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:

  1. Expertise: The instructor has sufficient knowledge of the topic.
  2. Teaching tools: The instructor uses routines that help students learn.
  3. 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.

Written by fabiorojas

May 6, 2009 at 2:46 am

Posted in education, fabio

6 Responses

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  1. I might recommend instead of “does her best to convey knowledge or skills to students” the alternative “does her best to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge or skills by students.” The former invokes a conduit or transmission metaphor whereby instructors hold knowledge and impart it to students. I’m not suggesting anyone at orgtheory thinks that’s a good pedagogical approach, but it is an unfortunate legacy of a particular style of teaching.

    I guess I don’t see a whole lot of difference between points two and three. Or, else, I just see three as being so broad so as to cover a range of activities that some others might lumps elsewhere.

    There is probably a more simple measure which is something like, good teaching is demonstrated by “the degree to which all activities of the students’ learning experiences are conceived and excecuted to assist in their development of skills and knowledge.” Clumsy, to be sure, but it gets at lots of behaviors that professors and instructors do (mostly) thoughtlessly often for mimetic reasons. The syllabus looks like this because syllabi look like this here. This content is taught in a seminar format because students at this level are tought in seminar format. We talk about five papers a week because last year we talked about five papers a week. When teaching I leave the lights on at this level because the lights were on at this level when I walked into the room.

    A tall task, certainly, to subject all these considerations to the question, “does this help these students learn this content at this time in this place with these other contextual factors?” Better to try and fail, though, than to not try.


    Mark Hunter

    May 6, 2009 at 10:21 pm

  2. Before you can be a good teacher you have to understand who you are. Knowledge of “self ” is critical, read The Power Of Self Separation and you will be stronger.



    May 6, 2009 at 10:21 pm

  3. Sorry, minor addendum – it should go without saying that the original post was thought provoking and very good, thanks.


    Mark Hunter

    May 6, 2009 at 10:22 pm

  4. Thanks, and a quick response:

    By “teaching tools” I mean procedures that aren’t essentially about personal interaction. For example, phonics is a fairly reliable method of teaching reading and that has nothing to do with the interaction style of the teacher. “Interactions” means things like gesture, speaking, lecture style, attitude toward students, etc.

    Carl: Of course! Yes, good teachers know who they are and work with that. Good point.

    Of course, they are both tools, but the later aren’t really about the content.



    May 7, 2009 at 12:53 am

  5. Enjoying this discussion.

    Fabio, I think it’s useful both to separate out these criteria and to think about their interactions. For example, it’s clear that expertise is an important dimension of good teaching. Nevertheless, when I get a batch of evaluations that praise how much I know my heart sinks. I’ve probably crossed the pedantry line and overwhelmed them. The point is not how much I know, the point is how much they learn. I can rescue a positive evaluation by being good with the interactions, but I’ve failed on #2.

    Mark, I love your suggestion to make every aspect of teaching and learning more reflective. I ask the students to keep field journals of their observations of the class for this reason, and from the better ones I (and they, by report) learn a lot about the many dimensions of a successful educational experience.

    Back to us knowing stuff, I take your point about facilitating vs. conveying, and share the horror at the wisdom-nozzle image of active teaching and passive learning that motivates it. May I still suggest that this is a pendulum that can swing much too far?

    As teachers we know some stuff the students don’t. Of course we need to know how to ‘facilitate learning’, but what we also know that allows us to do that is lots more about the topic at hand than the students. We want the students to end up knowing more of what we know at the end, and even in the most egalitarian classroom we accomplish that by pointing the students toward the right kind of self-discovery.

    The topical classroom in particular is not entirely a freireian environment this way. We’re teaching specialized literacies, not new ways of engaging with common experience. When I teach Marx or the industrial revolution in introductory world history, the scope of fundamental ignorance in the room will bring tears to the eyes. In such a context there’s almost nothing but their native intelligence students can bring to a discussion at first, which means I’m going to need to show them some things and guide them in their uptake, in the process doing quite a bit of conveying what I know – providing a boost so they can get up to critical speed (and perhaps disagree with me responsibly).

    More fundamentally, any process of discovery that takes seriously the experiential and dialogic construction of knowledge also has to take seriously the unique knowledges brought to the conversation by various participants, including the teacher. In a good conversation we all ‘convey’, each with the authority of our particular experience and reflection.



    May 7, 2009 at 7:02 pm

  6. why do teachers use theories in teaching



    June 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm

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