Checking the “list” twice – Donna Ellis

What is it about top 10 lists?  My understanding of cognitive psychology reminds me that our brains naturally try to categorize information, but lists in relation to instructional development just seem too trite, particularly when they focus on the negative.

My grumbles stem from a fairly recent U.S. News & World Report article called “10 Warning Signs of a Bad Professor“.  It was, in essence, a shopping list of behaviours that students should avoid if they experience them early in a semester.  I can certainly empathize with students, but  the top (or should I say “bottom”) 10 ten list format made the points seem overly simplified.  Could a “boring” professor in week one simply be nervous in a room filled with 100, 250, or 1,000 unfamiliar students? Course a professor who doesn’t give out a syllabus right away maybe be planning to create one with their students?  And what about the professor who says she or he will “‘learn the material with you'”?  Could this be a way to set up active learning such as problem-based learning where there’s always something for everyone in the class to learn?

Felder & Brent (Aug. 31, 2009, Tomorrow’s Professor #961) set up a better argued list of “The Ten Worst Teaching Mistakes” in that they actually draw on references (albeit many of their own) to back up the points that they make.   They touch on some of the same behaviours as the previously discussed article, but they think beyond the beginning of term to the experience of a whole course.

I think what irks me most about such lists is that they appear to suggest that as long as you don’t commit any of the “errors” mentioned, all is well with your teaching.  To me, really good teaching involves a complex set of teacher behaviours and attitudes that need to mesh with a complex set of student behaviours and attitudes — all within a complex contextual setting.  Checklists just scratch the surface.

Lists like those reviewed here also put the focus on negatives rather than highlighting the positives and only encourage us to stay off the “bad” list rather than push ourselves to be the best teachers that we can be.  Seems like they’re just trying to use extrinsic motivators, much like what we complain about in relation to our students (they only respond to grades)…  Maybe we could benefit from some positive, intrinsically motivating ideas.  Got any you want to share?

Published by

Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis has supported the teaching development of Waterloo faculty members and graduate students since 1994. In her role as Director, she oversees the development and delivery of all the Centre for Teaching Excellence programming and services, which include individual faculty consultations; events directed at graduate students, new faculty, and established faculty regarding face-to-face teaching, blended learning, and emerging technologies; online resources; curriculum and program review consultations; and research support services. Donna has a PhD from Waterloo’s Management Sciences program and completed her dissertation research on instructional innovations. She also has an MA in Language and Professional Writing from Waterloo, and has taught in the Speech Communication program. Donna, along with her husband, spends time away from work raising three fine boys.

Leave a Reply