Three Best Practices in Teaching for Professors

College and university professors can be some of the most knowledgeable people in the world. But just because they know their subject matter doesn’t mean they can teach it.

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For more than 30 years my life has revolved around education both as a student and a teacher. After thirteen years in the K-12 system, I got the college diploma, then I served as a middle school instructor, and now I’m in graduate school. The culture of the classroom is imprinted on my soul.

Of course, I’ve been subject to some awful instruction, but I’ve also enjoyed teachers who both know their content and are able to convey the information effectively. If you’re a teacher at any level, especially college and beyond, here are three simple practices you can start using today that will improve your teaching.

1) Write an Objective and Agenda
In every class both professors and students should be able to answer the questions “What’s the plan?” and “What’s the point?” An objective is a one sentence explanation that describes what students will know or be able to do by the end of the lesson. An agenda tells the students how the professor plans to get them to the desired outcome.

Objectives can be simple. For example: “By the end this lesson you will be able to describe three significant events that led to the Civil War.”

Notice the verb “describe” and the specificity of “three”. The clearer the better when it comes to objectives. Here’s a list of verbs you can use in the objective. These will help give nuance to exactly what you want students to learn. In addition, although the objective tells “what” the student will learn, I also recommend adding “how” they will learn (e.g. “by discussing the reading in small groups”).

After you’ve written a clear objective you also need an agenda. This is a roadmap of the lesson. For instance:

I. Review and Introduction
II. Instruction: Three Significant Events
III. Small Group Discussion
IV. Closing and Questions

Having an agenda helps the instructor stay focused and tells students that the lesson has momentum and an endpoint. This (ideally) means less checking watches and tuning out.

2) Give Students Choices
Choices empower. When students can make decisions about their learning they are more likely to be invested in the learning. They feel respected and work harder to learn the material.

Professors can embed choices into their courses in several ways. First, give students a choice in assessments. Tell them they can either write a paper or do a presentation. They can lead a classroom discussion or do a project with real-world application. As an instructor, you want to see the students demonstrate mastery of the material, but how they demonstrate that mastery can be accomplished in many different ways.

Second, give choices in regular assignments. Students can choose to be part of a discussion group or work alone. They can work inside the classroom or find a nearby space outside. Let the students choose which three books to read out of the five you’ve listed in the syllabus.

While giving students choices can make an instructor feel like he or she has less control, it pays off in higher student engagement and adds variety to a monotonous classroom format.

3) Follow the 10/2 Rule
The 10/2 Rule may be the most needed but most underutilized pedagogical tool in higher education today. The concept is simple. Students can only meaningfully absorb so much information at a time. Like a glass can only hold a certain amount of water before it begins to overflow, a mind can only take in a certain amount of new information before the rest starts to spill out. Instead of lecturing for one, two, or three hours non-stop, professors should pause briefly to let students process the data they’ve just heard.

The 10/2 rule says that for every 10 minutes of lecture students need about two minutes to process. Processing can take a variety of forms. Students can summarize what they’ve just learned to a neighbor, answer an analytical question about the material, take notes, draw a diagram of the content, or write key data on posters around the room. Any activity that allows students to recall or apply the information they’ve just learned will do.

If every 10 minutes seems frequent, that’s because it is. Remember that although you know the content, it’s new to the student. Give them time to process it. Especially since you’ve worked so hard to select and organize the data for a lecture.

Writing an objective and agent, giving students choices, and utilizing the 10/2 rule are simple but powerful practices every professor should consider using. Your students will learn more effectively and you’ll find renewed energy for the task of teaching.

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