Learning to teach: only months after defending his dissertation, Mike Garcia is becoming comfortable in the classroom thanks to a strong mentor, well-planned lectures, and carefully crafted lesson plans. Megan Morr
Learning to teach: only months after defending his dissertation, Mike Garcia is becoming comfortable in the classroom thanks to a strong mentor, well-planned lectures, and carefully crafted lesson plans. Megan Morr

The Art of Enlightenment

What makes good teaching? Ask any college graduate about her academic high points, and the odds are good that the enduring intellectual memories are of specific teachers who brought classroom material to life.
Writer: 
November 30, 2006
 

During the spring semester of 2002, Simon Partner, an associate professor of history, was teaching a seminar on modern Japanese history. Rather than assigning a standard research paper for the final project, he encouraged students to use historical research to weave a fictional narrative based on known facts and observations. During office hours, he offered students tips on framing narratives.

With Partner's help, Marcos Rodriguez '02, then a senior, created a fictional memoir of his uncle, who had been a prisoner of war during World War II but had never divulged details of the experience, even to close family members.

Researching and writing the memoir, Rodriguez says, allowed him to connect with the material in ways he could not have done by simply reading and analyzing texts. Though he majored in economics and has since enrolled in a graduate program in library sciences, Rodriguez remembers Partner's Japanese history class as one of the best he took at Duke.

Ask any college graduate about her academic high points and the odds are good that it won't be a particular book she read or honor she earned. Chances are that the enduring intellectual memories are of specific teachers, those individuals who brought classroom material to life and introduced their students to new ways of seeing the world. Perhaps it was the physics professor who so inspired a first-semester student that she took all the courses he taught, vaulting her into her career path. Or the history professor who came across as relentlessly demanding in class, but whose deeper lessons continued to resonate with former students years later. What is it that makes these professors stand out in our minds? Which qualities and approaches allow them to engage our interests and motivate us to learn? What is good teaching?

Some people think of it as an art and see good teachers as possessing an innate ability to engage students and impart knowledge. Others view it as a set of skills that can be taught and measured in something approaching scientific analysis. In fact, it's a little bit of both. Anecdotal evidence and pedagogical research alike highlight certain characteristics of good teaching, including clarity of presentation and expectations, along with a passion for the subject matter.

On the second floor of a red-brick building on Elon University's central North Carolina campus, Mike Garcia is in the middle of a lecture about electrical circuits. Garcia, twenty-six and just months removed from defending his Ph.D. dissertation at Duke, is filling in this semester for Richard D'Amato, an engineering professor on sabbatical.

As he wraps up an explanation of Kirchoff's Current Law, Garcia refers to his lecture notes and sees a stop-sign icon he inserted while preparing his lesson. As planned, he stops and asks the class whether there are any questions before moving on to Kirchoff's Voltage Law. A half page of lecture notes and ten minutes of discussion on closed-loop circuits later, he reaches the point in his notes where he has put two smiley faces, side-by-side. He divides the class into pairs and assigns problems from the book for them to work on and present to the class.

The stop sign and smiley faces are part of Garcia's efforts to keep his presentation organized and cogent. In making plans for his lectures, Garcia has found that laying a clear path for his students, and for himself, is key—not just within each class period, but over the course of the semester. He does this by stressing from the very beginning the objectives of the course and making it clear how they will push students along the engineering track; he also structures his syllabus around lectures that are easily digested—he never covers more than three "main points" in one class period—and build on one another.

What Garcia is doing may seem self-evident, but plenty of students have horror stories to share that prove the opposite. Michelle Connolly, associate professor of the practice of economics, remembers one particularly awful economics class she took as an undergraduate. She spent two days straight diligently copying a series of equations the professor wrote on the blackboard, filling line after line in her notebook as the professor lectured. It was only at the end of the second day, when the professor wrote "Q.E.D." on the board, that Connolly realized she had been copying one long proof that could have been found in any standard textbook. Needless to say, those "lectures" didn't inspire confidence that she was going to learn a whole lot. "As a professor, you have to make clear to the students what you're doing, why, and how you're getting there," she observes.

In upper-level seminars where more time is devoted to discussion than in introductory lectures, organization is arguably even more essential; the professor's job is subtly to guide the discussion to get the most out of students and to keep them from wandering too far off topic. The trick is to balance the creative flow of ideas with a measure of structure, says Toril Moi, James B. Duke Professor of literature and Romance studies and 1998 winner of the University Scholar/Teacher Award, who primarily teaches seminars for upperclassmen.

"If you let the students talk all the time, they don't learn anything because it becomes just chatter," she says. "You have to know that you're the teacher.

"I'm paid to teach," she continues. "If I don't come to the classroom with solid material, I'm not doing my job."

