Input on instructional practices from undergraduates or recent undergraduates

by Harry on February 4, 2018

I’m planning an event (mainly for faculty and administrators) about improving undergraduate instruction, and I want the voices of undergraduates to, in some way, inform what gets said. it would be helpful to me to hear from current or recent undergraduates answering the questions below. And, to be honest, I have been collecting stories about good and bad college instruction for years, but not in any systematic way and only, obviously, from students who tell them to me, so this is an opportunity to gather stories from other people. Now — I know that not many undergraduates read CT regularly. But lots of you know some undergraduates and recent undergraduates, and many of you teach them. So i) ask students or recent students whom you know, and give me their answers. And ii) I’d be really grateful if those of you who teach undergraduates could send them this link, and ask them to contribute.

Here are the questions:

1. Describe something that one or more of your professors does/did that you think other professors ought to do as well.

2. Describe something that more than one of your professors does/did that you think no professors ought to do.

I can give you a couple of examples that I’ve gathered from recent undergraduates, that seem sensible to me, just to give you a sense of the sorts of things I am looking for.

Do: make students discuss a question for a few minutes in small groups before opening the class up to discussion
Do: cold call, but only after warning the students that you are going to do that
(I do both of these).

Don’t: ever speak to the board with your back to the class
Don’t: simply read the powerpoint slides, and don’t also make the powerpoints the textbook
(I did the first of those occasionally till a student told me not to. The second one… well, I don’t know what to say).

Please, just answer one or both of the questions!



John Quiggin 02.04.18 at 11:34 pm

In the late 1980s, before there was such a thing as Powerpoint, I tried the following. I made transparencies in a large font, and left a lot of space between them. The students got printed handouts.

The idea was that they could add their own notes under the headings I gave them. It worked pretty well, but I didn’t teach for quite a few years after that, and never came back to the idea.


Dwight L. Cramer 02.05.18 at 3:00 pm

Do. Project enthusiasm. If one morning you aren’t feeling it, fake it. It is okay to modulate the enthusiasm (i.e., ‘the stuff I’m talking about today may not as interesting as what we did last week, but we need to cover it to lay the groundwork for next week, which is going to be even better. . .’)

Don’t. The concept of TMI goes both ways. If you want to complain about car repairs, morning sickness, Holiday bills, whatever, that’s what colleagues, not students, are for.


WF 02.05.18 at 5:15 pm

Do: Make the use of “models” more explicit, even when they are qualitative and informal, so that more can be retained. The best professor I had taught environmental issues/policy, and opened with three “perspectives”, each emphasizing different aspects of environmental issues. (Roughly, the perspectives emphasized: Scarcity, innovation, and political economy respectively — though the professor named the perspectives and provided more detail.)

Several years later, I don’t remember lots and lots of details from the course. But I can think through environmental news and debates by trying on the three perspectives/models. And I came to wish that more of my social science professors had been more explicit when laying out the lenses through which to analyze the course content.

Related: Making the models stick is more important than direct contact with the texts from which they originate. Ie, reading Malthus is great. But being able to articulate some version of a neo-Malthusian perspective to think through environmental issues is more important than remembering the details of exactly what types of shortages Malthus was predicting.

Likewise, remembering the details of the Simon-Ehrlich wager is less important than being able to make a Simon-esque argument about a modern environmental question.


Alan White 02.05.18 at 5:15 pm

Hi Harry–

These are excellent questions because you frame them clearly, and thoughtful students at least will see the force of the first question’s “one or more of your professors” as opposed to the “more than one of your professors” of the second (to reduce negative reports of purely idiosyncratic behavior I assume).

I wish I were still teaching (I just retired last month) to help you directly here. But may I suggest you contact people like Leiter and Weinberg to post a link to your OP on the biggish philosophy blogs? You might get more direct/indirect replies that way.

One reply to the facing-the-board point: I always used boards heavily during my near 40 years of teaching, but my writing has always also been bad and just got worse as I aged. So I made it an announced practice to say everything I wrote as I was writing it, pause and turn to the class while writing to point to individual words and restate them during writing longer passages, and then when finished once again go through everything I wrote asking for questions about the meaning of what was written. Talking out loud as I wrote also helped me stay focused in stating complicated things clearly.


TM 02.05.18 at 9:02 pm

Don’t: assign complex work (essays, analyses) and then fail to provide feedback, or only superficial feedback, or give everybody an A. By feedback, I don’t mean giving a grade but pointing out strengths, weaknesses and mistakes (it’s unfortunate that grades often have to be given but they shouldn’t be what this is about; on the other hand students often look only at the grade). Also, where there are correct answers, Do provide a model solution.


Ebenezer Scrooge 02.06.18 at 2:48 pm

Don’t make PowerPoints that consist mostly of bullet points. Bullet points are for syllabi, not lectures. (This is general PowerPoint wisdom, not limited to instruction.)


