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Handout: Principles and Strategies for Effective Teaching

Assumptions made by faculty that contribute to ineffective teaching.

If you know it, you can teach it.

Knowledge of content is very important, and graduate schools focus on developing that knowledge, usually at the expense of knowledge about teaching.  The result is that the term “knowledgeable faculty” describes a very small domain and teachers are frustrated in their attempts to communicate with students.  “The equating of content mastery with instructional effectiveness inhibits instructional improvement because it makes teaching an activity without form or substance in its own right” (5).

Good teachers are born that way.

Research has identified crucial characteristics of effective instruction.  These are skills that teachers can acquire.  Our individual differences may make acquiring some of these skills easier than acquiring others, but that is also true of acquiring content knowledge. 

Faculty teaches content.

This assumption leads to teaching content, not students.  Content often changes and accumulates rapidly, and when teachers try to include more content in their courses, they quickly reach their limit.  What they need to do is teach students how to think critically, analyze, evaluate, and collaborate with others to create new knowledge.  Faculty must “start seeing [content] as the means by which much larger objectives are accomplished” (9).

A lack of “instructional awareness” on the part of a teacher leads to a narrow repertoire of instructional strategies and the inability to adjust to changes in pedagogical contexts and demands. 

Conversely, studying one’s own teaching, adding to one’s repertoire, and focusing on student learning helps teachers adjust and continue to find value in their teaching, thus potentially avoiding the burnout that affects so many teachers, who can be easily drained by meeting constant challenges, can become bored by teaching the same course the same way, or can become frustrated and jaded by receiving “failing” evaluations from students.

From Weimer, Maryellen. Improving College Teaching: Strategies for Developing Instructional Effectiveness. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass (1990).

Involved Students Learn!

This is the crucial message from years of research on instructional effectiveness. 

Good Teaching Achieves:

High amount of student learning—this is most important

  • Coverage of the right content at the right depth
  • Good student attitudes
  • High ratios of both student learning to instructor time and student learning to student time
  • Opportunities for students to learn how to learn
  • Learning appropriate to the context
  • Authentic interactions between the professor and the students (40).

Six Steps to Improve Teaching

Step One

Develop Instructional Awareness.  What do you actually DO?  Why do you do it?  This involves everything from what you physically do in the classroom to why you structure the course as you do.

Step Two

Gathering Information.  Watch a videotape of yourself teaching.  Have a colleague observe you and offer feedback.  Look at all your syllabi together.  Complete one of many different teaching inventories.  Ask for student input.

Step Three

Set Goals and Outcomes.  What do your students need to know in terms of content?  (Why?)  What skills do they need to obtain?  (Why?)  How will you know if they have learned this content or gained these skills?  Sometimes your course leads to another or is sandwiched between courses.  You may need to have some group discussions—this is a community decision.  Sometimes, you have set goals and outcomes independently—upon what did you base your decisions? 

Step Four

Making Choices about Changes.  What needs to be changed and how?  Begin by changing your policies and practices that conflict with what you believe about students and learning or that are in conflict with your course content or your instructional setting or that do not lead to the outcomes you will assess.  For example, if you believe students need to work independently but you control every aspect of a project, your practice and belief are in conflict.  If you are lecturing to a small gathering of students, your practice is in conflict with the setting.  If you are asking students to read eight chapters, discussing three, and testing on two, your outcomes and practices are in conflict.

Step Five

Implementing the Alterations.  Make changes in small steps.  Explain to students why you are making the changes—it will help students gain instructional awareness.  Offer a rationale for each part of your assignments and assessment.  Students will better understand why they are reading or writing or completing a project and why they are graded as they are.  Rubrics and rationales take time to create, but on the other end, they will save you time in assessment.

Step Six

Assessing the Alterations.  Use multiple and appropriate assessment measures. If students can demonstrate knowledge in multiple ways and you are able to arrange time for this, offer options.  For example, can you offer students the option of a test or a project?  A test or a paper?  Group or individual work?  If you stay focused on the OUTCOMES, the method of assessing those may be more flexible than you realized.  If, for example, writing skills are not one of your outcomes, can a student take a test orally?

Set Cognitive Objectives

Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy as you set cognitive objectives.

  1. Knowledge:  memorizing facts, definitions, etc.  Does not require understanding.
  2. Comprehension:  Understanding material.  The learner can explain material without using jargon; can put it into his/her own words.
  3. Application:  Using abstract ideas in concrete situations.  Learners demonstrate the ability to solve simple problems.
  4. Analysis:  Breaking down an idea into its components. 
  5. Synthesis:  Combining multiple pieces to create a new whole.  Encourages creativity and multiple correct solutions.
  6. Evaluation:  making a judgment and articulating the criteria for that judgment.

You may say you want students to gain skill in higher order objectives (3-6), but your tests and questions focus on memorization and comprehension.  Setting clear objectives for each topic in your course will help you eliminate unnecessary assignments and lecture and clarify for students why they are being asked to perform certain tasks.  Asking students to meet higher order objectives usually requires they also use lower order ones, as they are embedded tasks.

Consider which pedagogical paradigm is closest to your practices.  Is it accomplishing what you want it to?

  • Traditional Pedagogy:  uses the “banking theory” of education.  The teacher deposits information into students’ empty brains (accounts) and withdraws that by means of tests which focus on memorization.  The teacher rarely explains the rationale for assignments or activities, and rarely involves students in meaningful ways.  The teacher sets all objectives and goals and prepares most or all course elements without student input.
  • Student-Centered Pedagogy:  involves students to a greater degree in setting course objectives, selecting topics, focuses on discussion instead of lecture, encourages student participation, and involves students in evaluation and grading.
  • Problem-Posing or Subject-Centered Pedagogy:  The problem or subject is central to learning and mediates between professor and student.  The teacher requires dialogue, trains or guides students until they have instructional awareness, and involves students to a greater or lesser degree in developing objective, lessons, and teaching.

Many of us use all these approaches, but often prefer or usually use a single approach.  Each does not rule out the use of the others, but, for example, lecture plays a very small role in most student-centered pedagogical contexts and a much larger role in traditional pedagogy.

  • Center for Teaching Excellence
  • Dr. Mary Anne Hannibal, Director
    Stouffer Hall, Room 137
    1175 Maple Street
    Indiana, PA 15705
  • Phone: 724-357-7800
  • Fax: 724-357-2281