When teaching undergrads, organizing your information and managing your presentation are surprisingly important. Here are a few items I’ve seen work well.
Make your lessons sticky. Chip and Dan Heath — authors of The New York Times No. 1 bestseller “Switch” and the wildly popular “Made to Stick” — wrote a 12-page article about how to make your lessons stay in our heads as securely as the ABCs. The article is well-worth a read if you’re thinking of restructuring your lesson plans toward permanent learning. Two accounting professors, for instance, helped students retain information simply by framing the concepts of their lessons in the context of a story.
Assign reading that you actually expect to get done. Courses that are not “Constitutional Law,” yet somehow have assigned 500 pages each week, tend to see a lot of students BS-ing. While some might contend BS-ing is a valuable skill to master, I doubt any professor wants to lead that discussion; being a student in such seminars is intolerable enough.
Assign reading responses. When we have been forced to think critically about a piece of writing and come up with a few thoughtful points, not only will we have something to draw upon in discussion, but we will remember your readings much better for having processed them. At the very least, we will not be able to get away with reading just the introduction and conclusion.
If students haven’t done the reading, reinforce to us that this isn’t acceptable. One winning professor, tired of an unproductive conversation, announced that he would go to the bathroom and expected to see, upon returning, only students who had actually done the reading. Ideas flow more when we’re reminded that this course truly is a priority and that the reading is essential.
When leading a discussion, don’t play ping-pong. That is, don’t focus serially on one student at a time — it should not always come back to you. Aim to have students debating and discussing with one another.
How do you accomplish that? Ask an interesting and specific question that can have more than one correct answer. If you ask us to summarize the text we were supposed to have read, not only will the discussion fall flat, but we will not do the reading in future weeks because we know we will have SparkNotes coming straight from the horse’s mouth in class. If you ask us how we “felt about the reading,” the discussion is yet again likely to flounder as students wonder whether they’re supposed to answer that they were moved to tears when in truth they were tears of boredom.
Also, be okay with students disagreeing, as long as we are being respectful and grounding our points; this is exactly the type of discussion that we will learn from. Encouraging all students to be in heated agreement is unlikely to produce critical thinking. It is when we are encouraged to argue and justify our opinions that we’ll really learn about ourselves, the text and how to formulate a compelling stance.
Finally, remember that we really do appreciate your course. We may not show it — especially in Week 7 when midterms are sapping our stamina — but we are genuinely excited to learn from you. While it is certainly incumbent on students to show a little appreciation, on the days we fail to do so, do not let our midterm grouchiness drag down your mood. If you continue to come to class excited and with enthusiasm for the material you teach, we will pay attention.
Natalia Emanuel is a senior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .