Five slim books about teaching
Teaching books seem to try to cover several kinds of advice: procedural/administrative (how to organize a syllabus, deal with grade disputes, etc.), checklists/best practices (have a detailed rubric for your exam, don’t forget to inquire about institutional policies like cheating and late homeworks, etc.), and pedagogical (things to do to maximize learning).
Here are mini-reviews of five short books (<200 pages) claiming to prepare and/or motivate new instructors to do a great job. Some are clearly focused on one kind of advice, others mix them up.
In addition to trying to contextualize each one, I also tried to view it through the lens of Large-Enrollment CS Instructors (LECSIs), since that is the audience I know best. Some of the items I identify as “missing for LECSIs” or “noteworthy for LECSIs” may also be missing/noteworthy to other constituents.
I’m left with the following open questions:
- How effective can a discipline-neutral book on teaching really be? The pedagogical challenges of teaching, say, literary criticism or history are quite different from those of teaching STEM courses that combine conceptual learning with skills. The advice and pedagogical techniques suggested are sometimes hard to transfer over.
- There are tons of books on classroom teaching (some written for regular professors, others apparently written for educational psychologists) that are three to five times longer than the ones reviewed below. Do those books contain additional valuable advice missing from these short books, or are they just less concise? (A future review will try to address that.)
The five books reviewed here (with links to Amazon) are:
- Falk, E., Becoming a New Instructor: A Guide for College Adjuncts and Graduate Students
- Filene, P., The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors
- Wong, O., An Instructor Primer for Adjunct and New Faculty: Foundations for Career Success 1st Edition
- Lambert, L., S. Tice, P. Featherstone, eds., University Teaching: a Guide for Graduate Students
- Weimer, E., Improving your Classroom Teaching: Survival Skills for Scholars
Becoming a New Instructor: A Guide for College Adjuncts and Graduate Students
By Erika Falk, Director of MA program in Communications at Johns Hopkins.
Executive summary: The tone of the book is a no-nonsense, get-down-to-business checklist—how to plan a syllabus, get free examination copies of textbooks, find online services that detect plagiarism, etc. “Joy” didn’t make the page budget; as an adjunct, you can feel joy or nervousness later, but right now you have to prepare for the first lecture, which ohmygod is next week!
This 168-page book (114 without the appendices showing sample course syllabi and materials) started as a handbook for the author’s responsibilities in hiring and training adjuncts, so it’s particularly aimed at them. It’s a step-by-step guide to the mechanics of putting together and teaching a course as an adjunct—with chapters literally numbered “step 1” through “step 8”—so it assumes the new instructor isn’t familiar with the university’s culture/policies and has a number of sections reminding the instructor to ask their administrators (e.g. policies for dealing with students with disabilities, dealing with cheating, grade disputes, etc.)
There is a good deal of non-obvious practical advice: “Return exams/assignments at the end of class rather than beginning, so that if students have an emotional reaction to their grade, it doesn’t impede their learning during class.”
- I get no sense of the “Joy of teaching,” but given it’s aimed at adjuncts…
- The sections on creating assignments, exams, and rubrics are clearly more tailored to a humanities/writing/discussion-intensive program rather than a skills-based technical one.
Noteworthy: a chapter on teaching online (“plan to spend twice as much time preparing for an online course as a traditional one”), and callouts in other chapters noting concerns specific to online teachers on that topic. For example, in the discussion about “grading on participation”, in online courses live discussions are replaced by discussion forums, so you might grade “participation” in an online course by counting the number of posts a student makes.
There are references to the literature to support statements such as “Lecture is as effective as any other method of transmitting knowledge, but less effective if the goal is to promote thought, teach values, or inspire interest.” There are also callouts with references for topics such as “the importance of taking notes,” “the effect of laptop use in the classroom” (TL;DR: don’t allow it), and so on. Most such references are relatively recent (last 15 years or so) and point to published papers or other respectable books.
Useful for professors? While as an experienced instructor I’m not sure I learned anything new, it is a pretty comprehensive “checklist” for new instructors (if not a particularly inspiring or joyful one) and it’s hard to imagine it being more concise and still covering all these topics. Like Strunk & White, I’d probably find myself rereading it every once in awhile to refresh stuff I may have been forgetting to do.
