There are many pathways to becoming a great teacher


I’ve seen a lot of great teachers in the classroom. And they all teach differently from one another.

So, to become a great teacher, you don’t have to follow a set of prescribed steps. If someone is telling you that a certain teaching approach is required to be great, then skepticism is warranted. You can be a great teacher by using an approach that is all your own. (You can also use your own approach and be a nightmare. Your mileage may vary.)


Sure, some teaching approaches tend to be more effective than others. For example, educational research clearly shows that inquiry and peer interactions result in high levels of engagement, which then causes more learning. But, lots of teaching methods cause high engagement, and this is highly instructor-dependent. If a professor doesn’t want to teach a certain way, then it probably won’t work.

When we first stumble into teaching at the university level, we all develop and employ a “bag of tricks,” or build our “toolbox.” (When I’ve posted about teaching here, I’ve used the tag ‘efficient teaching‘ to discuss some of tricks and tips and approaches that I’ve used or think can be helpful.)

A lot of us, when we start teaching, model the approaches of some of our favorite teachers. And pretty much every good ‘guide to learn how to teach’ that I’ve seen cautions against this approach. It might take some experience, but just because there’s a teaching trick that you loved as a favorite student when you were a student, doesn’t mean that it’ll be an effective trick when you employ it yourself.

For example, when I started teaching my own lower-division biology class for majors, I used started every class with a student presentation on an ‘organism of the day.’ I experienced this as a student and it was really cool and we all learned a lot. And I’m not alone in this. Meghan Duffy did this with her classes last year, and she found it wasn’t a roaring success. I was surprised that her experience paralleled my own; my students didn’t come close to learning the things that I’d imagine they would be learning.

What worked for me as a student won’t work well for all of my students. In hindsight, this makes sense, considering that when I was a student I was a future biology professor, even though I didn’t even conceive of it at the time. Using my own experience as a student as a barometer for what my students will benefit from is probably not a good idea.

Using my own experiences as a teacher as is also a crappy barometer for the teaching successes of others. That’s why, when Meg Duffy posted about “organism of the day,” I didn’t poo-poo all over it. I still think it’s a good idea. I imagine it worked well for the professor that used it in my class when I was in college, so it should be able to work for others. Because I don’t have any grand insights about how or why it didn’t work for me — then I didn’t have much to contribute to that conversation.

You’ve gotta have some kind of toolbox when you’re teaching, but using these tools or tricks in a certain way isn’t the way to get to great teaching. To figure out what works takes experimentation, knowledge of yourself, knowing your students, and an understanding of the institutional context. Does an organism of the day work? Do clickers or plickers help out? Do weekly or daily ungraded quizzes help? Does taking a couple minutes for a muddiest point at the end of class help? Does a speech about metacognition on the first day of class set the stage well? It might, or it might not. You’ve got to figure that out for yourself.

Academic freedom means figuring out how you can be most effective.

That’s not to say there aren’t things that great teachers have in common. From where I sit, I think all great teachers share a few properties: they care about and respect their students, treat teaching as a serious professional responsibility, and keep an open mind about what constitutes effective teaching.

Based on those prerequisites, there are a lot of professors who lack what it takes to be great, unless they experience a change of heart. (I should be clear that I bear no illusions that I myself am a great teacher. I think I don’t suck, but I can be a lot better. Seriously, among the people at my university who get teaching awards, let me tell you that I am not even close to being in the same league as those folks, quantitatively and qualitatively. I think that fact doesn’t devalue what I have to say on this site, for what it’s worth.)

Here I posit that to be a great teacher, it takes a certain attitude towards teaching and your students. Perhaps being respectful and actually, genuinely giving a crap is most of the battle. And from there, instead of joining a movement that strongly advocates for One True Way of teaching, maybe consider that it’s all just simple tricks and nonsense.

7 thoughts on “There are many pathways to becoming a great teacher

  1. Do you think being willing to experiment with different techniques/approaches is a property shared by great teachers? (I mean continuing to experiment and tinker after they’ve reached the career point where they’ve figured out the basics of what works for them.) I suspect I will always tinker with things and try different things. I hope that will lead to me finding more things that are successful, but it presumably also means more failures.

    (To be clear: I am not saying I’m a great teacher! I aspire to be one, but am not yet and still have a long way to go.)

  2. Yeah, I think experimenting is essential. Because a great teacher won’t immediately stumble on what works, or somehow know this a priori without experience. And people change (both professors and student populations), and keeping up with those changes must require continual (or periodic) experimentation, right?

  3. I agree that interest in being a good teacher and experimenting to find what works best for you are really important characteristics of an effective teacher. But I also believe that the ability to read a room/class and quickly adapt your teaching method and materials also makes you effective. Students in one year may get a lot out of ‘Organism of the Day’, case studies etc, but successive classes may not respond as well.

  4. Terry, I agree, as a 20-year veteran of teaching, that giving a crap is the most important ingredient. It shines through… Thanks for this piece. Neva

  5. Well said Terry, and indeed so sensible I can hardly imagine anyone disagreeing with it. But of course, there are people who do, maybe a lot of them. The “lecturing is unethical” crowd, who insist that, no matter who the instructor is, who the students are, etc., that lecturing is Bad Teaching. Not frequenting the bits of the internet where they hang out, I have trouble getting where they’re coming from and why they feel as strongly as they do. Are they misinterpreting or overextrapolating from the pedagogical literature and so drawing overly-strong conclusions from it? Are they overgeneralizing from their own positive experiences with New Pedagogical Approach X (or their own negative experiences with bad lecturers)? Are they just really, really worried that “do what works for you” too often amounts to an easy excuse for instructors to keep lecturing if that’s what they’re used to doing? Are they just being intentionally provocative in an attempt to get attention and spark discussion? Do they take the view that, if New Approach X doesn’t work for you as an instructor, then that signifies a problem with you (so you either need more training or deserve to be fired)? All of the above?