Another critical component of "doing the job" is clear communication of expectations, says Ahrash Bissell, assistant director of Duke's Academic Resource Center, which provides services such as tutoring and help with time management. He says first-year students often come to him saying that they studied for hours for an exam and wonder why they didn't get a better grade. They are used to the high-school world, where "advanced conceptual knowledge," or memorizing, is the key to studying, he says. In their courses at Duke, where a certain knowledge base is assumed and the exams require students to apply that knowledge, the same study techniques no longer work. The onus, Bissell says, is not just on the student, but also on the professor to communicate this expectation.

While clear communication is essential, so is the accuracy and depth of information that a teacher imparts. A good teacher knows her topic inside and out. But it's possible for a professor to be knowledgeable about a subject, yet unable to teach it effectively. In 1986, Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, coined the term "pedagogical content knowledge," which refers to expertise in teaching techniques in addition to subject matter.

Even superstars in their field must be able to relate to and convey the material at students' levels. "Faculty members, especially at a university like Duke, are often people who have never had a hard time understanding their field," says Jonathan Morris '03. "Sometimes it helps if you have struggled with the material before, so you understand why people might be having a hard time with it."

Logical equation: meaningful assignments, clearly communicated goals, and consistency in course presentation add up to success in the classroom, says Michelle Connolly

Logical equation: meaningful assignments, clearly communicated goals, and consistency in course presentation add up to success in the classroom, says Michelle Connolly. Megan Morr

Abundant enthusiasm for the subject helps bridge the knowledge gap between professor and student, says George McLendon, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. "It's hard to get students excited if you're not excited yourself." So, too, does a faculty member's genuine concern for students. "They care that you know," he says, "but they want to know that you care."

David Snider, a senior, says that with professors who don't seem to care, students will often skip class, borrowing a friend's notes to get caught up on the material. "I think more than anything else, what makes for an exciting class is a sense that if you miss it, lecture notes alone can't give you what the in-class experience was."

The in-class experience has changed over the years with the advent of new teaching strategies and new technology. Pedagogical research indicates that different students learn in different ways, and many of the best professors experiment with a variety of approaches in the classroom, including group work, class discussions, and multimedia presentations. Steve Nowicki, dean of the natural sciences for Trinity College, remembers one of the best courses he had as an undergraduate music major at Tufts University. It was a biology course team-taught by two professors "who would needle each other in the lecture. They were creating a dialogue that students could pick up on."

Faculty members, by and large, report that technology has not changed the definition of good teaching; it has simply provided them with additional tools, some of which are simply distracting but many of which are helpful in the pursuit. "Blackboard," a software program that provides class-specific websites where professors can post syllabuses, assignments, and source material, and where students can post assignments and comments, has become widely used at Duke, as on many other campuses.

Duke has also been home to the noted iPod experiments, with faculty members in various disciplines experimenting with different ways to use recording and playback technologies in the classroom. Robert Korstad, an assistant professor of public-policy studies and history, has students in his seminar on "The Insurgent South" download and listen to famous historical speeches, clips of oral-history interviews, and protest songs. Engineering lecturer Michael Gustafson, in "Computational Methods in Engineering," helps students break down popular songs into frequencies by plugging their iPods into circuit boards. Another common technology, especially in engineering and the sciences, is the personal-response system, a punch pad that allows class members to respond to a professor's queries so that a professor can quickly gauge a class' overall intellectual understanding. (The system works much like the "Ask the Audience" lifeline in the once-popular television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.) Other faculty members have recorded lectures and posted them on the Web.

Whether it's through the use of iPods, chalk on a blackboard, or in-class activities, Jerry Reiter stresses the importance of getting students caught up in the course material. Reiter '92, an assistant professor of statistics and decision sciences, has taught several introductory lectures. In one class, he told students that he was the best basketball player in the room and challenged one student to come forward for a "free-throw contest." As the student prepared to shoot a Hacky Sack into a garbage can, Reiter turned into a Cameron Crazy, waving his arms and making loud noises to distract the shooter. Then, stripping down to a Duke T-shirt and basketball shorts, he took his own shots.

There was method in his basketball madness. Afterward, he walked the class through an exercise to determine whether there was enough statistical evidence to say for certain that the student was a better shooter, even if she made only one more shot than he did. (There wasn't.) "My philosophy on teaching has always been to try to make it interesting," says Reiter. "You have to let that passion come through."

His passion does not end with basketball statistics. Rather than simply lecturing on the use of a scatter plot or a t test (two statistical tools) he asks students to use statistics to consider, for example, whether the Vietnam War draft lottery was fair, or whether birth order correlates with delinquency. "Forget about the statistics," he says. "You can get into the topic."

