First Year Odyssey

Chalk Talk

Four Essentials of Effective Teaching by Dan T. Coenen

From Chalk Talk: Teaching Tips from the UGA Teaching Academy, edited by Loch K. Johnson.

A decade ago, I found myself on a five-hour van trip with a teaching program administrator, a department head in the College of Education, and another distinguished professor from the College of Agriculture. By the time the trip was over, the four of us had come up with a list of keys to good instruction. I no longer recall the whole list. But I do recall that there was agreement among us about key principles, notwithstanding our very different roles, experiences, and styles as teachers. I also remember four items on the list that have always struck me as of critical importance. Here they are:

  • 1. Get to know your students as individuals. At bottom, teaching is about making connections. And making those connections begins with knowing who one’s students are. Part of this process is simply learning student names. But there are good ways to do more. For example, I host a party at my home for my first-year law class each fall, so that we can simply hang out and chat about non-school matters. A colleague pores over admissions files before each semester starts, jotting down things such as the hometown and undergraduate school of each of her students. Making these efforts personalizes the education process and communicates a caring attitude. Students value these efforts and reciprocate by bringing an extra measure of commitment to the classroom.
  • 2. Use humor (including, if it fits, self-deprecating humor). As I got older, I became more and more convinced that laughter is vital to human health. If this observation is accurate, then humor has an important role to play in the classroom. To be sure, humor must be used with care because students bring widely different backgrounds, loyalties, and outlooks to the educational community. Of importance, humor built on putting down particular leaders or groups—or, worse yet, individual students—has no place in the good teacher’s toolbox. That is one reason why self- deprecating humor appeals to me. Another reason is that self-deprecating humor strengthens connections by keeping the teacher from seeming (or, worse yet, actually becoming) too snooty or self-important. We are all different, and self-deprecating humor will not work for all teachers or in all classroom settings. But some form of humor—if of the positive, affirming kind—will keep the classroom from becoming the sort of dull and dreary place in which learning is a pain rather than a pleasure.
  • 3. Offer positive reinforcement. Most good teachers recognize the power of positive reinforcement. Finding effective ways to give positive reinforcement, however, can be a challenge. One technique I use (albeit too infrequently) is to track down individual students outside of class to offer commendation for a strong performance or a noteworthy demonstration of effort. Such encounters are always appreciated by, and motivating for, students; indeed, these brief hallway chats can sometimes even be life-altering in their positive effects. Another technique I use is to provide on-the-spot praise for strong in-class contributions. Because I teach in law school, I use the so-called “Socratic” method, which involves direction a series of challenging questions to a single student. When a student responds to a difficult question by offering a particularly insightful comment, I will sometimes yell (in a loud and enthusiastic voice) “Excellent!” This expression of excitement offers well-deserved encouragement to the speaker. More subtly, it offers encouragement to other students who have come up with the same or a similar response while vicariously participating in the same Socratic give-and-take.
  • 4. Wear a cheesehead while standing on a table. One goal of any teacher should be to make memorable the delivery of key messages. In law school, teachers often present hypothetical cases to students who must then struggle with whether those cases fall within the ill-defined boundaries of some previously recognized principle of law. Including in these hypotheticals things like garbanzo-bean waffles or an elephant named Blumbo aids the cause of facilitating student recollection. Using a related technique, I have been known to crawl on top of a desk—sometimes while wearing a cheesehead—to emphasize a point. (outside the academic setting, the large, yellow, wedge-shaped hats known as “cheeseheads” are most often donned by fans of Wisconsin sports teams, particularly the Green Bay Packers football squad.) The trick is that I do this rarely, thus signaling that the point being made is of truly extraordinary significance. Not every teacher should stand on a table while wearing a cheesehead, because the first rule of good instruction is that each teacher must work in a way that is true to that teacher’s own personality and core self. But every teacher should be on the look-out for ways to bring energy to the classroom while greasing the wheels of memory.