Do students know what good teaching is? — Dr. Mark Morton

Do students know what good teaching is?

That’s a question that often arises when I meet with instructors to explore ways of enhancing their teaching. It’s also a question that must occur to all instructors every time they review the results of their end-of-term course evaluations (no one, after all, gets perfect evaluations!).

The question might be restated this way: although students undoubtedly know what they like from an instructor, do they always know what they need?

The answer, I think, is that most of them do (but not all the time). I’ve reached this conclusion after reading through the submissions to this year’s Loving to Learn Day contest. That contest asked students (and others) to respond to this question: “What makes a teacher a really GREAT teacher?”

I received about 200 responses to this question from students ranging from grade three to undergraduates. All of the responses were genuinely thoughtful. Not a single one of the responses included glib or flippant statements such as “Teachers who end class early and give easy tests are great!”

More interesting, though, was the extent to which the students’ responses echoed the best practices for instructors that have been identified and articulated by experts in higher education. Chickering and Gamson’s “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” which was developed in 1987, is one such best-practices rubric. Here are those seven principles:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Uses active learning techniques.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

I seriously doubt whether any of the students who participated in the Loving to Learn Day contest have ever heard of Chickering and Gamson. Yet in the 200 responses that I received from them, each of those seven principles was articulated many times. In fact, it’s easy to recreate Chickering and Gamson’s best practices by extracting passages from the students’ responses:

  1. “I really like a teacher who is willing to spend extra time focusing, one on one with a student to benefit their learning. I think it is admirable when a teacher will go out of their way and uses their own time to help a student or to talk to them about personal issues.”
  2. “An awesome teacher is original, kind, fun, brave, courageous oh my I just could go on forever and they need to be wise, smart of course but they sometimes do not have to be smart because they and us kids learn better by learning together.”
  3. “My favourite teacher would be one that teaches subjects hands-on, and lets you try new things. They would let you experiment, and you wouldn’t have to do exactly what they do.”
  4. “Also, handing back marked work fast makes it easy for a student to find out what they need to fix for similar future work.”
  5. “A great teacher is one who sets clear due dates/objectives for homework/projects and makes sure not to hand out more than a student can handle.”
  6. “A great teacher sets high expectations and doesn’t give up on their students.”
  7. “All teachers should respect their student’s different learning styles and know how to bend their teaching routine to help the students learn in a way that is comfortable for them.”

Based on the 200 students’ responses, it seems to clear to me that students do know what they need from an instructor. They know, in other words, what makes an instructor a really GREAT instructor. At least some of the time.

The reason I add this qualifier – “some of the time” – is that these students obviously wrote their responses when they were actively and intently reflecting on the qualities of great instructors. They didn’t write them when they were in the middle of a dry biology lecture, nor did they write them as they were trying to study for two midterms on the same night. Ask them the same question in those circumstances, and the responses might start to include comments like “great teachers liven up the class with jokes” and “great teachers give easy midterms.”

In other words, what students’ think about the characteristics of a great teacher is probably shaped by the immediate circumstances of those students. In a similar way, my thoughts about food are influenced by my immediate circumstances. I do, for example, have a pretty good understanding of nutritional best practices – that is, I know what I need to eat and not eat to stay healthy. But if I’m stressed out or overly hungry, all that goes out the window. Best practices become a bag of chips or a chocolate bar.

This recognition of the role of context is important, I think, because it means that if we want to ensure that students understand what good teaching is, we don’t really need to teach it to them. They already know what makes a great teacher. Instead, we need to teach them coping skills or meta-cognitive skills so that they can keep an awareness of that knowledge in their minds when they are in less than ideal circumstances – like when they are in the middle of a dry lecture, or when they are tired or stressed out but still need to study for an exam.

So, if you’re an instructor, I think you can trust that your students, deep down, already know what makes an instructor great. If you want to bring that knowledge to the surface, just give them the time and opportunity, once in a while, to take a deep breath and reflect on what they really need from their instructors. And, while you’re at it, you might also ask them to reflect on what they need to do to become great learners.

Incidentally, here are more extracts that I’ve taken from the 200 responses that students submitted:

  • I enjoy teachers that don’t always stick to the teaching schedule. They wander off topic to enable further learning and understanding of a topic or lesson. They encourage their students to dig deeper and learn more.
  • Creativity is essential to teaching because it keeps learning fresh, and students open-minded. It’s easy for teachers to make students sit in rows, and give identical worksheets to students, but a great teacher can inspire learning, inspire creativity.
  • I think a great teacher should take the time and effort to remember important things about a student’s life.
  • What makes a teacher a great teacher is when they always know your level of intelligence so they know what work to give to you. They should challenge you, but not too much.
  • I think a good teacher is one that never lets you give up. They’re patient and happy, they tell you “You Can!” when you think you can’t. They are there for you, they let you take the time you need, and they help you all the way through.
  • The teacher should make learning seem fun and comfortable. Not necessarily easy, but it shouldn’t seem like the hardest thing ever.
  • Teachers need to keep an open mind. Students differ in everything from gender and race to personality and sexual orientation. If a teachers push stereotypes on them, they could cause a lot of stress.
  • To be a good teacher you have to believe that you are good at teaching.
  • A great teacher respects their students. They are free to think whatever they want.
  • For teachers to be great, they have to possess some key qualities; patience, kindness, a desire to learn, a love for their job, and a sense of humour.
  • Great teachers choose teaching because they thrive on helping students and they have a passion for learning.
  • Another thing that makes a really GREAT teacher is that they need to have appreciation for everything you do. If you help another student they should take that into account.
  • Teachers need to have a sense of humour. Humour can keep students engaged in their learning. Having a less serious side makes teachers more human and approachable.
  • A great teacher does what is best for the student, whatever that might be.
  • What makes a teacher REALLY great? To me, it’s a teacher with passion. When your teacher comes through that door in the morning to the moment they leave, they are excited to teach, they are excited to enrich our brains with knowledge.
  • A good teacher is always well prepared and organized. They are a master of their subject, and would make their instructions clear to all students.
  • A great teacher doesn’t force their ways upon you.
  • We need the kind of people who will recognize the students that try so hard just to get a C. Teachers that care. We don’t need great teachers. We need great people.
  • The best teacher is one that teaches you the harmony between everything good and bad. One who helps you grow as a human being.
  • In twenty years you might not recall that your math teacher explained fractions well. But you might remember that she brought in a pie to show you.
  • A great teacher needs to be willing to try new things. To try a different lesson, to try a different approach, and to take risks. They need to be willing to experiment, to have successes, to have failures, and to learn from their experiences.
  • A great teacher is someone who understands that each student has different strengths and weaknesses, and from there aims to help them reach their individual needs. They never focus on grade comparison, but rather on the progress a student is making.
  • A great teacher would have to be able to teach in different way, because not everyone learns the same as everyone else.
  • A great teacher never keeps knowledge to themselves. When they’ve learned something new from their experiences they make sure that their students are learning from them as well. For this reason I would describe every great teacher I’ve ever had as generous. They are people who are always willing to share their wisdom with others.
  • To me a teacher is someone that helps you discover and guides you toward your dream.

And if you want more, you can read all of the responses to “What makes a teacher a GREAT teacher?” at the Loving to Learn Day site.

Published by

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.