Reiter, like other professors, stresses that, in many cases, being enthusiastic about the learning process also means being available to meet with students outside of class. Alumnus Jonathan Morris still recalls a Duke political-science seminar on international security that he took with Benjamin Miller, then a visiting professor from the University of Haifa in Israel. "After every class," Morris says, "we would end up standing outside the classroom talking about current events and how they played into what we were learning."

With smaller classes, many professors will try to meet individually with each student at some point during the semester, among them I.B. Holley, a professor emeritus of history, who has been at Duke for sixty years and still teaches one class a semester. For larger classes, most professors are available to their students during posted office hours, but many say that students don't take advantage of them. That's been a perennial problem over the years. But the ascendance of e-mail as students' communication medium of choice has reinvented notions of faculty accessibility. In students' minds the window for contacting professors has expanded from posted office hours to 24/7, and e-mail messages have replaced more frequent direct contact. While that can increase opportunities for interaction, it isn't always the most effective means of communication. Connolly says that she will often receive e-mail messages at odd hours of the night asking complicated mathematical and economic questions. "Trying to write out in an e-mail how various graphs shift is difficult," she notes wryly.

Beyond answering basic class-related questions, sometimes the most influential teaching requires building a relationship with a student that extends beyond that of a simple lecturer/listener dynamic. Robert Iden '68 returned to campus this fall for only the second time since graduating to take in a Homecoming-weekend lecture by Sy Mauskopf, professor of history and the 2006 winner of the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. Iden says Mauskopf, even in his early years, stood out as a teacher who engaged course material and created close relationships with students. For his part, Mauskopf fondly recalls favorite students over the years, including one who completed an honors thesis last spring probing the Aristotelian influence on seventeenth-century physician William Harvey's embryological work. The two spent hours mulling over primary and secondary sources together and discussing new directions. "It was so different, so obscure. He put so much work into it!" Mauskopf says, his voice rising with excitement.

Robert Thompson, dean of Trinity College and vice provost for undergraduate education, hopes to expand opportunities for the kind of shared-learning experiences professors like Mauskopf foster. Thompson has helped initiate a push for more research-based learning in Trinity College, with professors working closely with their students to develop new knowledge. While some critics see a conflict between Duke's research and teaching missions, he says the two priorities do not compete in a zero-sum game. He argues that Duke's renowned scholars and cutting-edge-research culture can and should provide real-world learning opportunities for undergraduates.

He acknowledges that the format will require professors to assume more of a mentorship role. "You're not so much transmitting information as helping an apprentice learn a practice."

Already this thinking has taken hold. Forty-one percent of the Class of 2006 participated in what Thompson calls a "mentored research project" during their time at Duke. That's compared with 15 percent of the Class of 2002, the first year the measure was taken. He says his goal is to push the number to 50 percent, and, "once I get to 50 percent, I'll just move it up from there." (Additionally, 15 percent of the Class of 2006 completed a thesis for graduation with distinction. He hopes to increase that to 25 percent.)

Duke is not alone in seeking ways to promote research opportunities earlier in the undergraduate experience. The Forum for Excellence and Innovation in Higher Education, for example, is a five-year initiative bringing together fourteen top-tier institutions to explore innovations in teaching and learning. Economics professor Connolly, who, along with Thompson and others, represents Duke at the Forum, says that in the past, courses teaching research strategies and methodology have been reserved for upperclassmen. At that point, she says, they are only useful for students hoping to pursue graduate degrees.

Right on target: getting students caught up in the material is paramount, says Jerry Reiter, who uses in-class activities to make learning relevant to students' lives

Right on target: getting students caught up in the material is paramount, says Jerry Reiter, who uses in-class activities to make learning relevant to students' lives. Megan Morr

A Duke initiative launched in 2002, called Scholarship with a Civic Mission, has proven to be a successful pilot project for encouraging underclassmen to consider research earlier in their academic careers. The initiative uses an academic approach called Research Service Learning (RSL), which combines coursework, faculty-guided field research experiences, and independent, capstone projects in an effort to enhance students' ethical inquiry skills and civic leadership capacities. As part of recent RSL projects, participants have conducted in-depth needs-assessments for immigrant populations living in the Bronx, explored approaches for mitigating the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS patients in rural communities, and examined the impact of invasive plant species on the health of the Eno River. Originally a collaboration between the Hart Leadership Program and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Scholarship with a Civic Mission has been embraced on a larger scale and is now administered through the Office of Service-Learning.

Recognizing the effectiveness of RSL and other co-curricular teaching methods, the university's new strategic plan includes an emphasis on developing and assessing innovative ways of teaching and learning throughout the curriculum. Just this semester, Thompson sent a memo to the faculty asking for proposals for a sophomore-year research experience, something that would fill the role that the interdisciplinary, small-group-learning-based Focus program plays for freshmen, and get students ready for research-intensive courses their final two years.

