they leave anything out, I will go over it at the end.

In another example, sometimes when covering the Great Depression, I turn off most of the lights and play music from the 30s while they either make a political cartoon, skit, or something creative from the period. Then everyone shares their mini project and contextualizes it. The last ten minutes of class, I play the closing scene from the musical Gold Diggers of 1933 where they are singing “My Forgotten Man.” This style uses the full senses, and they really remember the lessons.

14. Off topic lessons are sometimes the best.
I’ve found if I lead a class correctly (except for the occasional very quiet class), it quickly takes a life of its own. Sometimes, a discussion veers off into things that are off topic. These are okay occasionally, and sometimes can be better than the regular lesson. These are the moments when the real life connections can be made or even provide an opportunity for students to see me and their classmates as regular people (students seeing us as normal people can be very important to their success). In return, this makes them more willing to learn and more comfortable the rest of the semester.

15. Technology has many limitations. (Plus it fails mechanically too often.)
I’m very technologically adept, but I’ve learned that less technology usually makes for better face-to-face classes. Technology always risks adding too many competing factors for students’ attention – so many that they don’t pay attention to anything. Preparing a lesson and leading a class have enough complexities already – things we constantly have to be aware of. Computers, videos, slideshows, and music are great, but I need full concentration and control to present and model my best thinking.

Regarding PowerPoint: It’s a tricky thing. I never did just read slides to classes, but I did use them to provide rough lecture outlines, pictures, videos, etc., on the screen. I would spend hours preparing a given presentation to make sure all of the images and text boxes were perfectly aligned (the OCD side of me came out in full force!). I found that even with this limited use of PowerPoint, students took far too few notes – partly because they did not really realize that they had to actually take lots of notes and partly because listening to me and watching the slides at the same time was too hard.

With some exceptions such as when giving a guest lecture, if I ever use PowerPoint, I only use it to show an image or show the spelling of a name or place. If at all possible, I provide handouts with the names and spellings. More and more often, I will have a folder for each class on my computer and manually open an image, song, or movie clip as needed to be displayed on the projector. It’s much simpler and actually has more of an impact than if it were all embedded in a PowerPoint.

For the most part, I also have nothing displaying on the screen if we are having a discussion or if I am lecturing. It’s too distracting for students if something is on the screen and something else is happening at the same time. Not using PowerPoints with bullet points not only frees students’ attention, it also more readily allows for spontaneity.

16. Don’t waste time policing cell phones.
I used to be picky: If a student had his/her cellphone out, I would dismiss them from class. I saw cellphone use in the classroom as among the ultimate taboos. Now, I’ve learned it’s much easier on everyone and creates a more productive learning environment if these students are usually ignored – except for the ones who actually answer their phone in class and try to have a conversation! Instead of “demonizing” cell phones, make them a non-issue. Additionally, I will frequently ask students to look something up on their phone using Google when a question comes up. Depending on the question, I will do this even if I know the answer because I want student to use resources available to them and to speak themselves.

I also use my own cellphone as a classroom tool. I use it as a timer for the daily quiz. I also regularly have students make lists on the whiteboard or do other in-class projects. I use my phone to get pictures of these. While I have not tried it yet, there is also free software that allows cellphones to essentially function as clickers – students can take a poll or quiz via instant text messages.

17. It’s OK to sit down.
Actually, it’s a good thing. I have found that not always standing creates a free and equal environment. This is particularly useful in smaller classes and during class discussions. This one is also necessary for me because I physically cannot stand for a three-hour class. I sit on top of a table in the front of the class, as needed. Sometimes, if it is a really small class, we’ll all sit in chairs in a circle.

One of my students took this picture of me a few years ago as part of a project she was doing.
One of my students took this picture of me a few years ago as part of a project she was doing.

18. Students will disappoint, students will surprise, and grades are grades.
It’s important for us to remember that since we’re teaching college students, presumably we have pretty solid academic records. We love learning and studying and did everything we could to earn an “A” on everything. Many of our students are not this way. To many of them, a grade is a grade. They don’t take the grade personally or even think about it all that much. This is not to say that there are not students who are devastated when they come to college and make their first grade ever that is below an “A.” Others start the course doing really well and/or they have very good “academic skills” but don’t do well. Others of them have other priorities, some are not ready for college, some have personal events come up, and some struggle more than we realize. On the other hand, there will be a few students who will make wonderful, sincere improvement over the course of a semester.

19. I love teaching.
I love teaching more than I ever dreamed I would. Teaching and working with students is extremely challenging and rewarding. I love that I have the privilege and opportunity to teach other people. I respect that this is a great charge and honor. I take the responsibility seriously and carefully pick every part of every lesson and assignment as to have the best educational impact possible. I love thinking on my feet and leading a discussion with engaged students. I truly love teaching beyond words.

See also: 15 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Graduate School 

Inside Higher Ed published a slightly revised version of this article Wednesday, August, 14, 2013. 

Please be sure and check out my other articles published here and Inside Higher Ed. I have articles about teaching aimed at students and professors generally and more specifically for those in History or Student Success courses.