Useful for TAs? There’s quite a bit in here that most TAs do not have to do, such as plan the syllabus, determine grading breakdown, etc. There is material on “classroom technique”—comportment, treating students with respect, presentation skills, etc.—but for TAs I would focus relatively more on those topics than this book does.
The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors
By Peter Filene, Prof. of History at UNC Chapel Hill; foreword by Ken Bain, author of What the best college teachers do
Executive Summary: There is good advice here, and clear joy that is absent from Becoming…, but despite the title, the book isn’t “practical” because it isn’t tightly organized. The advice is scattered throughout the anecdotes and hard to extract compared to Becoming’s checklist-oriented approach. LECSIs may find it challenging to transfer some of the advice and ideas from the examples given, not one of which is STEM. Specific important topics such as creating exam questions and rubrics are barely addressed at all.
The first sentence of the book is “Welcome to your first year of teaching.” The attitudinal contrast to Becoming a New Instructor is immediately evident:
- The instructor’s joy clearly comes through: in the exhortations to not give up, to view the experience of teaching a course as an opportunity to bond with your students over an experience you have together, etc. He assumes that you are looking forward to teaching and even warns you about a few things that you should not allow to damp your enthusiasm. He even supports the idea of a live lecture over watching recorded ones, firm in his belief that the lecturer’s engagement and persona do matter to the students, and that it’s hard for those to come across as well on a recording.
- Where Becoming… has an “interesting element” (callout box, checklist, figure, etc.) on almost every page, this book is straight text. Readable and informal, but the structure here is apparent only at the chapter/topic level (“Understanding yourself as a teacher”, “Lecturing”, etc.) This is a leisurely read with advice sprinkled throughout; Becoming is a procedural how-to manual.
The impatient may therefore find themselves skimming to find the practical nuggets, as compared to Becoming…, in which every single word is associated with practical/how-to/checklist advice.
There is good advice here:
- On “understanding your students”: collect “one minute feedback” from students halfway through or toward the end of class, where the students fill in 3 blanks: (a) The main point of today’s class is ___ (b) What interested me most is ___ (c) What I don’t understand is _____.
- On grabbing their attention at start of lecture: Open with provocative questions such as “Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima: yes or no?” (I’m trying to think of a CS equivalent: “Can you solve checkers by brute force, yes or no?”)
- There is a good discussion on dealing with the sensitivities of different categories of students (ethnic or racial minorities, women, students from cultures where communication styles are very different, etc.)
- On things to do in lecture: breakout groups, “60 second essays”, debate-and-vote, think-pair-share, … but these are presented almost as an aside in one table rather than in a summary format (which I prefer).
- On how to get students to come to office hours and/or get to know you (“consider holding them in a coffee shop”) but it’s buried in an anecdote rather than pulled out in an easy-to-refer-to list.
- On not overreacting to negative reviews from students: “Even Jesus lost one out of twelve.”
All examples are drawn from nontechnical courses in which the goal is not imparting/practicing skills, but developing the students’ point of view on something. E.g. observing the student’s progression from “dualist” (just do what the professor says, see the world in black and white) to “relativist” (all points of view are equally valid) to “multiplicity” (some points of view are better-supported than others and perhaps more worthy of consideration). It’d be a stretch to apply this approach to, say, software development. Similarly, the examples given for “writing an effective course overview with learning outcomes” are based on course titles such as Post-colonial Literature in Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, even though the advice they embody is generally good advice (avoid academic jargon, don’t “de-personalize” the description with bland phrases such as “this course seeks to develop…”, and so on).
There is a chapter “Teaching without Perishing” on how to balance the demands of research and teaching, and indeed whether it’s worth worrying about teaching for tenure purposes. The chapter laments the attitude at R-1 universities but doesn’t give any particular advice on what to do.
There is one long paragraph on technology, and it seems dated and underinformed. (“College students today have come of age with PowerPoint, the Web, DVDs, and VCRs”—find me a college student who knows what a VCR is—and makes reference to a “xeroxed syllabus”.) It would’ve been better to omit this topic entirely than to throw it this pathetic bone.
The index is brief, e.g. no entry for anxiety or nervousness or performance.
