Friday, October 30, 2009

Learning to Teach or Teaching to Learn?

Guest writer, Anna Hull

"So, Anna, are you a better teacher or student?" asked my friend as we were discussing my latest Spanish class that I attended as a student last Sunday. Hmm. Well, answer the question – are you a better teacher or student? It seemed like a simple enough question to my friend, but I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t answer quickly enough. Of course I wanted to say that I am a better teacher; after all, that is my chosen profession. Within seconds it dawned on me that I cannot claim to be a better teacher than I am a student. The two are too intimately linked; I don’t know if it is truly possible to be a good teacher without also being an excellent student.

Case in point: Do you remember the very first time you had to teach a difficult concept to a class? My memory comes from graduate school: I was leading a discussion group of about twenty students and I was due to teach how the energy in food is converted to another type of energy (ATP) within the cell. I thought my grasp of the concept was sufficiently clear, but as I reviewed the material, I realized that all I had was a "grasp"; I didn’t own the knowledge in a way that would allow me to teach it efficiently. Since then, the story has repeated itself many times; only after I have taught the material in class, or given a seminar, do I have the feeling of actually owning the knowledge and therefore doing a better job the next time I teach it.

Even when I am well prepared and know the concepts that I am planning to teach, I constantly ask myself how the students perceive my words and the points that I am trying to convey. So often, it seems like they are hearing something completely different than what I think I’m saying. How would they try to explain the same concept that I don’t seem to be able to communicate, and how can we as teachers tap into that? How can we utilize the willingness of the students to learn by letting them be the teachers?

I am slowly learning to turn many of the students' "hows' and "whys" into mini-assignments, sometimes worth extra credit. When my students in Molecular Biology asked for a study guide for their midterm exam, I told them how I usually make the guide by going through all my PowerPoint lectures and writing questions to each slide. This is clearly an excellent way for the students to study the content for the exam, so I had them make the study guide and submit it to me for extra credit. It probably helped the students to study, they earned much-needed extra-credit, and it reduced my workload (at least up front; I did read all the submissions and compile a study guide that I shared with the entire class in the end).

I would love to hear what you do in your classroom. What have you tried that works and what doesn’t? And for extra credit: How would you answer the question, "Are you a better teacher or student?"


  1. You have sparked an idea for me, Anna. At the beginning of the semester in my Introduction to Religion course I divide the class into six groups. Each of these groups is responsible for presenting the introductory lesson to a particular religion. I ask the group members to be creative. Sometimes they will design games like Bingo, Jeopardy,cross-word puzzles, and flash cards. Perhaps, in my smaller classes I will offer ten extra credit points to the student who develops a creative study-guide of ten questions related to a specific topic or chapter. That student will officate the game in class. I will design the process, so that each student will sign-up for one class period. For example, if I have a class of ten I will set aside about 25 minutes in ten class periods for the respective students to present the game. I will use the remainder of the class period to expound upon those terms that I think are the most important items for the students to understand. My concern about this approach is the number of total hours I would yield to student selection and discussion of terms or events that may or may not fit my priorities. I could give them my list, but that seems to interfer with the potentially serendiptious selection process of the student. I do know that I will not use this method if there are more than ten students in my class. Mel Leaman

  2. Answer to extra-credit question: I'm both ... :-)

    As I go along in life, it becomes harder for me to make these kinds of distinctions. I learn as much if not more every day from my students, or at least because of them, as they do from me. I learn to practice patience (a virtue of which I'm often in short supply); I learn that like everyone they (and I) want to understand and to be effective.

    It's not that I have no goals for or expectations of my students or myself. It's just that I see those two sets of criteria as symbiotic and mutually supportive.

  3. As you said, teaching and learning go together. Ther is not a better way to learn something than teaching it to someone else. I believe that we truly assimilate new concepts when we have to use them to complete a task (i.e. teaching it to others, play a game, or build our own study guide).

    I like task-based learning and experiential learning. Project-based learning works wonders as well.

    Maribel Charle

  4. Your suggestion of a student developed study guide seems to me to be a great example of formative assessment as you go through the course. Sometimes what I think the students understand, is not on target. Great idea!

  5. Anna, reading your posting has made me re-think one of my teaching practices. In an effort to (a) help my students appreciate their own writing skills and (b) give the class examples of good writing, I present "awards" after grading each set of essays. Every student gets one--best intro, clearest transition, best explanation, nicest metaphor, best use of humor, whatever... I post these awards in WebCT, and in the next class the student reads out his or her award-winning prose, we discuss why it's good, and everyone applauds. Thinking about your study guide assignment made me realize that along with picking out what was best on my own, I could ask the students to add a note at the end of their essays telling me what they think the best part is. That would be a good way to encourage them to reread and contemplate their work before turning it in, and hopefully build their understanding of their own writing strengths. Thanks for the idea!

  6. Anna, one of my first thoughts was that I was an enrolled student for 21 years. I have been teaching for four years. Is it even fair to compare? I would say that I work much harder as a teacher than I ever did as a student!

    Linda, I am stealing your awards idea. It seems like a good way to have students demonstrate good writing to their peers while also rewarding and encouraging successful writing.
    As a writing tutor, one of my first questions after a student reads an essay out loud (an essay that the student has come to me for "help on") is to ask what the student liked about the essay. This seemingly innocent question actually is quite useful in the tutoring session for many reasons, but one of the most important is focusing the student’s attention to the positive. That everything is not red pen errors, but that writing does have "successes" even if they are hard to see at first.

  7. When I was in college I remember in one of my undergraduate courses we were allowed to design our own multiple choice questions for the course by our professor.