After I retired from a decade of leading faculty orientations and workshops at Toronto’s Centennial College, I wondered what to do with my insights about what new faculty should know to begin teaching. I emptied my ageing brain into a concise, practical manual that will, hopefully, introduce a new generation to skills and theories designed to help them succeed in teaching classes in any discipline, whether in university or college. Perhaps, it might even help a few mid-career professors rethink their own approaches. Admittedly, there was some hubris to this decision; to my knowledge, few general books on teaching higher education have been published in Canada, let alone the world. Many higher education tomes focus on a single aspect, such as evaluation, curriculum theory, or teaching with and through technology.
During the process of winnowing out things too specific to the community college system or the disciplines I had taught in, I began to recognize common themes running through the chapters. Here are three of them.
Discovering the curriculum
I have often heard both new and experienced faculty say that they have to “cover the entire curriculum.” This is stated with some anxiety, as courses often have too much content for the hours allotted to them. Symptoms of this teacher stress are negative practices such as lecturing too much and squeezing absurd amounts of tiny text onto presentation slides. The teacher can then say, “At least I covered everything in the weekly outline,” without asking how much is retained in a useful form by the students.
So, must you cover the entire curriculum? My answer is no. The students should certainly encounter the entire curriculum, but some of this can be done through reading assigned texts and the online activities for the week. Whether you want to experiment with a flipped classroom, in which the students are responsible for learning most of the content, is up to you. In my experience, not all students—especially in their first year—have the maturity or motivation to do this.
If you are not going to address everything in your class time, how do you decide what to include? Examine the overall curriculum and apply triage. What is essential? What are the most difficult points to learn and apply? What is nice to know, but relatively easy to understand? If you are a Harry Potter fan, take the course outline and weekly plans, cut them up, and place curricular chunks into sorting hats. Once you have structured your course this way, allow time for students to ask questions about the non-classroom material they encounter through a discussion board or in class. Give them occasional quizzes on it, but put your few hours of classroom time into the five or six skills and areas of knowledge that you hope they will draw on long after the course is over.
Another effect of cover-the-curriculum stress appears in the first class. Some teachers spend it going over every item on the course outline. This time might be better used to set the classroom atmosphere, get to know new students, and learn their preconceptions and existing knowledge about the topics of the course. Teachers can put a course outline on their institution’s e-learning platform, annotate it with hints and notes, and include an exit quiz that students must pass in order to move on to other modules.
How does it feel?
Higher education tends to focus on the cognitive domain of learning to an overwhelming degree. Its neglected cousin, the affective domain of learning—which deals with emotions, values, and attitudes—also plays an important role in learning and teaching. In fact, it has been termed the “gateway to learning.” An article I co-wrote with Dr. Eleanor Pierre made this argument and called for more research on teaching and evaluating in the affective domain. It has now been cited by 122 other academic papers, so we are not alone in this opinion. Teachers who ignore the affective atmosphere—the overall feeling—in their classrooms can easily run into problems that require classroom management techniques. Authoritarian professors get pushback from students who do not feel heard; laissez-faire teachers encounter both those who resent not having structured learning experiences, and others who want to test their power by taking over the classroom.
There are two ways in which the affective domain should be explored by teachers. The first is in the classroom. We know that students learn best when they feel relaxed and safe in the learning space and have some motivation. There is a movie scene in which first-year law students are told by a grim professor, who probably thinks he is motivating them, to look at the person to their left, and then on their right, and recognize that one from each triad will fail the course. This might convince a few to work hard, but all are terrified. Is this a good way to make students relax and feel safe?
Like any human gathering, every class and course has emotional undercurrents and an overall affect. Do students look forward to joining the class, feel bored, or dread it? Teachers cannot change everyone’s feelings, but they can improve the overall emotional tone. They can work at learning and correctly pronouncing every student’s name, as well as their preferred pronouns. They can show interest in students as individuals. Rather than getting down to business in the first minute, they can take time for an icebreaker, or a Canadian conversational opener like “How about that local sports team?” or “Can you believe this weather?” A few minutes of music while students are filing in or joining online can relieve awkward silences and energize everyone. Tell students why you chose your discipline and what excites you about it. Preview upcoming modules you think they will enjoy. These techniques are not time wasted; they improve students’ emotional readiness to learn.
Humour and surprise can also work to advance student learning. I once read about a class on the dubious reliability of witness statements. The professor began to lecture in his usual style. After a few minutes, a stranger burst into the room, ran around doing bizarre things, and then exited. Students were told to immediately write down their description of the “suspect” and his actions and compare notes. The element of surprise made the learning more effective.