- No advice whatsoever on creating exam questions and rubrics; minimal and qualitative advice on grading written homework assignments (“Be prepared to justify each grade”).
- No material on online teaching, or in general on the use of technology to support teaching.
- No advice on dealing with “problem students” (whether just ornery or having legitimate health issues)
- No advice on dealing with “stage fright” and other issues of confidence
To oversimplify, I’d give Filene’s book to someone going into the Peace Corps but Falk’s book to someone going into the Army.
An Instructor Primer for Adjunct and New Faculty: Foundations for Career Success, 1st Edition
By Ovid Wong, Assoc. Prof. of Education, Benedictine University, Illinois. 122 pages; no index
Executive summary: Read the self-check “reflection” questions at end of each chapter to get checklists comparable to those in Becoming. In between is material of highly-variable quality, supplemented with poorly-produced figures and graphs, and in a slightly schizoid voice that can’t quite decide what its tone should be. Missing content: comparable to Filene’s book, above.
This book is also heavily aimed at adjuncts, especially those doing it part-time as professionals (e.g. a finance professional teaching accounting courses as an adjunct) and especially on those working with adult learners (returning/continuing/part-time education), so there is discussion on the extent to which such learners’ goals align with such teachers’ methods (which is largely irrelevant for LECSIs).
This book hopes for joy, but does not presuppose it: ‘Some of you reading this book may be considering a career decision with questions like “Is teaching right for me?” ”Do I want to be a college teacher?” ”What is my next career move?”’ (Ed. note: I’d add “Do you want fries with that?”) Correspondingly, the first chapter is entirely about the financial and lifestyle “big picture” of being either a full-time or part-time postsecondary instructor, including median salaries, schools whose unions mandate benefits for adjuncts vs. not, the rewards vs. the lifestyle tradeoffs, and so on.
The advice overlaps with Becoming but it’s in prose rather than checklist form. You can see the lineage of Barbara Davis’s Tools for Teaching in some of the phrases (“A visit to the classroom before the first day of class is always helpful.”) While every chapter begins with anticipatory questions (“What are the rankings and responsibilities of professorship?”) and ends with a Summary and Reflection Questions, the material in between is of variable quality and often inflated by scenarios that add little, and the summary doesn’t always match the anticipatory questions. On the other hand, answering the reflection questions is a good way of cherry-picking the “checklist/concrete advice” parts of the material.
Weak production values and polish: Even basic Excel and PowerPoint skills would have yielded better looking figures. There is no index. Editorial and grammatical oversights abound; if it wasn’t worth someone’s time to edit, is it worth reading?
- A lucid treatment of eliciting questions: starting from the pitfall of asking “Are there any questions” and being greeted with enigmatic silence, the author gives guidelines for asking specific questions—to get students to respond, to ease the pressure of not wanting to ask a “dumb” question, and to stimulate further questions (get the juices flowing). One example of the advice is to use the “five W’s and an H”—who, what, when, where, why, how—to interrogate the concept under discussion and come up with good questions about it. Another is to start with lower-order (in the Bloom sense) questions and work your way up to higher-order questions.
- The section on Bloom’s Taxonomy (aka Learning Science 101) is better than the corresponding discussion in either Becoming or Joy, and is augmented with a helpful matrix that combines Bloom’s taxonomy with a taxonomy of learning types (content, procedures, concepts, metacognition) so you can “score” how well your questions perform on both axes. But there isn’t advice on creating good questions.
- There is a nice discussion of alternative teaching formats besides lecture and discussion: game-based, role-playing-based, field-trip-based, concept-map-based.
- The instructional technology advice is not useful to LECSIs; there are pointers to field-specific instructional technologies such as online simulators, but I wouldn’t expect a book this short to treat that topic effectively (and it doesn’t).
- The quaint discussion of online/distance learning has been overtaken by events in the last three years. I cringed to read that “including technology in education-based activities is important to prepare students for careers from the counter at McDonald’s to the executive desk of the corporate office.”
- A paragraph is devoted to response-collection systems such as clickers, but there is no guidance on what activities to embed them in, such as peer instruction.
The book lacks a consistent tone:
- Some advice mirrors the advice in Joy, but is more concretely presented: rather than counseling you to understand your own teaching philosophy/identity, Wong provides a self-quiz whose score tells you the answer.
