We claim to value teaching excellence at UMW, but what does teaching excellence look like? This was the topic of a lunch discussion sponsored last week by the UMW Teaching Center. John St. Clair observed, “Teaching excellence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be described, identified, or that a professor can’t enhance their own practice.” After a wide ranging conversation, the group came to the following conclusions:
- There is no single way to teach excellently.
Excellent teaching depends on the characteristics of the students, the teacher, and the course being taught. Teaching excellence is not so much a question of technique (Is class discussion better than lecture?) as a question of the core values one brings to a course. What are these core values?
- Passion for the Subject
Excellent teachers have and show passion for their subject. Stephen Davies expressed this as “inspiring students with a contagious sense of wonder and curiosity about the material.” Several participants recommended modeling disciplinary practice and showing by example that true learning is exploratory and has no easy answers.
- Engaging the Students
Excellent teachers see engaging their students as a critical element of their teaching. There are, of course, many different ways to build engagement into a course. Excellent teachers find effective ways to “hook” students on the material they teach. Leaving engagement up to the students is not a characteristic of excellent teaching.
- Respect for students
Excellent teachers take their students seriously, treating them as individuals who genuinely desire to learn, even while understanding that not all students do.
- Interest in the academic and life success of their students
Excellent teachers have a genuine interest in the success of their students and they desire them to reach their potential. They seek to develop professional relationships with their students so students feel connected to their teacher, the course material, and their colleagues in the course.
- Learning Assessment and Teaching Reflection
Excellent teachers fundamentally care about their students’ learning. Laurie Abeel describes a focus “on ensuring … students actually learn and apply the concepts, develop critical thinking skills and synthesize the information” being taught. This implies a need for careful assessment of student learning (beyond perhaps the grading process) and regular reflection on the effectiveness of one’s teaching. (We didn’t identify a frequency, but say after each semester or at the end of the academic year.)
Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), defines what he calls the fundamental teaching evaluation question this way: Does the teaching help and encourage students to learn in ways that make a sustained, substantial and positive difference in the way they think, act or feel—without doing them any major harm? Does your teaching meet these criteria?