Alex Gilmore

Alex Gilmore

September 20, 2018

What students really think: 7 things the best teachers do

Sit at the back of any lecture class at any high school or college, and the sad truth is that you are likely to find a good number of students doing something other than listening to the teacher.

Dozing, perhaps. Shopping online. Updating their Facebook pages. Checking the news.

Motivating large numbers of students at 9 o’clock on a wet Monday morning is indeed no easy task.

But some educators are different. Some have an ability to captivate and inspire students, and even make them look forward to going to their classes. Most people will be able to recall specific teachers in their lives who, perhaps unknowingly, had this effect on them.

What is it that makes the difference? What general methods catch students’ attention?

We decided to ask students who study at a range of universities about the educators that have stood out to them, and what sort of things they did differently. Their responses fit into the following 7 themes:

1. They vary their classes

Students said the educators who stood out to them adopted a multidimensional approach with more than one teaching style.

Indeed, talking at students for 60 minutes (or more) is a guaranteed way to put even the most interested folks to sleep or, at the very least, encourage their mind to wander. Mixing it up helped students to pay attention and remember certain material better. Moreover, this approach moves away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ pedagogy and instead embraces the fact that students learn in different ways.

For example, one student replied “my favorite professor used a variety of teaching techniques in her class, such as having us do group projects, write solo papers, in-class discussion, lecture, video/media, acting out scenes or reading in class”, and another said they can still remember learning about the universe in their physics classes “because we had lots of demonstrations, interactive teaching involving diagrams, videos, pictures and movement. “

In particular, one way of varying classes that students liked is the use of visual aids.

2. They make it visual

Students found it helpful when educators used pictures, animations, or even simple sketches, to illustrate spatial relationships, rather than relying on verbal descriptions that must be translated into images.

Being able to visualize complex functions or mechanisms that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye makes them easier to comprehend, and can enable the learner to concentrate on the central concepts without distractions.

For example, one student particularly liked biology classes because the teacher used 3D animations to allow students to see DNA replicating in front of their eyes: “I can see quite clearly in my mind’s eye what exactly the DNA processes etc. look like, which makes them stick so much more than reading.” Another student said they were struggling to understand how weight is transferred to structures in engineering, so their teacher brought in Kinex building toys to allow them to see the effect in action: “Even now, if I'm struggling to picture load transfer, I think of the Kinex”.

Another way of varying classes that students mentioned was involving the students actively in their own learning.

3. They involve me

Many students noted that their best teachers involved them in the learning process with practical activities.

It’s a well-known fact supported by a large body of research that people tend to learn best by doing. However, if you inspect modern education, it seems that many students are learning things much the same way they always have, through books, articles and lectures.

Students gave examples of teachers letting them “put theory into practice” and “just doing anything apart from taking notes.” One student said their best teacher “would have a practical aspect to every class (e.g. doing flame tests to see the colors of the elements) no matter how short it was, which meant I knew I wouldn't be sat in my seat listening to the them the whole time!”

4. They made me do the thinking

Involving students in their own learning doesn’t necessarily have to mean taking a “hands-on” approach. It can also be through asking good questions and helping them arrive at answers themselves.

Scientists embark upon a problem because they have had their curiosity piqued by a strange event or a puzzling question or some other occurrence that causes them to wonder and resolve the apparent discrepancy between what they know and what they are experiencing. Similarly, instructors can help students become active learners by motivating them with open-ended questions, puzzles, and paradoxes: What happens when...? Why does that happen? But how can that be, when we know that...?

