Students who have wonderful instructors learn more, are inspired to learn, and tend to do better at school (and then life) in general. This just sounds right. We know this in our bones. Whereas the empirical data on this sense is fodder for another day, how responsible teachers are for learning has been addressed before. Many factors including personality, genetics, family, peers, culture are also key to learning (see also Learning Scapegoats), but teachers are clearly important.
What makes a great teacher?
Before one can be a great teacher, a master teacher, or one of the best teachers, there are basic fundamentals the teacher needs to have. When I started teaching, I somewhat simplistically looked to only one place to get a sense of how I was doing: my student evaluations. This is not anomalous behavior. Most universities and colleges use some form of student evaluation and place a disproportional amount of weight on this one measure.The evaluation of teaching effectiveness benefits the individual teacher as a form of professional development, Chairs and Deans for use in promotion, merit, and tenure, and Colleges as a whole when used as part of accreditation. Students also benefit from reflective teachers who working to improve learning.
Student evaluations have been studied, praised, and criticized for many years now. There are strong advocates for them, large studies showing their effectiveness, and others decrying their shortcomings. You will find different experts have different favorite instruments. Some suggest abolishing student evaluations completely. A valid and reliable student evaluation has has utility but it should not be the only measure of worth. Sure, I also paid attention to if students seemed excited in class, happy to come to class, and how many of them actually did come to class. But clearly, that is not all.
What exactly are many facets of model teachers? After three years of research into what has been explored on this topic, Aaron Richmond, Guy Boysen, and I have an answer- Model Teaching Criteria. Building on the work of two Society for the Teaching of Psychology Task forces (see report here), we published our findings in peer reviewed journals(Richmond et al. 2014; Boysen, Richmond, & Gurung, 2015) and in a recent book (An Evidence-Based Guide to College and University Teaching), we unpack the multifaceted nature of good teaching.
Not surprisingly, good teaching, like love, is a many splendored thing.
Higher education in particular and education in general can benefit from clear guidelines on what it means to be a competent teacher. A model can give new teachers guidance on their minimum qualifications. Such a definition provides experienced teachers with a rich means of evaluation. Teaching is a continual process of professional development and whereas there are many high-quality sources of information about best teaching practices, they are piecemeal and are in too many places to be useful as standards for model teaching.
Our read of the evidence suggests there are six major characteristics: training, instructional methods, course content, assessment process, syllabus construction, and student evaluations.
In short, model teachers:
- Are well-trained and up-to-date in their knowledge and methods. Both discipline-specific and general training are essential because teaching excellence is built on a foundation of content knowledge and general expertise in pedagogy;
- Do not require the use of one specific teaching method. However, excellent classroom teaching shares some common features no matter what method is being used;
- Establish learning objectives reflecting the agreed-upon core of their discipline;
- Engage in authentic, valid, and reliable assessment, including creation of learning objectives, assessment of learning outcomes, and use of assessment outcomes to improve teaching and learning;
- Develop syllabi establishing a set of abilities that students will have the opportunity to build, they explain to students the process by which they can develop the abilities, and they establish the benchmarks by which the teacher and student will evaluate progress as it relates to the abilities;
- Collect formative and summative student feedback on teaching and how they utilize this information to improve teaching and learning.
Indeed there is a lot more to teaching that knowing your content, selecting a textbook, and filling up lecture time conveying content. A large number of faculty in higher education do not undergo specialty training in how to teach. K-12 students are fortunate to have teachers who have been certified in how to teach (in most states) and have pedagogical training. There is a commonly held sentiment that if someone has a Doctoral degree this criteria is sufficient for them to teach. The review of the research suggests this is clearly not the case.
Educators need to become more cognizant of the complexity that entails good teaching. Our schools and colleges need to ensure structures of professional development to facilitate training in these six components. American higher education will be stronger for it.