- On the other hand, some advice is vague and sounds like an excerpt from a bad movie script: “How would one decide whether instruction should be around teaching or around learning? What is the answer? Only you have the answer, in your heart.”
- Still other advice is hardly comforting: “Like it or not, what you do the first week, especially on the first day, will determine your success for the rest of the school term. Unfortunately, these [are] tasks you did not learn in any of your previous formal or informal training.”
- Some good advice seems based on bad reasons. For example, you should learn the students’ names because “For the professor to call students by name reinforces the impression that he is in charge.” This sounds darkly autocratic to me, like Kim Jong-Un calling you by name; though in a subsequent chapter he justifies the advice to learn names with “Students feel a sense of belonging when they are recognized.”
There is some material on authentic assessment and on different question types, but surprisingly, no quantitative suggestions or concrete research to hang it on. For example, what is the optimal number of distractors for multiple choice questions? What does it mean for an assessment to be valid and reliable? (Item-response theory answers these questions, and while most instructors might not be willing to learn the details of the theory, it seems strange to call out the importance of validity and reliability without mentioning even the existence of a quantitative way to measure them.)
Somewhat out of place is a section on “the three logics of instruction” (deductive, inductive, and abductive). I’m not sure why there would be a section on this but not (e.g.) a section on the construction of formal proofs.
Lambert, L., S. Tice, P. Featherstone, eds., University Teaching: a Guide for Graduate Students
A collection of 15 ten-page essays (on average; 15 chapters, 155 pages), all written by Syracuse U. faculty and grad students and edited by two of its faculty, as part of its Future Professoriate project launched 1991 (book published 1996). The F.P. program is “dedicated to preparing graduate students for academic careers by combining graduate study’s traditional emphasis on excellence in scholarship with opportunities for a discipline-based, advanced teaching apprenticeship (termed a teaching associateship) under the careful guidance of a faculty teaching mentor.”
Executive summary: A few of essays are full of useful, practical information, while others are vague; as they are all written by different authors, the book can’t speak with one voice, and there is significant repetition of some canonical good ideas across chapters, such as “Learn students’ names and know them as individuals”. The essays are written by actual profs and TAs in the trenches: 7 STEM/ECE, 3 education, 19 humanities/arts/social sciences.
The editors/authors acknowledge “other respected volumes of readings about teaching” (they don’t say which ones), but this book claims to choose topics based on ongoing “intellectually rigorous” conversations about teaching at Syracuse and to view “good teaching” as a set of skills that goes beyond classroom technique. The first point isn’t particularly evident in the reading and the second seems self-evident.
**Noteworthy practical advice in specific chapters that would be worth summarizing:**
- Chapter 1 Practical tips: Good general advice, though no execution/coping strategies offered: Expect to be nervous; prepare thoroughly; clearly and thoroughly explain policies on grading, collaboration, etc; learn student’s names and try to treat with them as individuals; plan a motivating beginning, middle core, and wrap-up ending for each class; be available outside of class; laugh at and learn from your mistakes; admit when you don’t know the answer; “teach for the future” so students leave your class excited to learn more about your material.
- Ch. 5 Lab: written by ECE Prof & TAs plus education Prof, and aimed at lab TAs. Practical advice: Dryrun the labs; research the relevance of the experiment(s) to real life; make objectives of lab exercise clear; anticipate both conceptual and technical problems; keep an orderly environment (since lab isn’t structured like lecture/section); foster an “open learning” culture that is learner- and content-centered vs. instructor-centered like lecture; encourage group work but clarify guidelines for collaboration vs. cheating; be aware of safety (if appropriate given lab equipment).
- Ch 9 Using videotape [sic] to enhance instruction: Contains a useful “rubric” for evaluating a recording that could also be used for peer critique of your teaching. [Reproduced in my notes on book ideas]
- Ch 10 Motivating students: Proposes a matrix of suggestions for improving motivation, based on combining 2 models for designing & facilitating motivation: the Time Continuum Model (Wlodkowski, 1991) that views motivation as responding to students’ changing needs over the span of the course, and the ARCS (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction) model (Keller 1983). Specific and useful advice is offered on how to do address each of ARCS at various points in the course, e.g. “Use cueing phrases such as ‘This is particularly important’ to draw students’ attention to important content” [reproduced in my notes on book ideas].well along each of the four axes.