One student recalled: “My favorite teacher would never just give someone an answer when they had a question, they would just say “What a great question” and ask them some more questions in response. Even though they were asking us and not telling us what to think, they would still teach us, but after we were well prepared to learn from the telling. He’d wait for you to get stuck, and then in response to questions, would explain things to us. It was like we had to earn it.” Similarly, another student liked the classes where the students were able to debate a question because they weren’t being “spoon-fed” and told what to think or say: “You had to make your own decision and back it up with evidence, rather than being told what to argue and how to do it. “

This way, the teacher gets the students engaged in mentally building on their prior thinking and knowledge and actively constructing their own understanding, and the teacher is monitoring that thinking and guiding it to be more expert-like. Rather than seeing themselves as the designated expert whose role is to impart their knowledge to students who are empty vessels, the best teachers focus on the students rather than themselves.

Asking questions means that a teacher can convey not only information, but the habits of mind that lead to scientific reasoning. On a related note, students commented that they particularly liked the educators who emphasized understanding concepts over just memorizing material.

5. They focus on understanding rather than memorization

Rather than trying to transmit large quantities of information in lectures and include every detail, students’ favorite educators focused on helping them to understand concepts.

Rote memorization is often a large part of most classes, largely fueled by standardized testing. But the truth is that students are likely to forget 90 percent – possibly 99 percent – of what you teach them unless it’s conceptual. Things like Latin names, special terminology, equations, dates – nearly everything specific isn’t like to stick after the lecture. In addition, students found that detail overload led to a common problem: Having to choose between attempting to understand what is being said in lectures and attempting to record what is being said. They may be able to write everything down, but not enough left over to make any sense of it. And they may be able to sit back and listen, but then fear they’ll miss details they need. The consequence is that students end up with folders full of notes taken too long ago for them to remember their purpose and in too great a quantity to memorize.

On the other hand, students found it the most helpful when broad, overarching connections, or the logic behind what they are learning, was highlighted. It's not that memory isn’t important - it's more that understanding will naturally lead to memories being formed, without any effort to specifically commit things to memory, and practice retrieving them. Without thought and contemplation, it’s unlikely that memorization will achieve retention (the ability to remember the material at a later time), transfer (the ability to use prior knowledge to solve new problems) or an appreciation for learning.

6. They show me why I should care

Students liked being shown why what they were learning was worth knowing (aside from the fact that it would be on an exam).

Rather than sitting there with no background and no preparation to understand why what they’re being told is important and what they need to glean from it, the best educators helped them see a direct link between their actions and the real-world, informing students about how learning a topic prepares them for future opportunities.

As an example, one student said an educator that knows how to grab their attention “would begin each class with a brief discussion of an event in the day's newspaper that has a scientific component, so that students appreciate the connections between science and everyday experience.” Another engineering professor, when teaching bridge-building, showed students the would-be consequences of bridges they designed in real-life: “The bridge location and concept etc. were ones that had actually already been built in real life, so afterwards we could compare our bridge to the one that was actually built and see what the pros and cons and similarities etc. of the two were!” One student noted how important it was for them to be given the relevant theory of a science experiment before completing it, so they could see the point of doing the experiment. When it was experiment before theory, they said “I never really had a clue what was going on until we did the theory.”

7. Their personality shows

All of the students interviewed mentioned that their favorite teachers allowed their sense of humor and passion for their subject to shine through.

Passion is contagious and will most likely infect your students. A great educator's obvious genuine enthusiasm both for their subject and for teaching can stimulate the students' interest, and interested people stay roused and tend to learn more and understand better.

A good laugh in class, personal stories, or even just things like silly memorable analogies, can also make a difference, and can give students a more open mind and better attitude to take in a subsequent long lecture. When talking about their favorite educators, students said things like “I liked when he told silly stories about his life. He was so unpredictable and engaging and he really made everything so dramatic and story-like it made me intrigued!” and “they called a hormone 'The Pringles Hormone' because it makes you want sodium - little things like that made a difference.”

The best teachers are able to keep students' attention, bring the best out of every student, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning in students.

That concludes our lesson on things that great educators do.

To read about things that students found got in the way of an effective and enjoyable lab class, check out this blog post. For more learning and teaching inspiration visit our blog, and don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest updates right in your inbox.

Class dismissed… we hope you enjoyed it!

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