Tracy Lightcap 02.06.18 at 5:04 pm

Don’t: Use Powerpoint at all.

There are two parts to this. The first is that when you can make points by putting them on the board, do so. I have found that students actually like to watch their profs/teachers figuring things out for themselves and putting the links in mechanisms on the board. This also gets around the “Could we go back to that slide you showed a few minutes ago? Which one? I don’t know, but you just showed it.” insane waste of time.

Second, PPT is notorious for the limitations it makes in terms of embedded graphics and text. I use Lane Kenworthy’s trick on this. If you have a presentation in mind, do the whole thing in a word processor – they’re much more flexible – then convert the thing to pdf and show it using your pdf viewer/app. WP apps allow much higher density for graphics then PPT does and you can switch between portrait/horizon views easily.

Here endeth the sermon.


Marc 02.06.18 at 6:21 pm

Do: give your students individual attention. Answer their queries promptly. Make yourself available – even in large classes, the number who will actually come to office hours is usually small, but the people involved really benefit. Contact them (especially in a large class) if their marks or attendance fall off. They really appreciate that and are frequently surprised that they’re not just a number.

Don’t: give stream of consciousness presentations. A lecture should be self-contained, not a continuous string of information where you pick up where you left off the prior session.


Neville Morley 02.06.18 at 8:06 pm

These are very nicely framed questions. Unfortunately it’s a terrible time to ask UK undergraduates, as the National Student Survey period (with *terrible* questions) has just begun so they will soon be sick to the back teeth with requests for feedback and responses, but I’ll try anyway.


Plarry 02.07.18 at 2:39 am

I’ve had brilliant math and science professors, and not a single one has ever followed “Don’t ever speak to the board with your back to the class”. I find it impossible to follow this myself. When you are drawing a diagram or writing a formula, saying what you are writing seems so natural and well-motivated that it doesn’t seem credible that it’s poor pedagogical practice.


Paul 02.07.18 at 5:19 am

Graduated last year from an international relations degree and have read the blog for years. In a final year political science class, we were tasked with coming up with our own essay question. This had been on offer in previous classes in a kind of “oh, you can pick your own essay topic, just run it by me first” kind of way. This class, however, put question-framing to us as a specific problem in itself and introduced the issues that go along with that.

Every student did it, not just those who wanted to, and not just because we wanted to shoehorn our own interests into the class (guilty). The exercise was explicit and treated us as potential postgraduate students (which we were, and this was explicit in the pitches to us during this class) and it was the most challenging and rewarding assessment exercise I did in my degree. The work involved in properly scoping my analysis was great and it gave me a real investment in the writing. I worked harder and got a better mark on that essay than most others.


Koala dreams 02.07.18 at 3:37 pm

Do: write on the board with a black pen
Don’t: write on the board with a red pen

Do: introduce the literature on the literature list on the first lesson, and explain shortly why you choose those books/articles/whatever

Do: invite a graduate student to do a presentation on their topic of research

Don’t: assign student presentations with a time demand and then use a big portion of the lesson time giving a lecture on a favourite topic, forcing the students to cut their presentations short.

Don’t: assign major assignment over the holidays


Steven B. 02.08.18 at 9:23 am

Do: make any process you think the students would benefit from mandatory. For instance, a professor I had believed that we would benefit from writing a first draft, conferencing with him, then submitting our final paper. So he made this a formal, graded course requirement.

Don’t: allow discussions to veer onto topics that many students have not had the chance to study before. In my experience, it tends to allow the same pocket of students to dominate class discussions.

Do: invite those students to office hours for further discussion.


K.A.T. 02.08.18 at 5:10 pm

— do —
smile, talk to people, and generally engage with students (obviously tough in larger classes, but even talking to just the front row can help with the rest of the class staying present, a sort of self-elected representative government :P). best 先生 i’ve ever had was so successful because she treated people as people and they responded in kind, like a friendly office relationship that could potentially develop into friendship

— don’t —
value The Plan over flexibility. also obviously hard to do when there’s a fixed amount of material that must necessarily be covered, but being open to adapting and maybe taking a bit longer on something than you’d hoped can bring a level of understanding that would never be reached otherwise. maybe the “right” way to do this is “planned flexibility”, where time is set aside beforehand so it can be used if necessary


MARCUS WEBSTER 02.08.18 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for this opportunity to contribute. I’m a lib arts college prof, biology. Many years ago my physiology teacher gave us the exam questions, a list of ten or so essays, a week in advance and told us he would choose three randomly on the exam day. The whole class met, over at Pogson’s house, to “cheat”. We’d assign questions to each other, prepare them, and then present for our classmates. Those evenings of sharing what we knew were the best part of the course. We concealed our conspiracy from Dr. M until the end of the course, when he admitted as how that was what he hoped would happen. I have used the same strategy as a teacher ever since and find that study groups form even without my encouragement. My only update is that now the random numbers are chosen with a 10-sided D&D dice.

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