EMANUEL: How to teach undergrads, part 1

It was recently pointed out to me by an associate professor that he is not rewarded for good teaching, but for good research, and as such he rarely spends much time preparing for class. I have similarly noticed that graduate students’ main concern is often their own course work or theses. Given these priorities within the academy, it is perhaps understandable that some professors and TFs — though, by no means all — have not focused on classroom management. Certainly, in an elite institution of higher learning, it can seem petty and unnecessary to worry about how to structure a lecture or what rules to have in the classroom. This isn’t middle school, after all.

But when it comes to effective education, these methods matter. After over 1,000 hours of Yale class time with a good number of professors, I have had a moment or two to observe what works well and what does not. Below is a small sampling of the techniques employed in the classrooms where I have learned the most.

Help your students remained focused by removing distractions. If you want students to pay attention during lecture, collect problem sets and papers at the beginning of class. As soon as someone begins speaking, take assignments that have been turned in off the table. From that point forward, everything else submitted should be marked late. This way, students cannot be distracted (read: compare answers) during class. Moreover, students will not come late to class to finish editing and printing their essays, stumbling in with an excuse about a jammed printer in Bass Library.

Similarly, hand back assignments at the end of class. This way, we will not be fuming about the points we got taken off because of our subpar introductory paragraph while we should be listening to the seminar analyzing Churchill’s popular support in the last year of the war.

Bar one distraction entirely — screens. Don’t allow computers or cellphones in class. While almost none of us have the self-discipline to close our laptops of our own accord, no student would seriously contend that they’re learning well whilst checking Facebook, watching a replay of yesterday’s game on ESPN.com or answering email. Any student who believes she can multitask should check out professor Russell Poldrack’s research that even when you do learn during multitasking, the meager information retained is less flexible and less easily retrieved. Those few students who were genuinely taking notes will forgive you when they read the evidence that handwritten notes are associated with better recall. Some students genuinely require the assistance of technology to write notes at the proper pace. Make them the exception, though, and not the rule.

Once students are free of external distractions, the goal is then to lead a dynamic class, keeping each student engaged and focused on the central topics. To that end, interrupt side conversations. Ask the students a question. Stare at us. Walk over to stand right beside us. Do this regardless of whether you’re teaching a lecture or a seminar. In one lecture last term, my friend made a comment to me. As I leaned over to discuss it with him, the professor pointed at me, took a dramatic pause — during which my stomach took a nosedive as I realized I had no idea what he had just been speaking about — and asked me a question about the graph on the board. It was a question I could easily have answered had I been paying attention. And yet I could not. There are few things like the prospect of being called out in front of 120 other students to keep me paying attention the whole class long.

But that’s not all it takes to lead a seminar at Yale, the type of class we take pride in as a University. In fact, seminar-leading may be the most difficult teaching of all.

Natalia Emanuel is a senior in Branford College. Check back next Thursday for part two of her column. Contact her at natalia.emanuel@yale.edu .

Comments