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Faculty Development Center

Two Mistakes To Avoid Early

NOTE: Here are timely words at the beginning of the semester for any teacher. These are two of the mistakes featured in a column from Rick Reis’ weekly Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter from Stanford University. For the full 10 go to: http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/cgi-bin/tomprof/postings.php

— Barry Casey, Interim Director, Faculty Development Center, UMBC (bcasey@umbc.edu; www.umbc.edu/fdc).

The posting below looks at common teaching mistakes we need to avoid. It is by Richard M. Felder, North Carolina State University and Rebecca Brent, Education Designs, Inc. See also Felder's: RESOURCES IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING EDUCATION at: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/

Rick Reis - reis@stanford.edu

[Two of] The Ten Worst Teaching Mistakes

Like most faculty members, we began our academic careers with zero prior instruction on college teaching and quickly made almost every possible blunder. We've also been peer reviewers and mentors to colleagues, and that experience on top of our own early stumbling has given us a good sense of the most common mistakes college teachers make. In this column and one to follow we present our top ten list, in roughly increasing order of badness. Doing some of the things on the list may occasionally be justified, so we're not telling you to avoid all of them at all costs. We are suggesting that you avoid making a habit of any of them.

Mistake #5. Fail to establish relevance.

Students learn best when they clearly perceive the relevance of course content to their interests and career goals. The "trust me" approach to education ("You may have no idea now why you need to know this stuff but trust me, in a few years you'll see how important it is!") doesn't inspire students with a burning desire to learn, and those who do learn tend to be motivated only by grades.

To provide better motivation, begin the course by describing how the content relates to important technological and social problems and to whatever you know of the students' experience, interests, and career goals, and do the same thing when you introduce each new topic. (If there are no such connections, why is the course being taught?) Consider applying inductive methods such as guided inquiry and problem-based learning, which use real-world problems to provide context for all course material.6 You can anticipate some student resistance to those methods, since they force students to take unaccustomed responsibility for their own learning, but there are effective ways to defuse resistance, 7; and the methods lead to enough additional learning to justify whatever additional effort it may take to implement them.

Mistake #2. Teach without clear learning objectives

The traditional approach to teaching is to design lectures and assignments that cover topics listed in the syllabus, give exams on those topics, and move on. The first time most instructors think seriously about what they want students to do with the course material is when they write the exams, by which time it may be too late to provide sufficient practice in the skills required to solve the exam problems. It is pointless-and arguably unethical-to test students on skills you haven't really taught.

A key to making courses coherent and tests fair is to write learning objectives-explicit statements of what students should be able to do if they have learned what the instructor wants them to learn-and to use the objectives as the basis for designing lessons, assignments, and exams.11 The objectives should all specify observable actions (e.g., define, explain, calculate, solve, model, critique, and design), avoiding vague and unobservable terms like know, learn, understand, and appreciate. Besides using the objectives to design your instruction, consider sharing them with the students as study guides for exams. The clearer you are about your expectations (especially high-level ones that involve deep analysis and conceptual understanding, critical thinking, and creative thinking), the more likely the students will be to meet them, and nothing clarifies expectations like good learning objectives.

References

6. M.J. Prince and R.M. Felder, "Inductive Teaching and Learning Methods: Definitions, Comparisons, and Research Bases," J. Engr. Education, 95(2), 123-138 (2006), .
7. R.M. Felder, "Sermons for Grumpy Campers," Chem. Engr. Education, 41(3), 183-184 (2007), .
11. R.M. Felder & R. Brent, "Objectively Speaking," Chem. Engr. Education, 31(3), 178-179 (1997), .