Think about building a classroom culture with running jokes or other moments that students look forward to—a funny short video or a couple of minutes for a volunteer to tell the class about their favourite hobby, for example. After the first few weeks, give students a chance to respond anonymously about what they like and do not like about the course and your teaching. Respond to their comments in the next class, changing what you can. This is a wise safety valve, as resentment may be building about your teaching approach or course content that you have not sensed yet.
Pay attention to the affective elements of your course outline. Many curriculum documents mention objectives or outcomes that are in the affective domain: “Students will become confident at… will develop leadership and collaboration skills… will listen effectively and respond appropriately… will think and behave like professionals… will examine their own attitudes …” The question is whether such soft skills are actually taught or evaluated in the classes. Many times, they appear in course documents, yet teachers do not refer to or overtly model these behaviours, nor are there evaluations that grade student improvement in such skills.
Granted, it is easier to mark students’ cognitive learning as right or wrong. Emotional, attitudinal, and value development are messier, as they exist on a continuum rather than in tidy boxes. However, a range of approaches can work, from questionnaires using a Likert scale to indicate feelings, to journal entries, self-reflections, and even creative projects. According to the Bloom Committee, there are five levels of affective accomplishment: receiving, responding, valuing, organization and finally characterization. A rubric could be designed to grade students according to the highest step they had achieved for a particular affective outcome.
All is one
Finally, although we tend to talk about curriculum, pedagogy, and evaluation as being separate, decisions in one area often affect others. This should be no surprise, as it is common sense that pedagogy should create the best ways to teach the curriculum, and evaluation should follow with the best ways to grade student progress. However, faculty can get fixated on just the curriculum, reducing focus on the other two. Some courses are so overloaded with curriculum and difficult evaluations that they develop reputations and are avoided by students whenever possible. If one of these is a required course, students may be more tempted to cheat or plagiarize, feeling that they are in a no-win situation and need an edge to survive.
Another way to inadvertently encourage outbreaks of academic dishonesty involves assignments too general or common in the discipline. These may tempt students to lightly edit a submission bought from a paper mill. By contrast, assignments that require critical thinking about elements of the course, or reflection on students’ own experiences, are much harder to buy or borrow. Some faculty use the same test and exam questions year after year, practically inviting students to copy and pass them on to peers in subsequent semesters.
The increasing use of learning outcomes in course outlines raises another point: How well do evaluations match up with the curriculum and pedagogy? To summarize an example from my book, suppose your course is supposed to develop face-to-face communication skills. Certainly, the basic terms and processes involved can be taught traditionally through lectures and slides, and student progress can initially be measured by straightforward tests. However, at some point students should be practising these skills and receiving feedback from their peers and the professor. The final evaluation on this module should involve role-play or an interview in which students demonstrate their attainment. A written exam might make them regurgitate some of the theory, but it will not reveal whether they have attained the skills. The outcome must influence both the pedagogy and the evaluation scheme.
Here is one more example. A professor introduces a new topic in the course. The questions posed in open discussion are mostly low on the cognitive taxonomy, requiring only recall or comprehension. Students do well on early quizzes, again at lower levels of thinking. But then there is an assignment that requires them to analyze a case study, make recommendations, and defend them. Most students perform poorly on this. Is this their fault for not studying enough? Or, did the professor neglect the scaffolding necessary to bring them up to the level of thinking required in the assignment by not asking harder questions or discussing short case studies? If so, the flaw in pedagogy produced the results of the evaluation.
Overall, the process of writing this book reminded me what a complex art teaching is. I do not call it a “science,” because many popular theories of education have never been proven by research. They are used because they work, as least for most subjects. In the book, I focus on practical skills, including classroom management, course and lesson planning, using learning technologies, developing a good teacher presence, managing groups, and teaching online as well as face-to-face. There is a chapter summarizing theories that have influenced the current constructivist, student-centered approaches, one on what recent brain research tells us about learning, and another giving advice from experienced teachers. My hope is that some new faculty—and perhaps a few mid-career ones ready to rethink some of their assumptions and practices—will find the book useful as they continue to develop their own art.
John Oughton is the author of Higher Teaching: A Handbook for New Post-secondary Faculty (2021). He taught English and general education at Toronto-area colleges and then spent 10 years as a Professor of Learning and Teaching at Centennial College.