What I’ve learned about teaching
Note: This post was written at the request of Steve Buttry, who is writing a series of posts about teaching journalism courses on his outstanding blog.
I began my teaching career as an adjunct instructor in the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2007. The class was Intro to Visual Communication (J59) at 8 a.m. twice a week. A couple semesters later I asked to teach it as a night class instead. A couple years after that (2010) they offered me a full-time gig.
I’m currently in the middle of my fourth year as a full-time instructor/professor (I made the jump from “instructor” to “assistant professor” last year).
I’ve taught more than 30 classes (including Visual Communication, Entrepreneurial Journalism, Web Design, Social Media Strategies, Multimedia Journalism and Multimedia Labs) in that time. Here’s what I’ve learned, most of which I had no idea about in 2007:
1. A great course starts with having perfectly clear learning outcomes. If you don’t know what you’re teaching, the students won’t know what to learn.
2. Be flexible with your schedule. Class topics will present themselves throughout the semester, so make sure you can work them in. I may be a little extreme with this, as I’ve been known to rework entire classes halfway through the semester. But it keeps things current and keeps the students engaged.
3. Spend more time helping the high-achievers than the low-achievers. I used to spend the majority of my time making sure everyone was doing well in the class. Now I’m more likely to let a student fail if it means I can get a few more students from good to great.
4. Don’t be afraid to cancel class. Trust me, the students will not complain, no matter what they paid for that class.
5. Give fewer assignments. Students are overworked. They take a full schedule of classes and work nearly full-time hours. My goal is to make sure they learn what they need to know without overbearing them with busy-work. I also try to time my bigger assignments so they aren’t due at the middle and end of the semester, when students are most overworked. That way I get better work out of them.
6. Presentations are better than papers. When a students writes a paper, the only one who gets to share in that knowledge is me. When students give a presentation to the class, we all can learn something new.
7. Spend one-on-one time with the students. When you hand back a paper with your feedback, two things are likely to happen: (1)They won’t bother to read your feedback, or (2)they will read it and just do exactly what you said to do to improve the paper and turn it back in. I prefer to have a back-and-forth conversation with student about their work.
8. Follow all of your students on Twitter. I promise they’ll never say anything bad about you (and they do say bad things about professors).
9. Offer ways to participate other than talking in class. Some students aren’t comfortable talking in class, especially at 8 a.m. I let students participate via social media on a Facebook group and using a Twitter hashtag.
10. Facebook groups are the best social media option. I’ve tried everything from blogs to tumblrs to hashtags to Facebook Pages to Google+ Communities, and the best way to share information and generate discussion beyond in-class time is through a Facebook Group.
11. When all else fails, win them over with cat videos. If the class just doesn’t seem interested on a given day, I will simply ask students to come up to the instructor’s station and share something cool with the class. I can’t explain why, but this always brings the students closer together and leads to a better semester. You’ll also learn something about your students, which is important.