Effective Teaching: Classroom Tips, Methods, & Strategies
The first step in being an effective teacher is the desire and passion to be an effective teacher. Whatever road led you here, at the root of it is the aspiration to be just that.
You may wonder how I developed this tips and techniques for being an effective teacher. You may ask about my credentials. I will share those things with you and more. I will provide you with the tools and techniques I use in the day-to-day work of being a teacher. I am not here to teach you the content of what you teach; I am here to share the tips and techniques I have learned that help students retain content and become passionate for more of it.
I have not been a teacher for decades, yet I have. I did not know I was a teacher; I thought I was a nurse, a daughter, a student, a sister, and a friend. I remember the moment when I realized I was a teacher. I had taken a part-time job as Skills Lab Manager for an associate degree registered nursing program. Mostly, I was responsible for ordering supplies, stocking closets, and managing equipment, but somewhere in my job description was a clause that said I was responsible for remediating students on nursing skills when they had shown a deficiency in patient care techniques. Of course, I knew nursing skills since I had been a nurse for 3 years at that time, but I was not so sure I knew how to teach nursing skills. I dreaded the day when I would be asked to do so.
I recall my first student to remediate. She had made some serious mistakes in the clinical setting and had been told that if she could not dramatically improve her nursing skills prior to the next patient care experience, she would not be allowed to graduate and become a nurse. That was a lot of pressure for the both of us. If I failed her, she would be out of the program, and if she failed, her life would never be the same. She came to me frightened and intimidated. She had a real tongue-lashing from the teacher who had her in the clinical setting, and she did not know me or what to expect from me.
I would like to be awe-inspiring here and say that a calmness came over me when she entered the room and I miraculously saved her with my infinite wisdom. But what really happened is much less dramatic. I introduced myself to her, discussed the goal of remediation, along with the implications if she were not successful. She already had heard this, but I thought it would be good to go over it again, just in case. I started with something I felt was simple: a manual blood pressure and pulse reading. I will not go into all the details, but suffice to say she needed to be remediated on nearly every skill she had been taught in the previous two years. I had her demonstrate her skills, then I gave her a some constructive criticism. I assigned her some sections from her textbooks to re-read and some videos to re-watch at home, along with a follow-up appointment with her for later in the week when she would be required to do a final demonstration. Just before she left, I could see that she felt beat down, down-trodden, and stupid. I sat down with her and made eye contact. I took her hands and said, “You can do this. We all make mistakes, but that does not make us failures. You cannot let what has happened effect you reaching your goals. You have the ability to succeed and to become an RN.” It may sound like a scene out of a sappy movie, but those words brought her to tears. She did not have any faith in herself, and I believe to hear that someone else had faith in her, even though she had really fouled up, changed her outlook on the situation.
When she came back to me later in the week to demonstrate her skills, she was a different woman. Was she nervous? You betcha. But did she hold her head a little higher? Did she look me in the eye instead of staring at the floor? And did she succeed? We will get there in time.
One sappy story may not provide enough proof to ensure you that I can provide anyone with teaching techniques for everyday use in the classroom. I would prefer not to brag, but here it is for those of you who need hard evidence:
- I earned a Master’s of Science in Nursing, with a specialization in education from Walden University in 2007 and graduated with highest honors.
- I have been teaching in a higher education setting for 7 years.
- On student evaluations using a 4 point Likert Scale, with 4 being the highest score and 1 being the lowest, I have yet to earn anything less than 3.75 average. (To me, this is my greatest achievement).
- In 2011 I received the NISOD Excellence Award for Teaching (see page 56). This is a national award, and I even got to go to a fancy ceremony in Austin, TX and get a medallion.
- I have been offered faculty positions at 1 other college and 2 prestigious universities. I have turned all the offers down, in favor of my position at the community college where I began teaching.
For me, teaching is not about being the highest paid or most glamorous person; it is about making the biggest difference. I find I can do that in a big way in the community college setting.
Tips & Techniques
There are thousands of things we, as educators, can do to facilitate learning. You have read about them in magazines and books and observed them in classrooms. I will not tell you about those things. I will tell you about what has worked best for me. There will be lots of examples from my personal experiences with students and from observations of other educators.
First and foremost, respect the student.
This sounds easy. We are professional educators, after all. Aren’t we already respectful? Probably, but maybe not always. Here are some of my do’s and don’ts regarding this.
Respect Their Knowledge
Do ask your students about their experience. Do not assume that you know more than they do on a subject. You may be surprised by what your students already know. You can use what they know and expound upon it and put it in perspective to their experiences. This can be a rewarding learning experience for the student and is likely to give him/her confidence.
Do go into each student encounter with a positive outlook. Do not have a negative vibe with expectations that it will go poorly. The student will pick up on this and feel disrespected, no matter how hard you try to mask it. Do some positive self-talk if you think it may go badly (e.g. “I want my student to succeed. If my student knows this, he/she will be more willing to accept my constructive criticism.”)
