a theory of good teaching
We rant a lot about teaching, especially how we are evaluated. But these arguments often omit a theory of what good teaching consists of. Here’s a rudimentary theory. Good teaching simply means that the instructor does his or her best to convey knowledge or skills to students. Therefore, good teaching has at least the following three components:
- Expertise: The instructor has sufficient knowledge of the topic.
- Teaching tools: The instructor uses routines that help students learn.
- Interactions: The instructor creates an environment that helps students learn.
It’s pretty simple once you write it out, but it helps clarify some issues about teaching. For example, a lot of bad teaching reduces to #3. Grad school may teach you the topic, and you know some teaching tricks, but you don’t have the people skills that you’ll need to help people learn. These interaction skills may include things as simple as being nice toward students (rather than being aggressive), or knowing how to keep the class from getting boring. Your personal behavior may cancel out your knowledge and techniques.
These three points also clarify much about student evaluations of teaching. The gut instinct of many people is to dismiss student reports – they only care about shallow things like the teacher’s charisma. However, if you accept that “interactions” are important, then you might believe that charisma isn’t a bad thing. If you can make people relax and enjoy the class, won’t that help people learn? Furthermore, “interactions” include things other than charisma. For example, prompt and reasonable paper grading counts as interaction. Having accessible office hours counts as interaction. Speaking clearly during class. These all count and they help.
Much of the dispute over student evaluations selectively focuses on one dimension of teaching. Yes, experiments do show that “superficial” aspects of teaching correlate with evaluations, but so do using good techniques and knowing the material. Furthermore, “superficial” aspects of teaching are interactions teachers can do to help students learn. Remember, people who hate the teacher often don’t learn well. If you like the teacher, you’ll try harder!
This isn’t to say that teaching and evaluations don’t have self-interested elements – easy graders do get better responses – but that doesn’t logically exlude the fact that actually knowing your stuff and running a good class helps a lot, and may cancel out the uncharismatic aspects of your class (e.g., teaching a required course). Finally, let me note that students are not complete morons. They may not be elegant, but they probably have a general sense of how good a teacher you are and they pick up on the major elements of your teaching.