How to Teach so Students Learn

PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement at the Schar School

At some point in their careers, most doctoral graduates will find themselves responsible for guiding student or employee learning. High quality instructional, training, presentation and facilitation skills are in demand in almost every professional setting.

A would-be instructor must ask: How does a successful teacher organize activities, communicate in and out of the classroom, and motivate students to engage with that material in an enduring way? The resources and guidance presented here can help answer that question.

Nearly two decades ago, Barr and Tang argued that higher education was experiencing a significant shift. The “instruction paradigm” of the college classroom was giving way to a “learning paradigm” (Barr and Tagg 1995). Learner-centered models of curriculum design and student engagement have made inroads on college campuses. In today’s university, proficiency not only in teaching but in supporting student learning is valued currency.

The scholarship of pedagogy is thriving. Findings from studies of neuroscience and human development contribute to new practices which education researchers further explore. (See Arnone et al. 2011; Jensen 2008; Bass 2012; Martin and Dowson 2009; Haskell and Champion 2007). More than ever, the onus is on college faculty to use instructional methods that prepare graduates to apply their education to real-world tasks. Institutions increasingly support the development of faculty teaching skills by establishing centers for teaching and learning, considering instructional commitment in tenure decisions, and improving assessments of student outcomes.

This is good news for doctoral students today. Tools that were not available a generation ago are now within reach. The teaching support on tap for university faculty can serve as a bonus curriculum for the PhD student who is savvy enough to take advantage of it. Today’s graduate can enter an academic position or expand a professional repertoire with tangible teaching skills and a solid foundation in pedagogy.

Where to Begin

The valuable instructional resources available at a university can enhance a student’s career. Nevertheless, subject matter expertise remains the most important focus of a doctoral program. PhD students have to make tough choices. Most have limited time to take on yet another parallel course of study, even if it is free for the taking.

Shortcuts exist for those students interested in pedagogy. Listed below are several tools and tips for getting started.

Resources for Emerging Instructors

1. Books

How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambrose, et al. is a great primer for those interested in student engagement. This guide “synthesizes empirical research evidence and research-based learning theory into practical advice for how to improve your college teaching.” Published in 2010, it is a timely collection of the recent findings and applications (Ambrose 2010)

Learner-Centered Teaching: The Five Key Changes to Practice by Maryellen Weimer is a practical guide to implementing learner-centered teaching methods in the college classroom (Weimer 2002).

What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain is the go-to text for Mason’s Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence. This book is the conclusion of fifteen years of studying nearly 100 instructors. It provides a synopsis not only of the best practices of successful teachers but insight into the orientations and understandings that guide their practices (Bain 2004).

What’s the Use of Lectures? by Donald Bligh is a handy companion for those instructors who are accustomed to relying on the lecture format. It lays out an accessible theoretical foundation before describing numerous technique for integrating active learning practices into content-heavy course modules (Bligh 2000).

2. Websites

The two websites below contain resources for everything from writing a lesson plan to classroom management. The links are organized well for both skimming and deeper inquiry.

Two Tips for Emerging Instructors

1. Observe and Be Observed

Doctoral students wanting to learn about teaching have few opportunities to focus on form over content, yet paying attention to teaching in action can itself be a good teacher. Seeking out a willing instructor and observing classroom practices can be a valuable exercise.

An observation tool is a template for taking organized notes on what works and what needs adjustment. Using such a tool can facilitate reflection on teaching techniques and classroom dynamics. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Teaching and Learning has links to several classroom observation instruments: (Because it can be daunting to be watched while teaching, observers should always pay the instructor back with gratitude.)

When the next opportunity arises to present ideas or be a guest lecturer, future teachers should not only accept the challenge but also ask a peer to observe and comment on the module.

2. Reflect

Writing in a reflective manner about teaching and learning can help bridge the gaps between ideas, implementation, and improvement.

For an emerging instructor, reflection begins in the role of a learner. Taking notes about successes and stumbling blocks in the classroom helps form reflective habits. Then, when teaching or presenting, it is good practice to make notes about session goals, activities, and content just before walking into the classroom. A brief writing period should immediately follow the module. How did expectations square with what took place? Did “critical incidents” occur, and if so, what questions did they raise? What went well? Where did things become stuck and what different approaches are available? Thoughts that occur in the midst of the teaching experience can become insights if they are recorded and explored soon after.

Integration of knowledge occurs at unexpected times, quite often outside the classroom. It is prudent to keep a journal handy in the stretches between teaching components. The reflective journal is a place to jot down questions that emerge and ideas about new approaches.

This journal can also become a place for clarifying a teaching philosophy over time. A developing instructor tries on different personas, attempts a variety of assessments, and experiments with classroom techniques. Active reflection allows for a student of pedagogy to keep expanding over the life of a career.

A few prompts for reflective journaling are listed below (Danielson 2009).

  • What worked in this lesson? How do I know?
  • What would I do the same or differently if I could re-teach this lesson? Why?
  • What root cause might be prompting or perpetuating this student behavior?
  • What do I believe about how students learn? How does this belief influence my instruction?
  • What data do I need to make an informed decision about this problem?
  • Is this the most efficient way to accomplish this task?

Works Cited

Arnone, Marilyn P., Ruth V. Small, Sarah A. Chauncey, and H. Patricia McKenna. 2011. “Curiosity, Interest and Engagement in Technology-pervasive Learning Environments: a New Research Agenda.” Educational Technology Research and Development 59 (2) (April 1): 181–198. doi:10.2307/41414933.

Bain, Ken. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Barr, Robert B., and John Tagg. 1995. “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.” Change 27 (6) (November 1): 12–25. doi:10.2307/40165284.

Bass, Christa. 2012. “Learning Theories & Their Application to Science Instruction for Adults.” The American Biology Teacher 74 (6) (August 1): 387–390. doi:10.1525/abt.2012.74.6.6.

Bligh, Donald A. 2000. What’s the Use of Lectures? 1st ed. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Danielson, Lana. 2009. “Fostering Reflection.” Educational Leadership 66 (5) (February).

Haskell, Deborah H., and Timothy D. Champion. 2008. “Instructional Strategies and Learning Preferences at a Historically Black University.” The Journal of Negro Education 77 (3) (July 1): 271–279. doi:10.2307/25608693.

How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. 2010. 1st ed. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jensen, Eric P. 2008. “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education.” The Phi Delta Kappan 89 (6) (February 1): 408–417. doi:10.2307/20442521.

Martin, Andrew J., and Martin Dowson. 2009. “Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues, and Educational Practice.” Review of Educational Research 79 (1) (March 1): 327–365. doi:10.2307/40071168.

Weimer, Maryellen. 2002. Learner-centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. 1st ed. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.