Provide Constructive Criticism
On that note, make all criticism constructive. I do not mean we must sugarcoat things. However, even when a student fails a course miserably, if I have gotten to know that student, I can find something positive to say. For example, “George, you have been unsuccessful in my course. Unfortunately, you failed every exam. I admire your willingness to see this class through to the end. Just because you failed the course, that doesn’t make you a failure.” If the student can re-take a course, tell them how at this point and give suggestions for improvement. Be specific and give written information. People who are very upset do not retain verbal directions. If the failure means they are no longer able to complete a program, offer suggestions utilizing the student’s strengths. For example, “You have not been able to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to be a registered nurse, but you are very caring and compassionate with patients. There are a lot of other careers where you can work with people who are sick or need help. Have you given any thought to those?”
As a student and as a professional, I have seen educators give harsh criticism and expect a student to take it calmly and have no personal reaction. Remember, this is a professional role and the student is our consumer. We do not have to like the student to be respectful. For those of you who may be reading this and feel surprised that sometimes teachers do not like students, please keep in mind that teachers are human too. We have real emotions and reactions. In the course of a career, there will be students who simply rub us the wrong way for whatever reason. But our job is to keep our interactions professional. Take a big, deep breath and remind yourself of your role. If not for the simple fact that we are all humans and deserve respect, then for the fact that students have big voices in the community and negative feedback about you can (and often does) have repercussions for the institution, your program, and more.
Make the learning environment as interesting and comfortable as possible.
Most people do not learn well when they are hot or freezing or sitting on a hard chair or hungry or sleepy. If you have ever heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you know that basic necessities must be met before moving on to higher functions, such as learning.
As a teacher, perhaps you do not get to control many things about the environment of your classroom. True. However, you can tell the students to dress in layers, to bring a snack, to get plenty of sleep (we can’t really control this one, but we can shout it from the rooftops), to bring a chair cushion, or anything else that helps meet their needs for comfort.
Appealing to Different Learning Styles
Now that we have them comfortable, we do not want them to go to sleep, so here comes the part where we keep it interesting. Have you heard the phrase, “death by PowerPoint”? I bet you have. Take a look at your audiovisuals. Are they visually appealing? Having words on a slide is little more than having words in a book, and let’s face it—students rarely read the book, so they may not be reading your PowerPoint slides either. Try something funny, like a cartoon, to break up the monotony. In classes that have a hands-on component, hyperlink a video demonstration into your presentation. Assign posters for different course concepts and have students bring their posters to class on assigned days.
Better yet, get the students physically active. Different people have different learning styles. Consider a time when you have had to sit for hours and listen to someone else talk. It gets old. Get them involved! One of my lectures is about medications. It is pretty dry content and quite difficult to master. When students begin to look glazed over, I abruptly stop what I am saying and wad up a piece of paper and toss it to a student. When they catch it, I ask them to tell me a medication from a particular category (e.g. “Tell me the brand name of an antianxiety medication). Once the student answers the question, he/she gets to toss the paper wad to someone else and ask that person a question. If a student cannot answer a question, he/she has to say something they have learned from that particular lecture, then toss the paper wad again.
Another of my favorite activities involves defense mechanisms people use when anxious. The list of defense mechanisms the students have to learn is long and they can be somewhat confusing. I tell the students a couple of days before we go over them in class to read over them in the textbook and KNOW them. Students often assume I will be giving a quiz on this content, so they study it intensely. When they come to class, I randomly break everyone up into groups and tell them to come up with an anxiety-inducing situation and each person must respond to it with a different defense mechanism. I tell them a prize will be awarded for best actor. The students get 20-30 minutes to come up with their scenario and responses while I float around and answer questions. Each group role-plays in front of the class without giving away their defense mechanism. After each group completes their skit, the rest of the class has to guess which defense mechanism the group members are using. As I observe this, I can tell who studied and understood the concepts and what areas I need to provide more instruction on.
These activities get the students out of their seats and involved in the learning process rather than passively absorbing information. These are just a couple of ideas to get you brainstorming for your own content. Other ideas include case studies with student presentations of their findings and various games and competitions.
Know How to Handle Difficult Student Behaviors
There is a wealth of knowledge in seminars, online content, and more about this one, so I will touch on the things I do not see being addressed.
The Silent Student
Have you had a student who spent the entire term silent in class? He/she never answered a question or raised his/her hand or even interacted much with the rest of the class? This is something I see educators struggling with but not talking about. Involving the silent student is challenging. I usually can determine pretty quickly who my shy and/or silent students are. Once I establish this, there are a few techniques I use to get those students involved.
Most importantly, I do NOT call on those students right away. Calling on a silent student puts that student in an uncomfortable position. Further, if the student does not know the answer, he/she may feel embarrassed. The embarrassment may lead the student to not attempt to answer your questions in the future.
