#134: What Makes a Great College Instructor?
This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education
Educators must constantly evaluate their teaching style to ensure students are learning. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the strategies of great teachers based on the book “What the Best College Teachers Do.” Learn what questions teachers should ask themselves when planning their next course and other tips to be effective in the online classroom.
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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. Thanks for joining me today to talk about online teaching in today’s world. We’re going to just touch on “What the Best College Teachers Do.” This is a book by Ken Bane, and I highly recommend it. This book was based on a study of 100 educators. And the question asked (in the inner flap of this book) is, “What makes a teacher great?”
Have you thought of this? I’ve wondered this too. Are there certain characteristics that great teachers share? Well, the answers are kind of surprising. It’s not what teachers do, it’s what they understand. According to Ken Bane, it’s not about the lesson plan or lecture notes, it’s about the special way teachers comprehend the subject, and the way they value human learning.
It doesn’t really matter whether the best teachers are historians, or physicists, or English teachers, or band teachers. And it doesn’t really matter where they’re located. The best teachers know their subjects inside and out. But they also know how to engage and challenge students and to provoke impassioned responses. Most of all, according to Bain, they believe two things fervently: that teaching matters, and that students can learn.
Now, interestingly enough, I’ve talked to a lot of online educators about their philosophy of education. And it’s interesting that we can have a philosophy of teaching in the live face-to-face classroom. And for some reason, it feels a little fuzzier when we’re teaching online. And it’s not, it’s still just as effective, and can be even more wonderful in a lot of ways depending on what we choose to do, and how we approach it. I’d like to just share some ideas today about that belief that students can learn.
Develop a Belief that All Students Can Learn
Imagine what it can do for us, when we think about all students being able to learn. There are sometimes occasions where we have a challenging student in our class, and we might think that person is there, not really interested in learning. Or maybe they’re not capable of learning what we’re teaching.
For some reason, there’s some resistance on the part of that student that we’re sensing from them. Or maybe we’re even experiencing it, like there’s a little pushback.
Or, another way that might show up is an online student might just disappear. They might appear invisible. Their name is there on the roster, you don’t see them in the discussion, and they kind of hit or miss in turning in assignments. Maybe they have fallen off in their activity completely. And there are a lot of reasons why those things happen.
But this belief that all students can learn will invite us to reach out to that student to connect to that student, and try to bring them back in. To figure out what has made them disengage? What could help them get more interested or overcome a personal setback in their life? What could help bridge the gap between whatever’s going on with them right now, and that online class that they signed up for with all the good intentions of completing it?
Try Creative Approaches to Reach All Students
That idea that all students can learn in the online setting also invites us to do a lot of different things. Maybe we’re going to create some kind of learning asset, a handout, a guide, a screencast, or a screen share where we walk them through things.
If we start to notice a lot of poor scores showing up on assignments across the board for many of our students, maybe we’re going to refilm that presentation we put in there, or try a totally different approach to get the content through where the students can learn it. Sometimes things don’t always translate in the online space.
We might try the common lecture-style video in a class just replicating a face-to-face setting and find that that isn’t as engaging, and it doesn’t work as well to describe the subject or engage students in the subject matter. So maybe we’ll have to replace that video lecture with something else, something more interactive, something that invites students to click, or engage with that content, or apply it in some way.
So that idea that all students can learn and just assuming that that’s the case, can really energize us. It can push us to be more creative, and it can invite our best efforts to re-engage any disengaged student.
Act With Compassion for Students
In terms of the stories that you’ll read about in this book, “What the Best College Teachers Do,” you’re going to see some great examples of compassion on these educators’ part. There’s a lot of compassion coming through from the great teachers, and compassion goes a long ways towards bridging the gap between where you want students to be and where they’re starting out, or where they could be, and where they’re starting out.
So, that idea that students can learn is where the compassion can best be applied. I’ve heard a lot of folks in my institution refer to this as empathy. Compassion and empathy are very similar things, seeing the other person’s perspective, understanding what our students are facing, where they are starting out, and kind of meeting them there. Asking a lot of questions when we’re not really sure what’s going on.
That compassion and that empathy can go a long way to invite our students in, to help them really get excited about what’s going on, or even just get started. So, that’s the first tip that we’re taking away from this book today, is understanding that students can learn and bringing empathy and compassion in the approach we use.
