Musings on Teaching

What makes a good teacher? I am sure that people who work in education have precise metrics for what effective teaching means.

I am not an education scholar, but I do teach, so doing it well is important to me (and to most of the readership, I am sure). I am at a research university, which means that teaching is an important aspect, but also one that is secondary to research. It is not faculty who unilaterally decide to focus on research. The prestige and grant funding that come from research are what drives this emphasis, which is enthusiastically endorsed by university administration.

In my view, there are roughly three important facets of traditional teaching. The performance art of teaching, the 1-1 or small-group interactions with students (discussions, office hours, emails), and the course materials (including exams).

The performance art of teaching: being “good in the classroom,” being charming and engaging. Being able to convey your knowledge clearly and effectively. At research universities, some of the best in-class teachers-performers are indeed the well-funded and successful researchers. This should come as no surprise, as the ability to explain and engage are as important when impressing panel reviewers as they are when trying to animate sleepy undergrads in a required freshman course. Being an interesting lecturer correlates strongly with good teaching evaluations: students highly value being engaged. This aspect of teaching is also one that comes much more easily to some faculty than others; for those who are naturally charismatic presenters, it doesn’t take much time or effort to mesmerize the crowd.

The second part are 1-on-1 or small-group interactions. The flipped classroom strives to eliminate the lecture in favor of small-group interactions that follow out-of-class viewing of videos. In a traditional classroom, these may be office hours or a discussion section. Few-people interactions are very beneficial to student learning, but many students don’t take advantage of them. Holding frequent office hours, for instance, where only 1-2 students show up, requires a lot of professorial time, but likely has a very small effect on teaching evaluations, even though it helps a lot to those who show up. Also, spending a lot of time on email is one of those things that everyone expects, so you will likely be penalized in evaluations if you don’t do it, but won’t be praised if you do. Gotta love the thankless effort.

Finally, there are the course materials. In my opinion, good course materials (I include exams in this category, as a good exam is not just a test but an education opportunity) are critical for student learning and require considerable time to create. These days, many people teach with PPT slides. It works for some, perhaps many people, so kudos to the readers for whom it does. I appreciate that PPTs take a ton of time to make, so the effort is not lost on me. But I have always hated PPT lectures as a student, as they made me fall asleep. The teachers who worked with PPTs alone generally didn’t move from the lectern, which further made everything more static and my narcoleptic self would just doze off. Good homework assignments and projects (and their equivalents in the humanities), which  really bring key concepts into focus and enforce what was done in class, are hard to develop. In my view, this is exactly the most important part of learning for the students, because they don’t really retain anything until they try to apply what they think they grasped in lecture to actual concrete problems. That’s where they see they didn’t get all they thought they got. However, copious or difficult materials that really lead to learning are not necessarily widely appreciated by students, especially not in the short term, i.e. not on the time scales relevant for student evaluations.

Some of the best lecturers I have had didn’t end up teaching me much in the long run. The lectures were breezy and fun, but the breeze and fun came at the cost of rigor and substance. On the other hand, some of the people that I learned the most from were pretty boring in the classroom, but the materials that we had to go through really did it for me and made me learn. Of course, it is quite possible and perhaps not even rare to have a teacher who is both charismatic in the classroom and a master project/homework creator. My absolutely best teacher ever was the author of a beloved textbook classic, magnificent in the classroom (not what you would call charismatic, but still strangely captivating), and giving the best, most interesting exams I have ever had in my life — they profoundly affected how I design my exams these days. I remember loving his courses and looking forward to his brain-teasing tests; most of the graduate student populace dreaded them as tricky.

Sometimes people say that great teaching doesn’t require a lot of time. I would say that great lecturing probably doesn’t require a lot of time. I am the first to say that I can work an undergraduate classroom quite effectively with very minimal preparation. While a traditional lecture with an enticing teacher is where interest might be sparked, learning doesn’t happen until the students themselves do the work.