- Ch 15 Building a teaching portfolio: Good practical checklists on how to start collecting teaching portfolio materials early, with comments on which materials to collect depending on purpose of portfolio (get hired as research faculty, hired as teaching faculty, promoted, etc.) Portfolio materials include student surveys, course evaluations, videos of yourself, colleagues’ comments on observing your teaching, copies of student work, etc. As all these concepts are addressed in previous chapters, it would’ve worked better to have a “portfolio” margin icon wherever a particular element is mentioned that would be good to keep for your portfolio.
The other chapters contain generally good advice, but are short on actionable suggestions for implementing the advice:
- Overall tips: see above
- Lecture: Generally good advice without concrete actionable suggestions: your lecture should demonstrate how the different levels of learning (recall, understand, apply) can come together. Maintain the right culture and decorum in lecture. Believe in your students, sometimes despite diversity of abilities. Stimulate active learning by asking questions. Organize lecture content into a thought process that the students can recognize as coherent. Energize your lecture. Be yourself. Vary your presentation techniques, try innovation.
- Discussion/recitation: This chapter is targeted squarely at grad TAs and written by two PoliSci grad students. Advice includes: Clarify expectations of autonomy and duties with prof; be aware of power issues; think about how to deal with problem students (disruptive, openly dismissive of you in front of their peers, etc); learn student names; think of activities that will engage students, both within and between meetings; elicit questions; get feedback from students on your performance. As with Lecture chapter, very little in the way of specific advice/how-tos is provided for achieving these noncontroversial goals.
- Studio (analogous to Open Lab Hours in CS setting?): focuses on peer-critiquing of assignments, which is the essence of “studio-based” learning. A bit specialized for a general course on effective teaching, since only a few disciplines have studio courses. Some generic advice on managing student conflicts and being consistent in your grading, especially in studio where there’s a significant subjective component.
- Lab: see above
- Office hours & tutoring: Shortest chapter—4 pages. Don’t reteach lecture; don’t grill the student—this discourages them from coming in with questions; if several students have same questions, consider addressing in a future recitation; beware of sensitivity/harassment issues, especially in 1:1 tutoring; schedule office hours at a variety of times, be on time, and be patient, sympathetic and supportive.
- Assessment: “Classroom assessment stresses the improvement of learning rather than the improvement of teaching” (takes 2 pages to say). Classroom assessment is worth trying but the instructor needs to be flexible and willing to learn from the feedback it provides (that’s 2 more pages). Example technique: “One minute paper” (same as “one minute feedback” from Joy): end lecture 5min early and ask students what they learned, what they found most interesting, and what they still don’t understand.
- Using writing as an active learning tool: Various types of writing exercises are suggested that are more applicable to humanities courses as opposed to technical communication, e.g. dialectic, dialogue, unsent letter, etc.
- Using video: see above
- Motivating students: see above
- Gender, race, ethnicity. Various in-class exercises to promote sensitivity, but it’s not clear how you’d gracefully incorporate these into other classes as they are heavyweight.
- Students with special needs: This is an important topic but not sure it’s within the scope of being a great teacher, as there is often not much an individual instructor can do (as opposed to the institution’s facilities for supporting students with disabilities).
- Balancing roles as teacher/student/person: Remember you’re a grad student first, and TA second; don’t neglect your student duties, and remember to have a personal life.
- Reflective teaching: Self-reflection and responding to it can occur both while teaching and after class, and can use instruments such as student surveys, course evaluations, videos of yourself, colleagues’ comments on observing your teaching, copies of student work, etc.
The book has no publisher-suggested list price (you can tell from ISBN code); Amazon charges $24.95 new, but median price of a used copy on Amazon is $0.28.
Weimer, E., Improving your Classroom Teaching: Survival Skills for Scholars
This book’s writing is direct and has a lot of concrete advice that is well-researched, but as there is only one (useless) figure and zero tables, checklists, sidebars, etc., the advice must be mined from straight text. (The book also fails the editorial guideline of “try to include a visually interesting book element every couple of pages”.) This book has one figure (which doesn’t add anything to the text) and zero of any of the other elements—it is straight text.
