Four Tips for Teaching Undergraduates

Let’s face it: professors compete with the likes of Greek life, parties, college football, and intramural sports for their students’ attention. Many students are going to chose other options over studying more often than not. So how can teachers maximize the time they have with students and maybe even convince students that additional time outside the classroom is worth the effort? In my teaching, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but here are a few ways I’ve had some success engaging students:

1. Be willing to risk and try things. Don’t we ask students to do this? In class discussions, while making topic selections and writing papers, while revising? But if we ask our students to take risks, then how come we can be so predictable and dull? Maybe we ought to practice what we preach. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t keep doing something that works well, but a little variety is good, too. Even when we try something new and it tanks, I dare say it was worth the attempt. We’re modeling that it’s okay to risk, and part of risking is dealing with failure.

2. Speak our students’ language (at least some of the time). Ask them if they went to the football game. Show them popular video clips that tie into your lesson. Use social media as a classroom tool. My go-to is Twitter, but I’ve seen other teachers find ways to incorporate blogs, Pinterest, or Facebook. These avenues can serve ways to interact with each other about ideas or even conversations about genre and brevity.

3. Put more esponsibility on students. This one has to worked toward, but one of the ways I go about doing this is the way my class engages in class discussion. We start by dismantling “rows” and circling up. This way, we’re all facing each other, and I’m not standing so set apart, as I would for a lecture. I may write a question or two on the board to start the question, but I also ask students what questions they would ask if they were leading today’s question. So we start with a mix of my and their questions. I suggest that all students speak but also give them a limit so no one dominates the discussion. We take up whichever questions the students are most interested in. Sometimes tangents are totally okay, but other times I might reel the conversation back in if that seems necessary. Sometimes, if no one speaks for a minute or two, we embrace the discomfort of silence, but that seems okay, too. In silence, we might get some thinking done that we might not have otherwise. I’ve found that students really can surprise me in the work they produce if I just give them some space and expect a lot from them.

4. Hold mandatory conferences with students at some point in the middle of the semester. These can be done one-on-one or in small groups. Depending on the particular institution, you may be able to hold these during class time or maybe you’ll have to hold them outside of class. Either way, intentional space like this is a great way to develop some rapport with students. I think most students really just want to be seen, noticed, and known, and if they feel that kind of respect from a teacher, they’ll feel safer to take some of the risks that I talk about above. The conference itself can be used for a number of purposes, including but not limited to understanding a student’s past educational experiences, learning about his or her interests, talking through a cognitive or creative process that their in at the moment, or a general pulse check on how things are going in the class. I always recommend that students bring in a couple questions so that, again, some of the onus is on them. These conferences can pay big dividends if students learn to trust you.

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