As the title of the book suggests, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips by McKeachie and Svinicki (12th Edition), provides an overview of ways to improve teaching at the university level. The suggestions range from what an instructor should do on the first day of class to how to deal with plagiarism. Much of the book focuses on how to cultivate active learning among students that produces deep understanding of the subject matter rather than simply recall of facts. Because the book explores numerous topics, I will highlight some of the points and teaching strategies that stood out to me.
I like the idea of what the authors refer to as “low-stakes” writing that does not have to be well-organized, grammatically correct, or even coherent. I often face writer’s block when trying to write papers, and if I become really stuck, I take out a notebook and start writing ideas, bullet points, and random sentences that may not fit together at all. Usually, I get into a rhythm and am able to form more complete thoughts by the end of this process. I can then go back and type what I wrote, often surprising myself at the quality of my chicken scratch. Having students write for five minutes at the beginning of class, describing a concept learned in the previous class, can count towards a participation grade for that day. As long as the students write something related to the prompt, and not about their cat, then they receive full credit. The instructor can then briefly go over the correct answer, and the students make notes on their writing before turning in their work. Aside from reducing anxiety about the accuracy of their answer, this exercise also gives students an opportunity to practice writing about the material in their own words without notes in front of them, which is what they must do for exams.
The authors are big proponents of discussion and group work, but I feel that these strategies are not equally suited for all classes. Some of my favorite classes consisted largely of group discussions, while others were entirely in the lecture format. On the other hand, I took a couple of seminars during my Master’s program that were discussion-based, and they were terrible. Perhaps both extremes are not great—an open forum with absolutely no guidance or structure versus listening to a speech—but teachers can be effective across a range of styles in between. In addition, there are some notable benefits to lecture-based courses, as Molly Worthen relates in “Lecture me. Really” in The New York Times. While paying attention to someone speaking for an hour is difficult for everyone, Worthen insists that being able to listen to and synthesize information is an important skill for students to develop. I absolutely hate group projects, but I do see the value of talking through notes or problems with peers. For a large class, the authors suggest posting a study calendar, such as through Google, that students can fill in with the times they are available in order to find study partners. In small classes, I always enjoyed working out math or chemistry problems on the board and then explaining what I did to the other students. For another participation grade, the instructor could divide the class into groups and assign each group a problem or question. The students could work individually but then come to a group consensus on the correct answer, and a group spokesman could then put the answer on the board and reason through the solution for the rest of the class. This activity incorporates group work but also allows students to teach their classmates, which improves their own understanding of the material.
I think I would prefer to give a survey of the course to students in the middle of the semester rather than at the end. I am not sure if the school or department would allow this modification or if there would be any restrictions (e.g. would I be allowed to hand out the survey in class?). I am guilty of not feeling inclined to fill out surveys of my classes at the end of the semester, unless I have something really good or bad to say, which is rarely. It may not be possible to address some of the student comments or suggestions before the end of the semester, or ever, but I believe this arrangement would at least encourage more communication and transparency. In addition, the instructor would be more accountable for the survey responses, as most students do not later investigate whether or not a professor considered their feedback at the end of a previous semester.