Improve Your Teaching – 10 Simple Tricks

As you might know, good teaching is important to me, so I wanted to share ten simple tricks which I think can improve your teaching. Most of them are about making sure people get the basics which, in my opinion, is one of the biggest mistakes people make in teaching. Let’s get straight at it.

1) Make sure the preliminaries are clear before starting an explanation.

If they are not, don’t even bother starting on the explanation, it will be a complete waste of time. Even if this means that you will spend the whole lesson bringing them up-to-date with the preliminaries and you won’t be able to start on the actual topic at all. Make time for this prep work or risk that all of your subsequent explanations will not get through. To find out if the preliminaries and basics are not clear, you might have to plan testing your students regularly (at the start of each block), like with the basics (see nr. 3).

2) Don’t just “get through with the material”.

Teaching is not about you doing what you had planned, but about students learning something. If you misjudged their previous knowledge, change your plan. Bring them up-to-date. That way, they will have learned something (and thus you have reached to goal of teaching), even if you end up not even being able to start on your actual topic at all. Would you rather be “done” with everything you had planned but nobody understood anything or rather do 1/3 of what you had planned to do but be sure that students really master it? I would much rather go with the latter. Or the result will be that your class will not have made any lasting impression on the students at all. Don’t let them leave the way they came!

3) Nothing is more important than absolute mastery of the basics.

Nothing. I repeat: Nothing.

I often find teachers go over the basics way too fast without ever checking if the students got it, because they think it obvious. Students also often don’t even realize their lacking understanding of the basics because they seem so simple. But really, what is the difference between an amateur and a professional musician? It’s not that the professional plays more advanced pieces, since the amateur can do that too after some time. But they are still no a professional, right? – That’s because mastery lies in perfecting the basics and total immerson, not skimming as much advanced stuff as possible without ever mastering anything. A professional musician spends more time doing drills on the basics – and you hear the difference immediately. Once you’re good, you can always learn more complicated advanced stuff and go on studying independently. But you will have a hard time improving on your own if you’ve never even mastered the basics. 

No matter how friendly you are, they are unlikely to tell you what they don’t understand, especially admit to not having understood the material you have spent the last three weeks talking about. You can, of course, scream at them for being lazy or stupid. But no matter how you react, this will not change the fact that they did not get the basics, so any further teaching of more difficult matters or, in fact, anything which forms a progression building on these basics, is going to be time lost and nothing else. Yes, the good ones will make it. But please, don’t just settle for that.

Put a crazy dedication to everyone getting the basics, so at least you can tell yourself “at least they all have the basics now” after the class. You don’t want to overhear your colleagues going on about what horrible teacher your students had last year and have to admit it was you who couldn’t even teach them the basics. Apart from that, test because it has been proven to be the most effective method for learning and also, your students might not even realize they don’t master the basics and therefore, can’t give you a truthful answer when you ask whether they already have the basics. Ultimately, only testing can tell. Hand them a worksheet for “repetition” of the basics with multiple tasks of progressing difficulty to work on on their own. Then walk around and help everyone. Most effective method to check up on your teaching success by far, in my experience.

(When doing this, act like a coach. Don’t give the impression of testing anyone and don’t grade this or they probably can’t enjoy it in the future. I don’t want that sort of pressure in my classes. Grading is for the final portfolio they hand in, not the learning process where we want them to make as many mistakes as possible! I sometimes use anonymous Google Forms so I can see whether the class overall has a good grasp on concepts but they are sure not to be graded since it’s anonymous. Also a great method of getting feedback throughout the semester, not just at the end.)

Also, I suggest you encourage students to go over the basics again every once in a while and with every stage of their progress. You see them differently each time and taking the time to repeat them is always worth it, especially if you want to really master something.

4) Test. Don’t assume learners learned anything before you’ve ascertained it through multiple tests.

This is not meant in a condescending way. Testing is proven to be the most effective learning technique (“learning types” are not scientifically valid – see the audiobook The Great Courses / The Learning Brain for details). Only once you’ve tested you really know what students already know. Often you realize that you already lost them before your first word because you stepped in too late. They might not even have reached the starting point of your explanation. These problems, however, are difficult to spot since usually in these cases, students don’t even know what they didn’t understand and cannot verbalize it when you ask.

5) Avoid confusing naming in programming.

This is not as trivial as it sounds. It might even be pretty difficult to put yourself in a learner’s position and choose a name which is not confusing or misleading. But all the more crucial to take the time to think about it.

For a student who doesn’t fully grasp the concept of how variables  work, what types and instances are, or classes and objects, this can be very detrimental and make learning so much more difficult. In failed teaching attempts in programming, bad naming is mostly the major culprit. Right after that comes the failure to reduce complexity and purge unnecessary detail. Choose names wisely. They make or break you explanation.

6)  Make sure you always only teach one new concept at once.

It happens far too easily that you explain three things at once without realizing. This also happens when you include unnessary detail which might contain concepts students are unfamilar with and end up confusing them, even though this wasn’t even what you were trying to explain.

7) When explaining something, remove the unnecessary.

Putting didactical reduction into practice means get rid of every detail which is not absolutely crucial to understanding the point or students will get confused by the multiple concepts and not see the point at all.

Also, try to eliminate all sorts of examples which might build on extra knowledge your students might not have (like in 6, be sure you really only teach one new concept). So, you might want to use an example of a historical situation which is completely familiar to you (in your crazy scientific surroundings). But are you sure your students are familiar with it? When explaining something new, not only reduce what’s new but also make sure to keep other potentially confusing artefacts out of the explanation. Maybe it wasn’t even that they didn’t understand the new concept – they already got hung up on the ingenious illustrative example you assumed would be totally logical to them. Don’t assume previous knowledge. At least reduce to a bare minimum. Just in case.

8) Always repeat what is important.

While this might be clear to you, for a student “everything” seems important. And all is new. They cannot tell what is important yet. It is your job to triage here! That’s why I really miss handout culture. There, you had the summary of the gist of a lesson. Now it’s just slides, but the slides usually don’t give you much of a clue about what is essential and what can be discarded. If students have to do the guesswork on their own here, they will waste a lot of time and maybe fail altogether. It’s definitely part of your job to help them out here. Take the time to make a summary for them for later reference. Don’t assume they can do that themselves or else they are lazy. Appreciate that you already know what’s important and therefore, have it easy to sum it all up. After all, you planned this lesson and you know what’s most important to you that they should take away from it, right? Just write it down and they can use the additional time to memorize. (Yeah, of course, they might also just not pay attention to anything else anymore. Find a way of doing this without self-sabotaging your classes.

9) Help them help themselves.

Often teachers get annoyed that students are very dependant and don’t know how to find out something by themselves. But ask yourself, did you ever explain them how to do it? Ironically, students depend on you to teach them how to be independent.

10) Nothing is obvious.

Rule of thumb: It’s highly likely you lost your students about 3 steps earlier than you think where you lost them.

That’s it. Hope it helps!

Have a great Sunday!

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