August 8, 2012

Stock Your Cupboards: Guides to teaching effectively and efficiently

As an academic writer, you are teaching and learning all the time. You learn from other scholars in your research; you teach your strategies for effective writing in the Writing Club or other context.

Teaching an academic course is probably also part of your life. It may be far in the future, or a current source of anxiety.  Novice or master, it is time to stock your cupboards! Get some fresh new things, review your staples, and check out some cookbooks and tools!

As we have said before, effective teaching is usually more efficient teaching.
(  That leaves more time and focus available for the main work in Academic Ladder: productive academic writing.

Last month’s newsletter, Clean Your Tools,
( was a review of useful books on academic writing. Now we present a guide to resources about college teaching.

Tools: an unexpected use for an old tool
You may not anticipate our first tool, though it is central to our recommendations on academic writing... that very same kitchen timer!  Maybe you already use a manual or online timer for accomplishing brief, regular writing sessions. Why not do class prep the same way?

You will find that if you have two 25-minute sessions allotted to your syllabus, you will get much further than if you have all day.
  • Does course prep pull you away from your writing?
    •  Use writing as a reward!
    • “After one more session, I get to go back to my dissertation/article!”
  • Are you eager for the immediacy of your classes and feel blocked on writing?
    • Use class prep as a reward!
    • “Only one 25-minute writing session left, and then I get to go back to my comfort zone!”
Writers from Robert Boice’s classic "Advice for New Faculty" to Chronicle blogger Heather Whitney recommend that course prep is most effective when done in short sessions. Boice found that the most effective writers and teachers worked in brief regular sessions, and his advice is to “Stop before you feel ready.”

Use your trusty timer in class also! Most experts on learning, training, and peak performance agree that humans can focus for 20-25 minutes and then need a break. Build those breaks into your lecture plans! Shift the focus every 20 minutes; use ideas from the “cookbooks” below!

Fresh ingredients: valuable resources that may not be in your cupboard yet
Therese Huston’s terrific title for new teachers is "Teaching What You Don’t Know." She points out that most faculty teach outside their area of expertise. Empathetic and funny, she provides concrete strategies for planning and for class activities, and her anecdotes include common mistakes made by most who teach surveys of their discipline, interdisciplinary courses, and unfamiliar topics. One will be familiar to Academic Writing Club followers; she urges teachers to set modest, feasible goals for themselves and their students!

Like most of the books we include here, Huston relies on backward course design; starting your planning with what the students should be able to do after the class, and building assignments and daily activities from there. You will particularly appreciate the valuable and unique chapter “Teaching students you don’t understand.”

Susan Ambrose and colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University work in the fine Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. With others from the University of Pittsburgh, they have written an outstanding new book, "How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching". Consistent with Carnegie Mellon’s science orientation, their research and practice is based on research from the learning sciences. Each of the seven chapters, illustrated by case studies, presents the principle of learning and the research, implications, and strategies related to it. You can easily select a chapter for a thorough and accessible short read.

James Lang has engaged readers of his Chronicle columns for many years, and his recent book, "On Course", guides those who are new to college teaching, or those who want them to do well, through the first semester. You will find its week by week format  calming and, if you read a week at a time, it will provide a solid overview of good practice in teaching and learning.

Staples: If these aren’t on your shelves, ask a neighbor to borrow a “cup!”
Robert Boice, whose research and strategies ground the “brief, regular sessions” principle of Academic Ladder, provides solid and thorough "Advice for New Faculty". If the book is new to you, start with the Introduction to see the principle of “Nihil Nimus:” everything in moderation applied to teaching, writing, and service. You will find his research on successful new teachers in Section I to be startling and his strategies to be counter-intuitive.

High on the aggravation list for all teachers is grading, and that is why Effective Grading is such healthy fare. Walvoord and Anderson help you design assignments effectively and grade them efficiently, with multiple examples for assistance. Really a book on course design in disguise, it will help all teachers save time and prevent headache.

Dee Fink’s sturdy book "Creating Significant Learning Experiences" is the most comprehensive guide to backward course design and he also provides the resources in smaller packages, a self-directed guide and a brief overview from the IDEA Center. See our resources links below for the source for these and other staples for college teachers.

Cookbooks: for quick instructions or an informative browse
Sometimes you want to go to a book for a strategy for a particular need. With the online resources below, these books are just the ticket. Ranging from the early handbook of Classroom Assessment Techniques (called CATs) to more recent collections on collaborative learning and student engagement techniques, these are all as accessible as a good cookbook. Each short section describes a classroom activity, its learning objectives, the specific steps to design it, and the amount of effort required by you and by your students. Whether you are anticipating teaching in your future or a master teacher searching for one creative use of old strategies, these well-indexed books of techniques, all published by Jossey-Bass, will serve you well.
  • Student Engagement Techniques, Barkley (2009)
  • Collaborative Learning Techniques, Barkley & Cross (2004)
  • Classroom Assessment Techniques, Angelo & Cross (1993)
Online sources are terrific for last-minute inspiration. As with online sources of recipes, you will soon bookmark your favorites. Here are some of ours:
Time to get cooking! Use that timer, set realistic goals, try a new resource, check your cupboards, consider a new cookbook. And then, get on with your academic writing!

Written by Susanne Morgan, Ph.D.


Additional Resources:

From the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed:
Books (with apologies for the many, many excellent resources we omit)
  • Huston, (2009) Teaching what You Don’t Know, Harvard University Press
  • Lang (2010) On Course A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, Harvard University Press
  • Ambrose et al, (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass
  • Nilson, (2010) Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. Jossey-Bass
  • Svinicki, (2010) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips:
  • Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (13th ed) Wadsworth
  • Bain, Ken, (2004) What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press
  • Weimer, (2002) Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Jossey-Bass
  • Brookfield (2006) The Skillful Teacher. Jossey-Bass