ground- water, geo- statistics, environmental- engineering, earth- science

What Makes a Great Teacher

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I’ve recently taken a short course with Jacob Bear (see my summaries of days 1, 2, 3, and 4). This short course is still very actively in my mind. Jacob Bear was such a great teacher, and learning with his guidance was highly enjoyable — the way it should be. Hence, I want to share some thoughts today, on what I think makes a great teacher. I think it doesn’t hurt to think about this topic a little bit, because in our daily live, especially in an academic environment, we tend to have a lot of “teachers”, because we tend to want to learn regularly.

There are a few basics. In order to be a good teacher, you have to know your subject. You have to really know it, ideally by heart (which happens automatically if you are prepared). Ideally you don’t want to teach topics which you are currently learning yourself. I think, ideally you want to teach a little less than what you actually know. This is not because you want to hide knowledge from your students, but this is because you can’t be as confident on things you are just learning as you can be with things you have dealt with and worked with for some time.

I think it does not hurt if you are doing some research in the field you’re teaching on. Some can mean that you are doing or have recently done research in this field, or it can mean that you’re actively following what’s going on in the field via literature or via discussions. The point is, you want to know what the research community is currently up to. Also, I think it doesn’t hurt if you have written something like an overview of a topic. Writing an overview help you tremendously in organizing ideas and additionally this writing could be of help for your students. You also should have good slides and talk well.

From Good to Great

But what makes a teacher better than a good teacher? During that short course, it seemed to me like the “tipping points”, the decisive factors were the “little things”, the things that don’t jump at you immediately. Particularly, these were three things related to the “style” of presentation. Usually, as an engineer, I would consider style important, but not the decisive factor between good and great. These three things were (1) that the teacher was getting to the point, (2) that he was consistent, and (3) that he used brilliant illustrations. I am going to explain what I mean by each of these three.

Getting to the point means that the teacher knows at every instant where he wants to go, and what he needs to explain, successively, in order to get there. This implies that he also knows where he’s coming from, that he knows details on how he wants to explain a given thing (and how he does not want to explain that thing), and how things are related. If these relations are known and available to the teacher, this knowledge will almost automatically influence the language he uses. He knows what he wants to stress, and he will use his voice or other rhetorical features to point things out. Jacob Bear was the master of using repetitions. Generally, every single word had its weight, meant something special. He was very precise. But once in a while he would repeat something he just said, usually summarized and maybe with wording changed. By those repetitions he stressed the important things that he wanted his students to remember because they were the key building blocks necessary to understand what was about to come.

The second small thing I call “consistency”. During the entire four days of the course, whenever we talked about porosity, it was represented by the greek small-case letter “phi”. Every single time. This might require some extra time at the beginning, because you need to lay the foundations for your terminology, abbreviations, indexing conventions, mathematical formulations and symbols. However the rewards are worth the effort: as a student I didn’t have to think twice what phi in a given case meant. It was porosity. Always.

The third and final little thing are illustrations and sketches. They have to explain well what needs to be illustrated. That means they have to be concise [sic!] and well readable. Don’t get me wrong. They don’t have to be animated using fancy software. They don’t even have to be in colour. In fact, Jacob Bear just used chalk and the chalkboard. With a few lines he was able to illustrate exactly what needed to be illustrated. And that forgives slides that were sometimes not optimal. On the other hand, if you can explain something very well by words in a sentence, that might even be short, then do it! However, usually in an engineering-related field, a simple sketch can work a lot for you!

I don’t think using fancy media or animations alone make a great presentation. Sure, used wisely, they will not hurt. I don’t think age is critical. Sure, experience never hurts. However, for a good teacher to turn into a great teacher, he has to be able to get to the point, he needs to be consistent, and his illustrations need to be well made!

Written by Claus

September 13th, 2009 at 12:52 pm

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