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Teaching is Fluid: Know Your Audience

I find that I’m often thinking about teaching. I’m on the teaching focused stream at work and given that I am an Undergrad Advisor I hear so much about teaching from the students’ point of view. I’m going to offer an array of thoughts related to teaching. I usually follow this advice, but I admit that my teaching is fluid and can vary due to the group of students.

Don’t patronize the students and put them down. Related to this treat them respectfully—even when they send inappropriate emails to you and you’re tired. This is a teachable moment and you must be professional and respond accordingly. This might mean that you explain that the email was inappropriate, but try to always treat them and their ideas in class respectfully.

Don’t assume that they have or haven’t done the reading. I know this means that you need to be omniscient. Hope that they have and run the class as if they are prepared. This might incite them to come more prepared.

Don’t refer to them as kids—in class or lecture. They do not like this. Remember when you were an undergrad and the instructor did this—you didn’t like it. Frankly, this can antagonize them in a paternal or maternal way and you don’t want to go there!

At the appropriate time and place use humor as needed. It’s fine to crack a joke or make them laugh—especially when it works. And, when it doesn’t it can also offer a moment of levity. We all know that part of teaching is performing.

Related to this, be firm when it’s needed. They appreciate it when you stick to your due dates or call out students who are interrupting the class with their own conversation.

You are not infallible—and let them know this when they find an error on a slide or on your syllabus—say that you leave typos to see if they are paying attention! This always makes them laugh or at least read the syllabus closely.

Be enthusiastic—as I’ve noted previously it is infectious. Come to class prepared and on time. They expect this and if you expect them to come prepared—you are the model for good behavior. Enjoy the class and the material—they are smart and can sense your mood or own engagement with the material.

Understand that during the Fall term you will field more basic sort of questions—some students are new to campus and figuring out where buildings are, let alone the department culture. Also remind them kindly to read the syllabus. And you will need to direct them back to the syllabus when they email questions that demonstrate that they haven’t bothered to read the syllabus or missed the information!

Check in with them about the materials. I find that at the mid-term mark, I will inquire about the readings that they liked or disliked. You have to be willing to get their input. A class is successful due to you, your syllabus, but also the students can help make or break a class.

Be flexible as needed. For instance, be cognizant that around mid-terms and paper writing time the students are focused on the exams and papers. This might be the best time to focus on fewer readings and to incorporate other materials (snapshots, video clips, and the like) into the syllabus.

Ask them questions—try to avoid lecturing for the entire class meeting. You need to check in and make sure that you are all on the same page
Be available—office hours, establish protocol for contact with email. The time that you will respond, when you will read email (weekends or not, etc). Likewise, if you have Teaching Assistants (TAs) also establish the protocol for contacting them and when the TAs will respond to emails. I don’t expect the TAs to respond to email as quickly as I do or during the weekends.

Establish classroom protocol—will you take roll, smart phones use (or not), online learning platforms, etc. What are your expectations during class? You need to make this clear and you will need to state these expectations more than once.

There is the suitable time to be focused all on business, but I have found it’s also important to take time to comment or allow comments about world politics or current events—perhaps this is more germane to my field, Political Science.

Some of my advice contradicts other points; however this is to be expected. At times some things will work effectively and other times you have to pull out other pedagogical tricks! There is no standard. You will find what works, but remember to know your audience! Each class is different and it’s always interesting to teach 100, 200, 300 or 400 level courses.

4 thoughts on “Teaching is Fluid: Know Your Audience

  1. Great list of tips, Janni, but I have to ask: why did you choose the word “fluid” for the title? Is this your definition of “fluid” or is it a metaphor between teaching and, er, well, that’s my confusion.

    In my mind, “fluid teaching” is synonymous with “agile teaching,” the ability to react and respond to the students in real-time. I picked that term up from @derekbruff and often use it when talking with (and training) my colleagues about effective peer instruction using clickers.


    • Thanks, Peter. I hear colleagues talk about the art of teaching as if it’s quite easy and anyone can do it. Plus, this idea that we don’t learn much–once we are good at it. I think that teaching is not static–it changes, it’s fluid. I learn something every term. That is why I find it gratifying. Headaches and all!

  2. Pingback: ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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