The book is well organized: Chapter 1 (which should really be Chapter 0 or a preface) lays out five components of effective instruction that must be mutually supporting, and the subsequent five chapters elaborate on each component:
- Preparation & organization
- Ability to stimulate student thought & interest
- Knowledge & love of the content
The preface also busts 2 myths about effective teaching: “Nobody knows what makes teaching effective” (in fact there’s a ton of research on effective practices) and “Great teachers are born, not made” (it takes work and practice to teach effectively).
Chapter 2 (Enthusiasm) reminds us using a quirky anecdote that students detect and respond to the instructor’s enthusiasm and passion, even if they themselves cannot identify with and share it yet. The enemy of enthusiasm is nervousness, so identify and neutralize the gestures or habits that tend to accompany your nervousness: Do you have shaky hands? Hold your notes, or use your hands and arms to make gestures. Do you clench your fists? Put your hands in your pockets so you can’t. Shy or have trouble with eye contact? Find a friendly face to focus on at first. Keep your enthusiasm up by always trying new things: new textbooks, class meeting formats, new assignments.
Chapter 3 (preparation & organization) advises you to think of and describe your course not as a laundyr list of topics, but as outcomes from the student’s point of view. Rather than “Eliciting user requirements, estimating work, team coordination, using low fidelity prototypes, deploying to the cloud, …” phrase it as “You will learn to design, develop, test, and deploy customer-facing applications, working with the customer to identify requirements with low-fidelity prototypes and continuously deploying to the cloud to get customer feedback.” When designing learning activities, the author points out that psychologist Raymond Perry’s work (1991) showed that what students believe about their ability to succeed has more impact on their success than the (student-reported) effectiveness of the instructor.
Chapter 4 (stimulating student thought and interest) gives concrete advice on posing questions designed to make students think:
- Give them enough time to think before moving on (5 seconds is not enough)
- handle wrong answers constructively (“Yes, and…”)
- get students discussing/responding to each others’ answers, rather than “reporting” to you.
Chapter 5 (explaining clearly) reminds the instructor that it’s often not enough to ask “Are there any questions?”. Instead, ask specific questions to gauge degree of understanding (ed.: e.g., use peer instruction), or ask students to explain the material to each other in pairs. A repertoire of interesting examples can be helpful in explaining concepts; you can invent them or borrow others’. I’ve separately compiled some tips and practices for learning from examples.
Chapter 6 (Knowledge & love of content) busts a few myths/pitfalls about course content:
- More is better? Not necessarily: “Aim not to cover the content, but to uncover part of it.”
- “I teach chemistry”? No: you teach students. Aim for a student-centric, not content-centric, view of your teaching. There’s some discussion of adapting your teaching to different learning styles; not Kinesthetic vs. Visual vs. etc., but from David Kolb’s (1981) Learning Styles Inventory (convergers work best when there’s one clear solution to a problem; divergers like to generate-and-test multiple approaches to solving; assimilators integrate diverse items; accommodators learn from experience and experimentation using a hands-on approach). There is some pabulum about underrepresented students’ higher likelihood of dropout, but no specific advice.
- I know topic X, therefore I can teach topic X? Not necessarily; and quite important in research universities since you are hired for knowing topic X. Teaching should be regarded as an intellectually rigorous activity in its own right, rather than just subsumed under “knowledge of the content”.
Chapter 7 (Assessing their learning and your teaching) has some good concrete advice on creating exams:
- Topic emphasis on exam should match what you taught
- Dry-run to ensure clarity and reliability of exam
- Too many exams are better than too few (up to a reasonable limit)
- Match desired learning with exam type (multiple choice, essay exam, take-home, etc)
- Try to make exams realistic (when was last time in your job you had 60 minutes to do a task without access to any supporting notes or documentation?)
- Students “love” takehome exams but commonly underestimate the time and self-discipline that will be required to do a good job
- Advice on constructing multiple choice questions, most of which I’ve captured elsewhere
- Written assignments and essay exams: not relevant to most STEM, but one instructor who gives an all-essay final hands out at beginning of the semester a (large) superset of final exam questions, so students have all semester to study the material relative to those questions.