This new emphasis on research is the latest in a series of efforts to redefine the role of the teacher. For more than twenty years in higher education, there has been a slow pedagogical shift away from lecture-based models toward those incorporating collaborative learning, the idea that teachers and students, or groups of students, work together to build understanding out of their backgrounds and common experience. There has also been increased interest in applying a social-constructivist perspective—the idea that we create knowledge, and hence learn, in a culturally specific context. Professors have come to view themselves more as coaches than as authority figures. These shifts have led, in general, to institutional pushes for an increase in small seminar courses at college campuses across the country.

Still, at larger universities, time and budget constraints (a given number of faculty members and a given number of teaching hours) preserve a need for large lectures. And a large class size does not necessarily mean a decline in the quality of teaching; it simply adds to the challenge teachers face. Department leaders in several fields say they know which professors are best in lecture settings—who thrive, in some cases, in the spotlight—and assign courses accordingly.

Duke senior David Snider recalls taking an art and ethics course with Kristine Stiles, professor of art, art history, and visual studies. By his estimate, there were fifty to sixty students in the class, but, he says, Stiles maintained a seminar-like feel—interacting directly with individual students and requiring participation from everyone enrolled. He says her teaching style gave students "the sense that if you're not prepared for class, you might be in trouble, because your engagement is demanded."

At the same time, small class sizes don't ensure good teaching. Until recently the economics department had broken its core courses, traditionally boasting high enrollment, into smaller class sizes. As a result, there were often as many as five professors teaching two sections each of intermediate macroeconomics. But a review conducted by economics department chair Thomas Nechyba, then director of undergraduate studies, found that the subject matter covered in different sections was not consistent. "In some cases, professors were even using contradictory textbooks," Connolly says. In upper-level courses like "International Finance," professors reported that year after year, students made comments and asked questions that showed that they had been "differently prepared" in the prerequisite macroeconomics course, she says.

As a result of the review, the department consolidated the macroeconomics course's sections, reverting to a large-lecture format. Connolly and Professor Craig Burnside trade off semesters teaching classes that can exceed 150 students, and work in close contact. "We use the same textbook, the same methodology, the same approach," Connolly says. Other core courses in the department have been treated similarly.

While she says the large lecture is a more challenging format to teach, she's confident that students are learning more. The consolidation also means that professors otherwise loaded with multiple sections of core courses now have more time free in their schedules to offer additional sections of advanced seminars. "Some might say it's bad to go from more small classes to fewer large classes, but there are tradeoffs," she says.

The biology department, like the economics department, has made changes to its core courses in an effort to encourage good teaching. Traditionally, introductory courses in the sciences (and to a lesser extent, those in the humanities) have been seen as "survey" courses, where students are introduced to, and expected to memorize facts about, various branches of the field, the idea being that they will gain a broad base from which to specialize.

The problem, says Julie Reynolds, a Mellon Lecturing Fellow who teaches introductory biology, is that "the typical biology book is fifty-six chapters long." One semester isn't long enough to cover the material.

When professors see the course in terms of its content, Bissell says, "it comes across [to students] as being just this litany of information. It seems to me what I'm being asked to do is memorize a bunch of stuff, and this predicates a certain type of studying."

In the 1990s, natural-sciences dean Nowicki plotted a new course for introductory biology. Taking a page from the English department, where, even in lower-level classes, students discuss themes rather than simply memorizing facts about various authors and works, he proposed a biology course organized around strategies that could be applied to many concepts in the field. One result of his vision can be seen in a lecture Reynolds gives on ecology. Instead of just defining terms such as "mutualism" or "competition," she asks students to design experiments to determine whether army ants benefit from birds that feed on insects that flee from the swarming ants. She then walks them through an analysis of a study on the topic.

Stephen Craig '91 says it's his job as a teacher to prepare the undergraduate student for the next intellectual challenge. An assistant professor of chemistry and the 2006 winner of the David and Janet Vaughan Brooks Award for teaching, Craig says that the lessons learned from many of the courses he took as an undergraduate could be boiled down to a short list of facts. But in the best classes, "I felt like I had learned to stretch my brain and get a new perspective on the world around me."

In his organic-chemistry classes, he has pushed students to embrace larger themes, even as they learn the basic facts. He recently received a letter from a former student who was heading off to medical school armed with his organic-chemistry notes.

That made Craig feel that he'd had an impact. "It is very important to me that students—especially students here—are really challenged," he says. "When you're eighteen to twenty-one years old, the world should be a lot bigger than any one course you're taking."