Teachers' Toolbox/Teaching Classes

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This chapter describes ways to teach a class - how to activate the students, keep them motivated thoughout the class etc.

Zen and the art of keeping students interested[edit]

The goal of teaching is that the students should learn the curriculum and develop their abilities to deal with the subject. But in an everyday situation, it unfortunately often boils down to the question "How do you keep people awake for 2-4 hours?" rather than finding ways to make sure Alice and Bob get the point...

Here's an overview of ways to both make sure the students become activated, but also hopefully increase the teachers focus on learning rather than keeping awake or just getting through the curriculum and leaving it to the students to pass the exam.

Use different methods! - For instance: start by giving a brief introductory lecture, then have the students do work in a group, then, sum up the day's learning with the class together.

Walk n' talk -instead of group work in a room with stale air, define some issues that need to be discussed and have the students separate in small groups for a brief walk of maybe 10-20mins. Talk about the issues while walking - you and the students get fresh air and can move around and form small groups, instead of having a discussion around a table where you all have to pay attention to just one person talking at a time.

Use small practical test and demonstrations -For small experiments that can be done even in a classroom setting and other lecture demonstrations of experiments in natural sciences, please see the recipes and guides in the Wiki Book on Science Show (the danish version is much more complete, but we will soon begin translating it into english)

Command Presence - You need to have an air of command and control over the classroom. Display no fear and let the students know that you are in charge, even if you are quietly shaking in your shoes. If there are certain things that you find troublesome, then often it will be a good idea to simply tell the class what it is that worries you, rather than try to cover it up.

Demand answers to questions - if you ask questions during class, wait a split second for an answer (and that split second seems like an eternity when you are standing on stage), decide that no answer will come and then answer the question yourself -then the students will expect you to answer your questions yourself later, and every time you ask one will become a point of awkward silence where they don't know what to do. If you ask a question, wait until you get an answer, and if you don't get one, ask it differently or ask if its difficult, but never give the answer yourself. So it's a pedagogical point to be insisting on the questions you ask and not to move on until you have had a reply. The beginning can be hard, as the students will be a bit uneasy about replying, but as they understand that this is how its done in this class and that they simply have to answer, things will become easier with time and eventually give a more lively and active class.

Ask the right questions: Open, Closed and Rhetorical questions - as discussed above, asking questions to the class can often be replied with silence - but asking the same question in a different way can start a discussion. What's the trick?

  • Avoid right/wrong questions - If you ask for a very specific point that can be either right or wrong, they will refrain from answering being uneasy that they might answer wrongly. Unfortunately in most situations answering correctly is valued higher than being active and trying to answer - and this can only be changed by a continuous effort from the teacher.
  • Ask open questions where the student can tell a story and provide background and examples that cannot be right or wrong. E.g. "Do you have examples of this effect?" - "Have you seen or heard of something like this?" -"What could this mean for society?" - "Does this remind you of something?" and so on.
  • Get an answer from everyone, by making a poll - write up different answers on the blackboard and ask student to put their vote. Then discuss the different answers.

Silence - You must command the silence of your students immediately. Stand in front of the classroom or lecture hall and say nothing at all with your lecture notes, ready to speak. There is no need to shout or try to speak over the voices of students who are talking or not paying attention. Peer pressure alone is often enough to silence even the most rowdy students. If that does not work, you may have to call in security or write discliplinary action slips for those who are still trying to defy your authority. Doing absolutely nothing but being quietly prepared and ready to speak lets everybody know that they are wasting both your time and theirs. This process works equally well for most age groups, including elementary school-aged children as well as college students, but you have to be patient. And college kids can sometimes be worse.

Having Your Act Together - Nothing is worse than an ill-prepared instructor, and your students know it almost immediately. This can be as simple as preparing a basic lesson plan to knowing the subject matter you are presenting more completely than anything you even anticipate teaching the students. If you don't know the subject matter or haven't prepared a reasonable outline or methodology for presenting the topic, the students will take advantage of the situation and they will justifiably not be interested in what you are teaching. Very quickly, you will lose interest from the students and all that will be left is for you to be dictatorial and use strong-arm tactics to control the classroom.

Being Well-Groomed - This does not mean that you have to dress in a formal manner all of the time, but you should be aware of your physical appearance. The first impression has a lasting influence and you should try to demonstrate that you are the head of the instructional situation by your dress standards as well. Dress standards for other instructors at your institution should be generally followed, either casual or formal depending on the environment and the situation. Still, your clothes should be neat and washed, and you should treat the situation as a professional experience. When you walk into an instructional situation, the students should know immediately that you are the instructor and not just another student. Dressing sloppily or appearing as just one of the students is going to lessen the respect they have for you.

Having Command of the Language - This goes together with the physical appearance and knowledge of your material. It includes knowing the terminology for the subject completely, as well as being able to present the information clearly to the student. Sometimes accent or language issues will present themselves to an instructor, and you should be aware that this is going to turn off some students if you don't speak the language natively that you are using for instruction. If you are prepared in the other areas suggested above, many students will overlook this issue, but it will magnify any weaknesses that you have with your presentation. Even if you do speak the language natively, you should try to use words and terminology that the students already understand, and avoid the academic words unless you are introducing the terminology as a part of the lesson.

Know Your Students - Some instructors try and memorize every student's names including some background material about each student, even in larger groups of students. This is not considered fraternization with students, but rather obtaining an understanding of just who you are teaching and where they are currently with their academic progress. Some of this you will pick up as you interact with your students, but the faster you get to know who you are teaching, the easier it will be to customize your instruction to fit the needs of the students, and at the same time reach the course objectives. By showing that you care about the students enough to learn their names and other information about them, they will give you respect and attention.

Cliff-hangers - Teaching shouldn't be just hot air with a lot of name dropping references and little factual information, you should have clear goals for what the students should learn during a class and use the various methods to test if you succeeded in bringing them understanding on the important issues. But, you should also try to raise their interest and comment on when things will reappear later in the course or other courses - come back for more of this interesing issue, same class, same hour, next week!

Shorter group work in class sessions[edit]

During a class it is a good idea to break up and work in groups part of the time. Given the short time available, there are some things to consider for this kind of group work.

  • Don't waste time on forming the groups - they should be divided beforehand or dictatorically by the teacher in a few minutes.
  • The goal of the groupwork must be clear and the materials ready - if they have to start discussing the method and where to find material, you might not get to the goal you want with the group work.
  • Prepare the work, so boring and time-consuming work is ready and the group can focus on the important parts.


Group work lessons[edit]

A one or two hour group work lesson.

Groups presenting different material to each other[edit]

A nice group work method is to divide the students in groups and then give each group a different subject with a corresponding premade presentation slide that they will have to present. The slide contains all the essential questions they need to answer and graphs/Images they should explain (and in some cases comes with a demonstration experiment they can perform in class). They read the material together in the groups while the teachers walk around helping with questions and keeping their focus on the main points we want the lesson to have.

The students then present the material for the class, using the premade slides that we have prepared for them and discuss it in plenum. The method can be used on for instance selected papers/articles from journals (and if the material is a bit difficult, it helps a lot to find an adiitional ‘journalistic version’ that give a short story and highlights the applications so they don’t just have a dry scientific paper to read).

One can also do this with shorter sections of lecture notes, when they have been introduced to a set of concepts, and then each group for instance is asked to present a specific application or case of the concepts they have just learnt.