How to be a good teacher

Science, the apocalypse, and teaching / Thursday, January 25th, 2018

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This post is written by Kristy & Dr. Greg.

I’ve learned over the past few years that hiring faculty for colleges is based on a few pieces of information that seem counter-intuitive to what working at a college is actually about if you pride yourself on being a teacher. Often, you are valued not on student interactions but rather on the amount of money you bring in, and this become truer at larger institutions. The majority of your success is based on grant writing and gaining grant funding. You will obtain grants with unique research angles that someone, somewhere wants to pay for. Grant writing is stressful! It takes months to gather the proper information to write a good grant. Then writing the grant itself takes days. You must include so much information, submit it, wait for months to see if you were funded. If you weren’t awarded the grant, you start over from scratch on the next greatest hope.

The second skill institutions of higher learning prize is the ability to publish. Publishing quality peer-reviewed articles such as original investigations typically takes grant funding to supply manpower and equipment. Moreover, one must invest considerable time to conduct the research, analyze the results, and write up the findings for submission to a journal. Publishing in science journals is challenging, maddening, and not for the faint of heart.

The third and final attribute universities require is that you have a “terminal degree” such as a PhD. To have a PhD means you achieved the end result or goal of the game. It’s referred to as a terminal degree because it is the highest degree in the field, not necessarily because it will kill you (though it very well might). If you earn a doctorate of any sort, congratulations–you completed the highest level of education for your one specific field.

Unfortunately, none of these accomplishments guarantee a good teacher.

An advanced degree does not a great teacher make. Unless your advanced degree is in education, the more advanced our degrees become, oftentimes the further we move away from teaching. As our time fills with research and dissertation writing, we are distancing ourselves from the undergraduate experience. Even those doctoral students who are required to teach may not enjoy teaching because they are researchers at heart. The same goes for those of us with advanced clinical degrees—our strength is intended to be in helping patients, which may bear little resemblance to classroom education. These comments are not an indictment of advanced degrees in education because advanced study provides a depth of knowledge and experience that can be shared with students. Nevertheless, a more advanced degree is not a guarantee of a more effective educator and should not be an absolute requirement for a teaching post where flexibility may be exercised at the administration’s discretion.


What makes a good teacher, I think would be the following:

1. Prepare for your lectures.

Sometimes you see professors going into class without preparing and using PowerPoint from the text that they’ve been using since 1999. Good teachers prepare each time, even if they’re teaching the same class every semester. Review your PowerPoint before each class. Prepare what you want to say. Be entertaining and DON’T READ OFF OF THE POWERPOINT.


2. Continue learning about your topic.

Update your textbooks and presentations. It’s not always necessary to use the latest and greatest textbooks, but you should stay up-to-date on terms and concepts for the classes you’re teaching. Take some classes, learn something new. Check out scholarly articles and update your materials as needed.


3. Don’t fix what’s not broken.

I see a lot of people jumping to the new learning fad. I personally do not like the flipped-classroom. When I was a student, I HATED IT! I didn’t learn anything in those classes, it felt more like high-school. Dr. Greg and I feel the same about this. In college, I remember the great lectures and stories I heard sitting in class. I don’t recall anything from the flipped-class I had. I only remember sitting in the seat talking to my friend Sara about our capstone research. Any TED talk you watch is in a lecture format, and scientific conferences are lectures. Imagine sitting at a scientific talk and the speaker saying “Now get into groups and discuss my latest article.”

These days, it seems that the art of lecturing has fallen out of favor. Education is not immune to faddism, and faddism is the rejection of objective evidence in favor of something novel.  That’s not to say that lecture is the only way to effectively deliver information, but it’s certainly premature to discard it.

A lecture is a performance, and engaging professors are scholarly entertainers. A lecture should be impassioned and spur thought and perhaps stir emotion. I am reminded of a professor of pharmacology whose delivery style was somewhere between a mob boss and a Baptist minister. He preached brimstone and fire, and he flung sweat from his brow while he professed. His delivery was incredible, his impression indelible. What would a “flipped classroom” have done to this learning environment? When each lecture is a masterpiece and students are highly successful, why would we have such a professor lead a discussion or have students attempt to teach one another?

If you have never had the pleasure, please take time to read and watch “The Last Lecture” by the late Dr. Randy Pausch. (Here’s a brief but impactful version here.) The premise of the Last Lecture is if you had but one lecture left to give, what would that impassioned lecture be??? Note that this is referred to as “the last lecture,” not “the last flipped classroom” or “the last discussion” or “the last group project.”

How many of us have found ourselves bingeing on TED Talks? So many TED Talks are absolutely spell-binding, yet we are listening to a lecture where we are far removed from the energy and dynamism found at such a live event. Is there a TED Talk on the perceived lack of effectiveness of lecturing? That would be ironic! Dare I say it would be even more energizing to hear the lecture in person?

Each lecture is a revelation of sorts. In our generation, perhaps the art of the great reveal was best embodied by the late Steve Jobs. Each reveal of a new Apple product was a polished presentation that captivated the world. Would Job’s events have held as much suspense and allure if he had shared the revelation in advance and an audience later gathered to discuss it while Jobs played moderator?

None of this criticism is intended to discourage critical discourse within the classroom or decrease dialog between students and professors or students and other students. As I remind my students, when you ask a question in class, you’re not interrupting me. Rather, you are helping me.

If you are receiving excellent teaching reviews and your students are going on to achieve amazing accomplishments, keep doing what you are doing and teach in your way that presents your strengths.


4. Test students at a higher level of synthesis.

Challenge your students. Don’t just test on vocabulary that inhibits their ability to actually learn the material. We want them to walk away smarter with a new skill set. This skill should be how to study. College students don’t know how to study. They’re taught to take a test and can’t handle applied scenarios. Students can’t spell, they can’t apply, they can only regurgitate with a vocabulary list. Students frequently learn enough to recognize but not enough to understand. Let them learn the material and then apply it to relevant scenarios.

When preparing students for his examinations, Dr. Greg will frequently ask of his students, “How many of you could recognize a picture of Tiger Woods?’ Not surprisingly, everyone’s hand goes up. He follows up, “Now, how many of you actually know Tiger Woods??? Knowledge and recognition are not the same thing, and knowledge requires a far more intimate relationship with your material.”

5. You are not the all-knowing, final authority.

You are an educator.  Something about teaching in any science is that information is always changing, growing, moving… Science is fluid. Students may know something you don’t or they may be misinformed about a concept. Don’t write that student off and assume you’re always right. Your students are your future colleagues. Treat them as such and they will impress you. Stunt their willingness to learn and ask questions, and you will inhibit their success (and yours as an educator).

I am not a great teacher, but I’ve had great teachers. I know great teachers and they all employ the mindset described above. They’re understanding, intelligent, constantly learning, and inviting.

Do you have any horror stories about your college professors? (I had one professor that still used an old photo carousel projector filled with dated and irrelevant pictures.) Please share your stories!



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