Five Steps to Better Teaching

Maryellen Weimer

Let’s assume you’re interested in teaching better – not because you’re doing badly and therefore, by your (or someone else’s) assessment, “need” to teach better – but because you care and you’d like to try. Many of us we try, regularly, to teach more effectively. When we fail, it’s not for lack of trying, but perhaps we aren’t as successful as we might be because our approach is reactionary.

We get some student evaluations indicating they don’t find feedback on their assignments useful, so we try to fix that. Or two students nail us after class about the homework problems, so we do something about them. Or we hear from a colleague about a good idea on pop quizzes, so we decide to try that. An approach like this essentially hit-and-miss. We lack some sort of process or framework or context in which to orient our activities.

Consider this five-step process as more systematic way to teach better, a framework that gives individual activities greater coherence. Using it, we’ll be making decisions in some sort of context, which should result in more reasoned and informed choices.

Step 1: Develop Instructional Awareness.
Begin with honest, soul-searching self-assessment. If you find yourself stuck on the issue of whether or not you’re a good or bad teacher, you’re already off on the wrong track. Rather, search to discover how you teach. Watch what you do in class. Write a one-page description of your style that would enable someone to pick you out of a group of teachers. Look at those strategies and techniques and ask yourself if inherent in them aren’t some interesting assumptions. What does the way you teach say about how you think people learn? In other words, begin by enlarging, clarifying, possibly even rectifying your understanding of how you teach. Premise: You can’t possibly make reasoned choices about what you could do and should do if you don’t have clear understanding of what you do. 

Step 2: Seek Input.
Teaching requires a great deal of self-investment, which makes objectivity difficult. In other words, what you decide about how you teach in Step One needs to be measure against, insights others may offer about your teaching. Seek input from colleagues and students in three different arenas; ask them to describe how you teach, ask them to describe how what you do affects them, and ask them to suggest other, possibly more effective ways of doing what you do. Note here the continuing and deliberate effort to avoid putting these activities in a judgmental context. That makes it all the harder for you to be objective, and much of what we do and believe about teaching is not clearly or absolutely right or wrong, good or bad. The effects of teaching behaviors, policies and practices, like most everything else in the world, vary a great deal. 

Step 3: Make Choices.
Make choices about what ought to be changed and make choices about how to change it. The key is using the information acquired in the Steps One and Two to inform those choices. If you know how you teach, what you believe about teaching, about students and learning, you have a much better sense of what you can honestly and effectively do in the classroom. If you use essay exams, you probably use them because you believe they most effectively teach the thinking skills you see as top educational priority. If students object, if colleagues object, weight that input against why you do what you do. You may legitimately decide not to change. But you might consider the possibility of changing the surrounding activities, such as how you prepare students for the exams or how you offer feedback, without changing the practice itself. On the other hand, not all we do in the classroom reflects our priorities. Some practices may even contradict them. You can change those practices much more readily, much more dramatically, and with less soul-searching.

How should you change what you do? Again, knowing how you teach and collecting ideas as to alternative facilitates this part of the process. Lots of ideals may have appeal, but they may not fit with the content and objectives of the course. Of course, you can’t run a large introductory class as you’d run a senior seminar. Different presentational idea’s, tactics, and strategies abound, but will they fit comfortably with your teaching style?

Step 4: Implement the Alterations.
Do it systematically and incrementally. In other words, give the change a fair chance. Don’t do it halfheartedly or with skimpy preparation. This fair chance also implies making what you change the object of your fixed and focused attention. You can’t do that if you’re implementing eight changes the same day or in the same course. The most effective improvement of instruction is ongoing and gradual. Behavior changes especially take time to incorporate. Old habits sometimes die hard. You can’t change how you teach without doing some work. Given the time pressures that face us all, improvement becomes a much more manageable proposition if we commit to it regularly but in reasonable chunks. Work on your exams next semester, your questioning strategies after that, your feedback mechanisms after that, and so on – probably until you retire.

Step 5: Seek Input About the Alterations.
This step brings you back, full circle. You first seek input from yourself. What are you doing now? How is it working? What are the implications of these new policies and practices? Are they consistent with what you know and believe about yourself as a teacher? Seek input second from your colleagues and students. How do they respond to the change? Do they have alterations of the alteration to suggest?

This process doesn’t propose a new and revolutionary way to alter instruction, but it does offer a way of putting what tend too often to be isolated activities into a framework. It changes the improvement process from reactive to proactive.

We begin by looking at how we teach, possibly identifying some areas where we question what we do. Input from others helps us to clarify our concerns and gives us ideas as to alternatives. Then we make choices, decisions about what to change and how to change it, based on an understanding of how and why we teach as we do. We look for new activities, rather than having them find us. And we implement changes in a reasoned and systematic way, subjecting them to the scrutiny of ourselves and others.

This essay is found in the book indicated below.

Weimer, Maryellen , and Rose A. Neff. Teaching College. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing, 1998.
Library: CSUSM. Call #. FacCtr LB 2331.T361 1998