My best teacher ever said that 20% of the students will do well no matter how poorly you teach, 20% will do poorly no matter how well you teach, and there is the middle 60% where your teaching can make a difference, so they are the ones we should be teaching to. Based on my experience, a good teacher inspires a student to want to put in the work and learn; a great teacher organizes the course and makes the materials such that even the students who are not inspired end up learning the essentials, in spite of themselves.


  1. As an early career faculty, now I have to be careful while applying lessons I learned about best teaching methods/philosophies from my own experiences as a student.

    When I was a student, the courses I liked most were almost always rigorous, teachers I liked most had reputations for being thorough. And in almost every case, the large majority of cohort disagreed with me on the quality of teaching and content, probably resulting in a poor evaluations of those courses and teachers.

    At this stage of my career, my teaching abilities are judged by a simple number, decided by the majority of students taking my class. Since starting this job, I have gradually toned down the rigor, and have been rewarded with better evaluations. So much so that my evaluations now are considered excellent, but if I were a student, I wouldn’t like to take the same class.

    Maybe it is just me and the student cohort I am teaching now. But I am really itching to reach the stage where will have no need to care about my evaluations and can bring back the rigor.

  2. I wish you were in my department, Grinch. I would vote to grant you tenure for upping the rigor and vote to deny you tenure if you pandered.

  3. TheGrinch, your experience is the same as mine. My first two years on the tenure-track were all about dumbing stuff down until I got good evals. Then I left it at that level until I was close to tenure. I was absolutely not the same kind of student as my students and didn’t like the same things. Pander ’til tenure, is what I say.

  4. I hadn’t really thought about this as far as lecturing vs the other components of being a good teacher. Yes, to those breezy, engaging lectures which are funny & fascinating at the time but afterwards you couldn’t begin to actually explain what you were taught!

    I understand why we have them, but I really dislike evaluations for the fact that women tend to get lower evals, rigorous courses get lower evals, and required courses (in my former dept at least) get lower evals. God help you if you are a women teaching a required quantitative course!

    That said, my old uni had a pretty realistic view: scores were viewed as something to improve upon but were looked at relatively rather than in an absolute sense. It was a relief to hear a dean say, “we understand that someone has got to be below average”, in other areas it seemed everyone was expected to be way above average!

  5. XYK – *how* do you lecture? what is the play-by-play? Do you talk at them? Ask for feedback & conversation? Do practice problems? Write things down for them? Do you have notes with you or just improvise?

  6. dafs, I am not sure my style is for everyone or for every discipline, but here it is since you asked. I teach courses that involve a lot of math and physics. I go over the material I need to cover before class, but in class I lecture without notes. It’s just me, talking with students and drawing/writing with colored markers on the white board (thank god the college has moved to mostly white boards). I move around a lot as a write, talk, gesticulate. I often stop to ask the students what they think is coming next, why they think I did something, to discuss what we are thinking happens qualitatively, to make tangential remarks if needed etc. They are free to interrupt with questions at any time and they take notes (which I think is another benefit of having this improv-style lecture; it is ephemeral and they need to listen and jot things down).
    The same material is never covered the same way twice as every class is different and they way I teach helps me adjust the pace and depth to the specific class.
    It is fun for me and I think for most of the students as well. My evals are quite high.

    But like TheGrinch and nicoleandmaggie, I had to tone things down after the first couple of years teaching. I think all new profs tend to be overzealous in terms of rigor and how much material they want to cover. I think the main differences in teaching that I made somewhere in year 2 or 3 on the tenure track were that a) I relaxed and let the natural goofiness, unbecoming a serious prof shine through anyway, i.e. I allowed myself to be who I am with my students and, I think more importantly, b) I started asked myself the hard question: what are really the most important things for them to know versus the topics I am enamored with because I am a geek. Then I basically pared down every class thereafter to really the most important concepts, so that there is plentiful time to beat those to death and in every which way to enable everyone enough time to process them. If I have a good class, I add more advanced stuff.

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