Small Changes to Improve Teaching

In a series of columns at the Chronicle of Higher Education, James M. Lang, a professor of English at Assumption College, has been suggesting small changes to teaching that, he argues, could make a big difference in student learning. Among the suggestions:

Before class:

  • Arrive early to have a little small talk with individual students (different ones each time, until you’ve chatted with them all). This establishes a relationship between you and the students, which can increase participation and quality of class discussions.
  • Display the day’s agenda on the board or screen, to help students organize the discrete ideas and facts they write down in their notes.
  • Post an image or passage on the screen before class, with questions like “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” to get students to apply the knowledge they come to class with, and to “wonder together.” Start the class with an informal discussion of these questions.

The beginning of class:

  • Open with the important or fascinating questions (which you can make available to them beforehand) that the material you’re about to go over is intended to answer.
  • Instead of reviewing last class’s material yourself, ask students to do so—without notes.
  • Get students to share what they already know about a subject, before introducing new material. Having them write this down helps.

The end of class:

  • Don’t rush or attempt to cram in everything you didn’t get to.
  • Have them write half a page answering questions like, “What was the most important thing you learned today?” or “What questions about X do you still have?”
  • “Finish the last class of the week five minutes early, and tell students that they can leave when they have identified five ways in which the day’s material appears in contexts outside of the classroom. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they can come up with examples when this activity stands between them and the dining hall.”

The columns themselves provide more information and detail, and are worth checking out.

If you have other suggestions for small changes to improve teaching, feel free to share them in the comments. If you have tips that are specific to philosophy, or even to particular arguments, that would great, too.

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Alfred MacDonald
8 years ago

“Instead of reviewing last class’s material yourself, ask students to do so—without notes”

by far most effective piece of advice here. occasionally referencing classes before that is a good idea too.

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
8 years ago

According to Doug Lemov, whose work I admire and have learned a great deal from, the most effective way to increase the quality of learning in a classroom is by cold-calling students (this includes graduate students, I should note). It improves preparation for class, student engagement, and recall of material. If done properly and integrated into regular classroom routine, it should not be unduly stressful for students. My experience so far has given me no reason to doubt Lemov’s claim.

I also think Lang’s advice is quite good, particularly the emphasis on in-class writing, which I need to do more of in my classes.