If I want to call on a silent student, I pose a question to the class and tell them to take a few minutes to look up the answer in their textbook or discuss the question with a classmate (whichever is most appropriate for the question), then write their responses down on a piece of paper. I subtly observe the silent student I wish to call on during this activity. If he/she seems to be finding an answer and writing something down, then once the students have completed the assignment, I will ask the class if they were able to find the answer. I will make eye contact with the silent student. IF the student averts his/her gaze, I will not call on him/her. But if the student makes steady eye contact, I will call on him/her to answer the question. Even if the answer is wrong, I will find a way to respond positively. For example, “I can see how you would come to that conclusion. Many people have responded that same way, and in fact, you’re on the right track.” If the student answers correctly, I will praise him/her, but not too lavishly. Lavish praise also can make the student feel awkward, as though I did not expect the student to answer correctly. Excessive praise also draws the attention of the class and can result in embarrassment.
Allowing the silent student time to formulate a response, then allowing the student to read his/her response off of the paper decreases anxiety related to speaking to the class. Usually, the student will build enough confidence from a few exercises like this to start volunteering information. If the silent student does not volunteer to answer questions in class, but successfully completes several activities like the one described and begins making eye contact when you ask the class questions, you may begin occasionally calling on the silent student.
About a year ago, I successfully used the technique described and about halfway through the term, the silent student raised her hand to answer a question. She answered the question correctly, I provided praise, and we moved on. At the end of class, two students approached me after everyone had left the room. One student said, “How did you get Jane to raise her hand? We’ve had 4 classes with her, and this is the first class she has ever spoken in!” That is what I call success!
The Constant Complainer
All of us have encountered students who always have something bad to say, but do not seem to see the benefit of their learning experience. If constant complainers are allowed to continue, they can bring down the morale of a group. I will never forget walking into a classroom one day and seeing nearly all of my students staring at me with outright hatred. Once I got to the bottom of it, I found that a couple of students were dissatisfied with an exam and had attempted to rile up the group in mutiny. The students who were not annoyed over the exam were annoyed over the hate-campaign. All that negativity led to a lot of tension in the classroom.
There are several ways to handle this situation, each with its own pros and cons. The way I chose to handle it was this: rather than trying to teach to a group of upset people, I made a casual observation by saying, “It seems a little tense in here. What is going on?” It was pretty quiet for a couple of moments, and then the constant complainers spoke up with the complaint. I assured the students that it was my goal that they learn, and I certainly wanted to address any concerns they may have about the course. I asked the students to take out a scrap piece of paper and anonymously describe their feelings on the matter. I told the students I would read over their statements and address their concerns and asked if they could table the discussion until after I had a chance to review it. When I reviewed the statements I tallied up the different categories of complaints. By and large, most students felt the exam was fair, but many were upset about two students harassing them to complain. In the next class period, I returned with the scraps of paper and put them in piles on my desk. Out of 30 students, there were 5 upset about the exam, 10 who had no complaint, 12 who were annoyed with the complainers, and 3 who did not submit a statement. I told the class this and showed them the piles. I asked that the 5 who were upset about the exam please make an appointment with me via email or after class. I reiterated from the syllabus the campus policy and consequences regarding bullying. Fortunately, there were no further problems that term.
Certainly, there may have been a better way to handle the situation. If you can catch constant complainers before something like this transpires, I suggest you meet with them individually and discuss any problems they may be having. Sometimes a negative attitude is not related to the course, but rather to a sullen disposition or external life events. Letting the student know that you want him/her to succeed is key in this situation. Some students have a level of paranoia when it comes to authority figures, so being overly accommodating or sweet can make the paranoid student feel like you are trying to manipulate them, as well as it may make you appear as an easy target to students who may try to intimidate you.
There are so many more difficult situations when teaching. Many of those have been covered in other places, but keep an eye out on my page for further topics related to teaching and difficult student situations.
Summary of Key Points and Further Suggestions
- Be respectful.
- Have a positive attitude.
- Provide constructive criticism. If it is not constructive, then it is just criticism.
- Make the environment conducive to learning.
- Provide variety in your teaching style to appeal to different learners.
- Make sure all students are involved in the learning process.
- Have a plan for handling difficult situations.
- Be passionate about your content and your role.
- Reflect on what led you to teaching, what you hope to accomplish, and enter into your relationship with your students with this in mind.
A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.
The Rest of the Story
You may be wondering what happened to that first student I remediated. I ran into her about a year ago and I was brought to tears this time when she told me about her patients, about the trials of being a new nurse, but also of her successes. When she thanked me, I could hardly respond. I heard myself saying, “You did this. Be proud of yourself. I could only lead you to a point, but you had to do the rest.” With adult students, our job is not to force-feed them, but to provide them with the tools and passion to become engaged and want for more.
The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.
I would love to hear from others on this topic. As students, what works for you and what does not? As educators, have you tried these techniques? Do you have further suggestions? I am always ready to learn more and appreciate any feedback.
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