Twelve Timeless Teaching Tips

Robert Harris

Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

1. Organize

Among the factors contributing to great teaching evaluations is the level of the professor’s organization. Students universally seem to love a class session that is well planned, clearly structured, and presented with appropriate cues to take them from point to point. Just half a dozen points on an overhead transparency or written on the board might be sufficient to provide this. Or a handout, or even a verbal announcement (“The four major concepts are . . .”) could work. I’m sure we all remember from our own school days profs who filled up the class hour with a miscellany of topics (“Today’s topic is gallimaufric olla podrida”), and who kept talking aimlessly until the time was up and then simply stopped. Not all learning, thinking, exploring can be neat and presentable in a fixed package, of course, but we often can do better in our planning than we do.

The use of transitional markers during the presentation is also highly effective for helping students understand parts, relationships, and continuities. “Another piece of evidence for this,” “In contrast to the view of the biographical critics,” or “Now that we have examined the theory, let’s look at the application,”””statements like these help students organize their notes as well as their minds.


2. Teach Incrementally

Studies of learning and of the satisfaction of learners reveal that two of the best techniques for knowledge acquisition and retention are the use of incremental learning (dividing learning up into small, easily mastered units) and the employment of constant feedback about learning performance.

Giving frequent homework involves both of these techniques, while giving frequent tests (such as on each chapter or unit) or at least frequent quizzes satisfies the goal of constant feedback. Giving only a midterm exam and a final exam is probably not enough feedback for most learners, especially at the lower division level. Most students are surprisingly enthusiastic about doing small written assignments at frequent intervals because the assignments help them either to understand and fix the knowledge or to learn and practice the skills they are studying.

Incremental teaching allows students to sense their own intellectual growth and progress, and to feel a series of accomplishments, providing them with regular ego rewards. Those who do poorly on early exams are forced to wake up and apply themselves. And a poor performance on any given test does not leave a student demoralized because there is always hope for better performance later. A single test will not by itself doom the student to a low final grade.

Other ideas: give a two-minute quiz each meeting over the reading or last meeting’s lecture as a means of taking roll and of encouraging students to read the texts carefully and take good lecture notes. Or at the end of the hour, have students write a brief statement of the most important thing they learned or the most significant points of the meeting. Or have each student write a multiple-choice question covering some aspect of the lecture or reading for the day. Collect these and use some of them for quizzes or exams.


3. Move

As you talk, don’t remain fixed behind the lectern. Move around the room, or at least around the front of the lecture area. Some studies have shown that attention and retention increase in direct proportion to the closeness of the speaker to the audience. Thus, if you move around the classroom and approach quite closely to different students at different times, you can keep them paying attention better and help personalize your discussion. (You might even look into the eyes of a student you happen to be near, lower your voice to a personal level, and ask, “Do you see what I’m saying, Brad?”) You’ll no longer be a distant talking head or an anthropomorphic cassette player, but a conversationalist “up close and personal,” a professor who conducts “multiple simultaneous tutorials.” You’ll find that walking down the rows of desks is very educational for you, and that it really brings the students to attention. Some will even stop writing love letters and doing their homework for their next class and instead they will listen to you.

And use some gestures to emphasize your points. You don’t need wildly windmilling arms, just some interesting movements. To emphasize a particular idea, feel free to point, draw a line in the air, clap your hands together, wring your hands, pound the lectern or table, or use some other gesture. People will follow any moving target, and seeing a little literal animation from the professor helps them maintain interest.

Some gestures also serve as symbolic communicators and memory aids. Hold your palms up to indicate the need for an answer, hold your palms apart more or less (fish story style) to indicate big or small problems, costs, sizes, etc.


4. Modulate

Raise and lower your voice and change its tone as you talk. Monotones are death to any lecture. Students will write down whatever you say in loud enough tones, and if you add an emphasis phrase like, “And this is especially important,” “Here is the key concept,” “It all boils down to this issue,” or even, “Now write this down,” you’ll help your audience pick out the gold from the bearing ore. A clear, sufficiently loud, varied, forceful, confident voice is a handy tool for keeping any audience listening.

As far back as the eighteenth century it has been noted that a speaker who appears unconvinced by his own arguments is not likely to convince others. Try to maintain a confident (not egotistical) tone, and be careful not to trail off into a mumble at the end of a sentence or idea.


5. Illustrate

A really good classroom presentation should be accompanied by two kinds of illustration: visual and verbal. Visual illustrations can be pictures, slides, overhead transparencies, diagrams, charts and graphs, or even lists of key points. The important thing is to provide some visual cues to aid your audience in apprehending the structure and remembering the content of your talk. As students continue to come from an ever more visual upbringing, this kind of illustration continues to gain in importance.

The other kind of illustration is the verbal example, story, or anecdote. The best kind is the personal “war story.” Tell your students a story about something that happened to you that vividly exemplifies the point you are making. If you can say, “I came face to face with this idea when . . .,” you’ll make textbook concepts more real, believable, and memorable for your students.

Abstract concepts are difficult to pin down, especially for students whose abstract thinking skills are relatively newly developed. If you are always ready with two or three concrete and highly visual “for examples,” you will be much more likely to bring illumination into the darkest corners of any given cerebral cortex.