Believe that Teaching Matters
The second thing is that teaching matters. And the understanding that teaching matters invites us to use our ingenuity, our creativity, some interesting strategies, some insights, some inspiration, and some ideas that others may do that maybe are new to us. This can work for us whether we’re in our very first year teaching online or we’ve been doing this for 10 or 20 years.
Either way, we need some kind of approach to reach people better if it’s not working for us. And if it is, maybe we can tweak it a little bit to make it interesting across the board and keep staying interesting. After all, we want our teaching and the quality of our teaching to be enjoyable for our students and to convey what is needed, but also to keep us happy while we’re engaging in that online space day after day.
In writing this book, “What the Best College Teachers Do,” the author looked for, or in the study they looked for faculty members who can make something great out of very little, basically, who help their students do far better than anyone might expect. They also looked at what students were learning. Now, they say this was tricky because it involved judgments about a variety of disciplines. Of course, the great teachers are not just in one field, they’re in many fields, right?
Learn What Highly Successful Teachers Do
Most of the highly successful teachers in this study actually broke traditional definitions of courses. And they convinced the researchers that success, helping their students learn even some core material, benefits from the teacher’s willingness to recognize that human learning is a complex process. So, they had to apply a sweeping sense of educational worth that stemmed not just from one discipline, but from a broad tradition that values the liberal arts, including natural sciences, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, curiosity, concern with ethical issues, and a breadth and depth of specific knowledge, and of various methodologies and standards of evidence used to create the knowledge.
So this study had teachers who showed strong evidence of helping and encouraging students to learn in ways that would usually win praise and respect from both disciplinary colleagues and the broader academic community. And they also included educators who were operating on the fringes of current norms, like they were defining learning wealth in important new ways. So, they studied some people who were highly successful with some classes, and less with others. And some teachers achieved wonderful results with large or small classes, advanced or beginning classes, but not both. So, it was interesting for them to make some comparisons between what worked and what did not.
And in studying those teachers who had a sustained influence on their students, they found a lot of interesting evidence that shared some of those brilliant strategies about believing students can learn, and that teaching is important.
Take What Highly Successful Teachers Do into Online Education
I’d like to share some of the specific takeaways of the study that are just presented in this book about great college teachers. And I’d like to invite you to think about how this is done in the online setting.
So, the first point was that these great educators all knew their subject matter extremely well. And that’s, of course, not surprising, because you need to know your subject matter to teach it very well. But the second point was about how they prepared to teach it. And I’m just going to read a little bit to you from this book.
“Exceptional teachers treat their lectures, discussion sections, problem-based sections and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavors as intellectually demanding and as important as their research or scholarship. That attitude is probably most apparent in the answers the subjects gave to the simple question: What do you ask yourself when you prepare to teach?”
That’s a great question that we can think about as we’re preparing our online courses, even if they are standardized online courses and we didn’t write them.
Consider these questions in planning your next course:
What do we ask ourselves when we prepare to teach them?What do we really want to think about?What matters to us in teaching that course?What do we expect of our students?
The best teachers in this study expected more, they wanted to really get more depth, more engagement, and more from their students.
And what do we do when we teach? Well, there’s some interesting stuff shared here about challenging but supportive conditions of teaching, collaboration, interesting methods, and a variety of methods. Maybe there’s a lecture, a discussion, a case study, other learning opportunities that build a truly cognitively rich environment.
Consider these additional questions in planning to teach online:
And how can we do that online?What kind of strategies are working for you to create a deep, rich, applied and rewarding experience?What kind of assumptions are we bringing into that space?And how do we treat our students?What do we do that helps our students engage, come out and think about things in a realistic way, and really dive into and grapple with the subject matter?How do we check our students’ progress and evaluate their efforts? This is an important question that all the great teachers are thinking about.
Try a Systematic Approach with Strategy and Reflection
And lastly, there are some takeaways from the study that we can consider in our own online teaching. Basically, there’s a reason to be systematic about our teaching, to take it seriously, and be reflective about the teaching approaches and the strategies we use in our online teaching.
Consider these reflective questions to look back on past online teaching experiences:
Why do some things work?Why do we choose certain activities?What evidence about how our students learn is driving the way we teach?What can we do to help them engage even more fully, and be more interested in it?Are we doing the things that we’re doing online simply because others have done them, or because they actually work in engaging our students?
These and many other questions are going to drive us to the more innovative, more creative, resourceful and compassionate approaches that the best college teachers are using. And it can all be done in online education, too. I hope that you’ll think about these ideas and check out the book “What the Best College Teachers Do,” by Ken Bain. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.