    I recognize that I’m asking you to speculate about what’s going in other people’s heads, which is probably a silly and pointless thing to ask anyone to do. So no worries if you’d prefer not to answer.

    Maybe a better question to ask: what’s the strongest blanket argument you’ve ever seen for using Approach X, or abandoning Approach Y, always and everywhere? Have you ever seen a good blanket argument on this?

  6. I wrote this post with the intention of being aggressively inclusive. I think the research is really clear that lecturing is not nearly as effective as most practitioners (and students) think it is. I think when people argue ‘lecturing is unethical’ and back it up with sound reasoning, that they genuinely believe it and I’m really sympathetic to that argument.

    I think in most cases and for most instructors, lecturing isn’t nearly as effective as a variety of other approaches. But just like climate deniers and creationists, scientists that deny education research aren’t going to be swayed by evidence. They’ll need to experience it for themselves and change their own minds. (Which itself, validates the notion that people don’t learn from merely having information presented to them). Lecturing can be effective, and saying that it simply cannot be just alienates people and also isn’t correct.

    Nobody is going to be won over to alternative approaches by telling them they’re unethical. A person can only teach effectively if they actually want to teach the way that they’re teaching. A reluctant and unenthusiastic teacher, regardless of methods, won’t be a good one. I think if a person is truly looking at the evidence of teaching effectiveness, and continues to experiment, I am betting that they’ll end up with the same conclusion. Getting there is a journey, for those who are accustomed to lecturing.

    I guess I’m not going to be arrogant enough to say that I know better than anybody else. My opinions are the product of my own experiences, and other people have lot of other experiences.

    A lot of people who lecture make a point of not doing a hour-long blocks of non-interactive talking-at-students. There are breaks for discussion, clicker questions, short little activities, or whatnot. The real problem with lecturing is that after about 15 minutes, the brain just disengages and retention goes out the window. Even if we understand and are interested at the time, then a week later, and definitely a year later, it’s all just cerebral swiss cheese. This is pretty clear from the evidence.

    But can a person who teaches with primarily lecture still be effective? Sure they can, at least it would be more effective than doing something that they are not wanting to do. It works for some people, and everybody has their own way of doing it. I think some of the blanket arguments to abandon lecturing are pretty convincing. I’ve linked to them in the past. But clearly, they’re not convincing everybody.

    A lot of the major thinkers and writers about higher education in the US are teaching a relatively homogenous population of students who come from a financially comfortable background. (e.g., whatever Eric Mazur has learned from his students at Harvard have pretty much nothing to do with what happens at my university.) A lot of students are situated to be able to learn even if teaching methods are ineffective. All of these people who might say, “I changed my teaching but the learning stayed the same,” it might just be because the teaching never improved or because the students were always learning despite what happened in class. But when you’re teaching students that don’t have the study skills — and cultural familiarity with higher education — to anticipate what will be on the exam and study it in a way that professors will interpret as a correct answer, that’s when teaching abilities are put to the test. A lot of research shows that inquiry-centered methods have marginal gains in more elite institutions but results in huge benefits in ones with more marginalized students. That makes a lot of sense. When faculty say they’re happy that they have high “quality” students, that means they have students who they don’t have to teach well because the students will learn without getting taught. Those aren’t the people I’m listening to when it comes to figure out how to teach.

  7. Cheers for this Terry. I’m interested that you seem a little of two minds yourself on this. Saying on the one hand that you find blanket arguments for abandoning lecturing pretty convincing, and saying on the other hand that you think teachers can’t be effective if they’re adopting teaching methods reluctantly and unenthusiastically. There’s a definite tension there, though of course it’s resolvable since people’s reluctance to use any given method isn’t set in stone. Your view, I take it, is that rather than ripping people who lecture as “unethical”, it would be more helpful to give them the encouragement, support, and resources needed to try new ways of teaching. (Especially because there are many reasons why people might stick with lecturing besides incompetence or ignorance of the pedagogical literature or whatever. For instance, if you have lots of demands on your time you might keep your teaching prep the same just because making any substantial change would take more time than you felt you could give.)

    What’s actually more interesting to me is among-instructor variation in ability to successfully implement newer pedagogical methods that isn’t associated with any reluctance to adopt those methods. I’m a case in point. As I just posted over at Dynamic Ecology, I’m teaching intro biostats as a flipped class for the first time. I’m happy to be doing it, I’m doing it because I believe in the pedagogical research that says it should work, and I’ve committed as much time as I feel able (given my other duties) to learning what I need to know to teach this way. But I also know that I’m not a highly trained teacher (I don’t have an education degree), and that I have zero experience with flipped classrooms. Less than halfway through the term, I’ve already become aware of various little things I haven’t done that my colleague Kyla Flanagan did (she is a highly trained and experienced teacher, who took the lead on designing the new flipped structure for the course and taught it in the fall). And there are a few signs that my students may not be doing quite as well as hers did last term. It’s early days, of course, and student performance will vary a lot from one class to the next for reasons having nothing to do with the instructor or the teaching method. But the bottom line is that most of the pedagogical research involves instructors who really knew what they were doing. Which means that some of the apparent “main effect” of pedagogical method in many pedagogical research studies might be a main effect of instructor skill, and/or an instuctorxmethod interaction. I don’t say this as a criticism of that research at all, and I’m happy to be pointed to studies directly addressing this issue. But it’s something I wonder about because it very much applies to my own situation.

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