December 31, 2006
Teaching All Kinds of StudentsBy Russell Eisenman
It is amazing that in universities almost no one is taught how to teach. It is assumed that because one has a degree in a field one knows how to teach. Like many assumptions, this one is dubious.
My own philosophy of teaching includes communicating effectively the course material, but using humor, student discussion, and participation, and encouraging critical thinking, not just memorization of the material. Some memorization is needed, of course, and we are not pure entertainers. But, we need to do more than most do to engage students. Otherwise, most of the material will soon be forgotten and the course will have little or no effect on the student.
For my teaching at University of Texas-Pan American, a school serving many Hispanics, I have learned how to teach students who, often, are the first in the family to attend college. Teaching here, I have learned the importance of coaching how to study, how to review the chapters, and how to read chapters by first skimming them, among other points.
I also have learned the importance of telling the students of my confidence in their ability to do well. With these approaches, I have improved the grades that students make in my class, by getting them to study more and more effectively. I used a slightly different approach in other kinds of schools I have taught at: regional state universities or an elite University of California school, for example. In every place, you have to take into account the culture of the institution and of the students.
Humor and Information
My philosophy of teaching - which has previously led to two awards for outstanding teaching - includes combining humor with specific information and with ways of looking at things. Thus, I include much information about psychology research and theories, along with class discussion to help students see the relevance to their own lives. I am good at getting discussion, but also good at stopping it if it goes too far. I like to have the students involved in the class and see it as something that gives them needed learning, as opposed to just something they have to do. I encourage critical thinking, so that they can use it all their life, long after they have long left my class.
No One Right Way
However, there is no one right way to teach. Others may be relatively humorless in their class, and while their use of humor might improve things, this may just not be their style. But, they may offer a good class by being organized, intelligent, and providing up to date information in the field they are teaching. Also, course content makes a difference. It may not be so useful to be humorous or to ask for student opinions in a field like physics or biology as much as in more vague fields like psychology or the other social sciences.
Evaluations have typically been very good, and support my belief that I am doing a good job in teaching. I love teaching and research, and it shows.
There are many different ways to learn. Partly as a joke, and partly seriously, I tell my students the first day that I learned well in college by coming to every class, taking good notes, and sitting on the front row. In addition, students need to try to see how the material relates to their own life, which makes it much more meaningful, and thus easier to recall for a test, but also more readily used in everyday life then and later on, after they have left the class.
Massed vs. Distributed Practice
There is contradictory information about massed vs. distributed practice for learning. I actually saw a book on how to study which said that research showed distributed practice was better, thus students should not rely on cramming for a test, but should study throughout the semester. While I agree with the author's preference for studying throughout the semester, the research does not actually support this point, since distributed practice beat massed practice only with nonmeaningful material. With meaningful material, massed practice was better. But, studies have their weaknesses, and it may be that in real life classroom situations, students need to study throughout the semester or quarter, and not rely on cramming. But, we should not fool ourselves and think this opinion is supported by research. Perhaps someday it will be.
Having worked with learning disabled students, I know that there are many ways to learn, and some ways are better for one student than for another. Nothing beats hard work, such as putting in many hours reading the material, going over it, etc. However, some have styles which mean that, for example, hearing material is superior to reading it for retention. Others will have yet a different preferential style for learning.
Open Mind and Importance of Culture
We need to take account of the research, our own experiences, and what others have to say about the best ways to learn. We need to keep an open mind about teaching and learning. Motivation is very important, too. The teacher who cares about teaching will usually do a better job than the teacher who does not care so much. The student who wants to learn will typically learn more than the student who is just doing it for the grade.
The culture is important too. This includes: the culture of the school as an organization, the culture of the students, their parents, and of the teachers and school administrators. All these cultural issues contribute to whether or not students will learn. We need to keep all this in mind when considering teaching and learning.
Russell Eisenman, Ph.D. teachs Psychology at the Uiversity of Texas-Pan American.