6. Enthuse

Quite a few students state on evaluations that they became interested in the material because the professor was interested in it. If you convey an enthusiasm for your material, you will give it value and charm that it might not otherwise have. (Some profs have reported ruefully on the results of going to class the first day and saying, “I know you think this is boring, and I’m not very interested in it myself, but let’s see if we can just get through it.” Others get better results by doing some self promotion: “Wow! What a concept! Isn’t that great?” or even, “Isn’t this a great class?” Find your own style.)

Remember that teaching is a performing art. Remember also that students, after having watched television for tens of thousands of hours, have been conditioned to expect signs of enthusiasm when something important is under discussion.


7. Pause

Never underestimate the power of silence. Stop speaking from time to time for fifteen, twenty, thirty seconds, to allow your students to reflect on and consolidate what you have just said. You’re not a radio station where dead air is anathema: don’t think you have to fill up every tick of the clock with sound. An effective silence at frequent intervals provides the rest from mental processing that every auditor needs.


8. Ask Questions

Find out what your students are thinking. Have them contribute a little mental processing to the class. The best questions are not fixed-answer ones, such as, “When was Henry VIII born?” but more complex ones, whether they have several answers like, “Why did Henry break with Rome?” or even better, reflective ones, like, “If you were an Anglican Bishop, how would you have responded to repeal of the Test Act and why?” Fixed-answer questions too often produce a “guess-what-the-professor-wants” response, while reflective questions stimulate thought and encourage creativity.

Making questions personal is often better than leaving them abstract. For example, instead of asking, “What is the difference between Platonism and Aristotelianism,” ask, “Do you consider yourself a Platonist or an Aristotelian?”

A useful exercise is to ask a student or the class as a whole to construct an essay outline on both sides of an issue, while you write the points on the board. For example, ask, “If you wanted to argue against the trickle-down theory, what points would you make?” After discussion and outline, ask, “And now what would someone say who wanted to rebut this argument?”

Whenever you ask a question, be sure to allow sufficient wait time. That is, relax and give students an opportunity to think about the question for awhile. A frequent teaching error is to grow impatient and answer a question for the students. Once students realize that the answer is coming anyway, they will stop thinking and volunteering. But if you show them that you are willing to wait them out, their discomfort with the silence will produce results.


9. Summarize and Repeat

It has been claimed that a typical listener actually hears only twenty percent of what a speaker says. That’s why many TV and radio advertisers name the product at least five times in each commercial and run each commercial endlessly. It has also been said that the first and last five minutes of class are remembered best by students, so a little introducing and a little summarizing will help fix the session’s content in students’ minds.

Don’t be afraid to repeat an important sentence. Did you hear what I just said? (Huh? What? What’d you just say? What was that he just said?) I said, Don’t be afraid to repeat an important sentence. If you think for a minute, you’ll see why. Remember that test you announced four different times, only to have six students look surprised the day you gave it?


10. Laugh

A sense of humor not only will endear you to your students but will help them learn what you want them to. As the classical poet Horace noted, the mingling of pleasure with instruction makes the teaching more pleasurable. Or, to quote Jonathan Swift, “As wit is the noblest and most useful gift of human nature, so humor is the most agreeable, and where these two enter far into the composition of any work, they will render it always acceptable to the world.” Think back on your own education, on those professors who, because of the tightness of their stuffed shirts, could find nothing amusing, and contrast them with those other professors who could enjoy and share a hearty laugh, sometimes even at their own expense. Weren’t the classes with the latter profs a lot more fun and enjoyable, and didn’t you learn more from them?

You need not (and probably should not) tell canned jokes, but developing a willingness to laugh will be very useful. Most students have sufficient grief in their lives so that it is not necessary for you to add to it with your teaching style.


11. Model

Model in your own teaching behavior the lessons you want the students to learn. If you want your students to become careful thinkers, demonstrate careful thinking. Students will study what you do even more than what you say, so you would be wise to display the habits of fairness, circumspection, balance, justness. Show that you understand with sympathy all sides of a controversial issue. Show that the knowledge you are teaching has a definite and useful impact on your life, attitudes and behavior.

And be sure to admit freely when you don’t know the answer or when you have made a mistake. Students report feeling increased rather than decreased respect for professors who admit their ignorance. After all, students are not looking for someone perfect; they are looking for someone human and genuine.


12. Use a variety of teaching tools

A given fact can be conveyed in any of several different ways. A good way to maintain interest and foster communication is to develop a repertory of information transmission methods and use them throughout the semester. The blackboard, a flipchart, an overhead transparency, slides, a video, a film, a handout””any one of these could convey a concept.

In teaching vocabulary, you might use a multiple choice quiz, a matching quiz, fill-in-the-blank quiz, a crossword puzzle. Or have the students make a sentence from each word, write a prayer containing all the words in the list, write a song containing the words, teach each other in small groups, and so on.

Illustrations can be drawn from fiction, music, film, cartoons, newspaper articles, scripture, metaphors, personal experience, technology, art, polls, in-class experiments, in-class ad hoc mini-dramas, nature, etc.

Take the class outside to an anthill to teach them about society; bring an apple to class to slice up and divide among everyone to teach the concept of limited resources; have one student lead another blindfolded student around the room to teach about faith; develop a field assignment that requires students to go somewhere and discover something, interview someone, or find something and then come back and report on it or write it up. In short, be creative. There are hundreds of ways to make learning varied, dynamic, and exciting.

Robert Harris is a writer and educator with decades of teaching experience at the college and university level. To access more of his work, visit

Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.