Todd Zakrajsek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Key Statement: We can get better at virtually anything by recognizing that change is possible, listening to feedback, and remaining growth-minded.
Keywords: Self-Awareness, Feedback, Growth
Think of someone you know who professes they are not a good cook. That person might have one “go-to” dish (pasta, anyone?), but they have spent their lives telling themselves, and others, that they can’t cook. I contend that most individuals who are kitchen-challenged fail to even think about working to become a better cook. The same can be said of driving. You have likely noticed that those who are not good drivers, even with daily (sometimes colorful) feedback, rarely get better.
Just as individuals can cook or drive for 20 years without improving, faculty members can teach for 20 years without improving. Shortly into a conversation with a small group of faculty about effective teaching strategies, one person said they had been teaching for 20 years. I could tell the point of stating those many years in the classroom was to let us know that they were very experienced. My first thought was that I had been driving for 20 years, but that information alone would not likely lead to an automatic assumption that I was a good driver.
If we desire to be better at just about anything, there are steps we can take. Consider the following strategies to help just about anyone become better at cooking, driving, or even teaching.
Image courtesy of Unsplash
(1) Recognize That Improvement Is Possible
As noted previously, one reason individuals do not get better at cooking is that it simply doesn’t occur to them that it is possible, let alone often relatively easy, to improve. There are video tutorials, classes, and family members who can be asked for assistance. The same is true of teaching. There are video tutorials, classes, and colleagues who might be consulted. There are a plethora of ways that any faculty member can become a better teacher.
On the flip side, your students’ behavior may not be lending itself to their best learning experience. You might not be able to force change, but you can encourage and cultivate improvement. For example, some faculty lament that students are not doing their homework and coming to class unprepared without recognizing that changing that behavior is possible. You could start having a daily reading quiz, or, going to the source, you could strengthen the classroom community. Perhaps integrate more discussion in the class that is dependent on the homework. Perhaps show students with anecdotes about professions outside the classroom how doing the homework enhances their learning. The strategy you use to change that behavior is based on several factors. It may not be an easy behavior to change, but change will only happen once there is a recognition that a better outcome is possible.
(2) Watch for Feedback in a Variety of Forms
Those who lack driving skills get a fair amount of feedback. You have likely provided another driver with feedback at some point. Unfortunately, poor drivers tend to misinterpret feedback or dismiss the feedback as coming from an unreliable source. Imagine riding with someone who tends to tailgate, and you say, “Hey, this seems a bit close.” The driver is unlikely to say, “That is an excellent point. I should pay more attention to the distance between me and the car ahead of me so I can be assured that I have adequate distance to stop.”
Not attending to or misinterpreting feedback happens frequently in teaching. If students are not coming to class, there is a reason. If nearly everyone in class fails an exam, faculty often assume students were not trying. That might not be it at all. It may be that the faculty member is not teaching at an appropriate level for their students. If five students ask for clarification of a prompt for a writing assignment, it may be an unclear prompt. As faculty members, we receive much feedback regarding our teaching. How our students do on exams, the extent to which students participate in discussions, and the frequency with which students ask for help are all forms of feedback. Too often, we focus on feedback in the form of student ratings of teaching effectiveness. Everything about our courses and students has the potential for feedback (Ohio State, n.d.).
(3) Work Strategically at Getting Better
We do not get better by doing the same thing repeatedly. To get better at anything, we need to expand what we can do and then practice that just enough to form a foundation from which we once again branch out even more.
Much like cooking spaghetti repeatedly and not even trying to make curry, we do not become better teachers by teaching the same way repeatedly and failing to try new teaching strategies. To build your teaching toolbox, it is essential to work at different aspects of your teaching. I am a big fan of small changes across a particular time, and there are a wide variety of options (Major et al., 2021). Maybe this semester, the focus is on finding additional ways to create new ways for students who find it challenging to speak out in class discussions to participate (Zakrajsek, 2017). Or maybe you’ll introduce an ungrading assignment to see how it goes, use an active learning strategy you have not used previously, or work on better understanding how students learn. As a faculty member, there are always things to work on to help students succeed.
I taught my first course a very long time ago. Across those many years, I have always looked for ways to be a better teacher. I watch for anything that causes me to struggle and think about possible improvement. What resources exist and who might be able to help me? I stay growth-minded and do not assume that something “is just not for me.” While teaching, I am also always watching for feedback. For example, I watch for nonverbal cues when I put students into small groups and provide a discussion prompt. Did you ever notice that when students have discussions in pairs, there are times when the volume in the room moves up quickly, while at other times, there is a much more gradual increase in volume? That is feedback that I now realize is connected to the clarity and interest level of the prompts I provide.
Every semester I also select something specific that I can work on to improve (like a SMART goal! [Wingert & Persky, 2022]). Right now, it is hitting my ending time better. After more than 20 years of teaching, I still tend to run out of time. I can say there is too much content or that the class session is too short, that ending on time “is just not for me.” But I know the content and the class length when designing what I will teach. I have seen many others end on time, which seems something I should also be able to do. Once I am better at that, I will work on something else. I am thinking it is also time I figure out how to make pasta sauce from scratch. After all, if pasta is my go-to dish, I should work at getting better at that.
What have you done for a long time that you have not thought about working at to get better? Why do you think you never considered working at improvement in that area?
Identify five areas related to teaching and learning in which there is feedback that some faculty misinterpret. For example, students not participating in a class discussion might lead a faculty member to conclude that students are not interested in the topic rather than that students are nervous about saying the wrong thing.
Identify one area of teaching that you would like to work on improving. Describe why you selected this area (what is the current state?) and what the ideal outcome might be if you work in that area (what is your desired future state?).
Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2021). Teaching for learning: 101
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path to success (2nd edition) 2. Routledge.
Ohio State (n.d). Using feedback to improve teaching. Michael V. Drake Institute
for Teaching and Learning. https://drakeinstitute.osu.edu/instructional-
Wingert, M., & Persky, A. M. (2017). A practical review of mastery learning.
American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 86(10), 8906.
Zakrajsek, T. (April 13, 2017). Students who don’t participate in class discussions:
They are not all introverts. Scholarly Teacher.