Closing the “Teaching Gap”
Recently, I’ve read a lot about what makes for a great professor. Having taught for 30+ years, I was very interested to see how I stacked up. I’ve always thought of myself as a good professor – at least in my field, Accounting. It is one where we must explain complex technical jargon in easy-to-understand terms. However, today’s college students expect more.
I wanted to get a balanced view so I first read an article by Russell Herman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington published in The Journal of Effective Teaching. I then read a posting on a site called “The Odyssey Online.” This seems to be a millennial social media site where these folks can share their ideas, insights, and experiences.
Here are four qualities that Herman identifies:
Go Beyond the Call of Duty. Be accessible to students, fair and transparent in evaluations, be prompt to class and return graded materials on time and identify learning opportunities.
Know the Material. Be prepared, be passionate about the material, know how to communicate it, be informed about old and new methods, be confident and willing to admit oversights/mistakes.
Teach the Material Well. Be enthusiastic, engaging, interactive, excellent at communication, organized, challenge and motivate students, be innovative and use technology effectively.
Understand the Student. Be caring, attend student events, take an interest in them, listen and respect them, advise and mentor, be approachable and encourage lifelong learning.
Students have a different view focusing more on how we should treat them, which I call the “teaching gap.” Here are 8 characteristics mentioned in the Odyssey Online piece.
- Treat students as a friend, not just a student. Boosts students’ confidence, creates a better learning environment, leave students with a good feeling about the class.
- Perfect balance of control. Push students, encourage them to learn, encourage them to push themselves.
- Take the material to another level. Try different approaches to engage students, help students develop new ways of thinking – critical thinking skills.
- Treat everyone equally. Give everyone the same chance. Don’t prioritize one student over another.
- Have a sense of humor. Boosts enjoyability, increases attention level, opens the mind and creates a better attitude towards the class.
- Don’t over-expect; understand students. Expect the best, but not too much. Understand that sometimes things happen out of students’ control. Be a mentor.
- Stick to your word. Collect assignments when due, don’t make students feel they put in wasted effort, make each task feel rewarding to the students.
- Be open to change. Be open to student comments and be willing to change.
Putting aside the teaching gap, there’s a lot of overlap between the two lists. For me it comes down to teaching and treating students in the same way we would wish to be taught and treated had we been the student, not the professor. This is an off-shoot of The Golden Rule.
Herman mentions another important quality, maybe the most important in my mind, which is to be a role model. Perhaps I’m biased because teaching accounting to students, most of whom strive to be Certified Public Accountants, has a role model dimension to it. Accountants are supposed to be trustworthy, reliable, and pursue excellence. I think all professors should strive to incorporate these behaviors into their “teaching character.”
I would add one more activity to teaching effectiveness, which is to incorporate “learn by doing.” This is part of the strategic plan at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where I taught for 10 years. I found it to be the most appealing part of being a teacher at Cal Poly. Time doesn’t permit me to explain the Learn by Doing approach in full so you can click on this link and read more about it.
Briefly, Learn by Doing involves aspects of both “experiential learning” and “discovery learning.” Students should be active participants and learn from their experiences in and outside the classroom. Teachers should set solvable but challenging problems for students and allow them to discover the solution with the role of the faculty being a facilitator.
Learn by doing is an interactive approach to teaching and can incorporate media and technology into classroom experiences. It fits best in the “Go Beyond the Call of Duty” characteristic mentioned by Herman and the “Take the material to another level” item mentioned in the Odyssey Online piece.
Finally, teaching college students today should engage them using social media whether it’s through chat rooms, posting blogs, or out-of-class office hours. The problem for me was when I told students they could contact me by email to discuss anything, they contacted me by email at all hours of the day and night. Still, the journey was worth it.