Though I usually use this space to offer answers to teaching advice questions from professors, I wanted to try something different. So for my next few installments, I’m writing letters to people who have exemplified what it means to be an effective teacher. This column, the first in the series, is to my friend and colleague, Elizabeth Powell. Her discipline is psychology and she invited me to come observe one of her final classes at our university.
You invited me to come check out how you set up your class to blend online and in-person attendance, and I quickly accepted.
While I have seen you present many times in front of faculty, in all these years I had missed ever getting to see you teach in the context of a college class. You were gracious about making sure I knew how masking had been working in the class and gave me a few different options to approach my visit that morning. This was the first of many ways in which you demonstrated the care you take to be inclusive of whoever is in your classroom.
The tech setup was a bit more involved than a normal class would have been. You double-checked that the audio was going to play in the physical classroom and to those who were joining remotely. About 12 students would be connecting via Zoom with around five attending in person. You greeted each student as they came in, both those in Zoom and in person, and students seemed at ease with you and each other.
Mostly, I had planned on sitting back and enjoying watching you in your natural habitat. However, as I noticed how often students were engaging with you, I thought to start to use some of the classroom observation protocols I have learned over the years. I added tick marks in my notes each time you asked a question, as well as every time a student posed a question, and I tracked how many students answered one of your queries. In an hour and fifteen minute class, you asked around 20 different questions. I didn’t get the sense that you were working off of a script. But I knew that you had given this interactive lecture many times before—and you knew what you were aiming for.
The video clips you used were helpful both in mixing things up and also helping students think about the relevance of what you were teaching. One was humorous and would be what Schwartz and Bransford would call “A Time for Telling”. These authors talk about learners being ready to hear deeper explanations of a concept once they have been able to differentiate their knowledge beyond that of novices.
You got us all laughing at the situation Bruce Nolan (played by Jim Carrey) encounters in the movie “Bruce Almighty.” God (played by Morgan Freeman) shocks Bruce into realizing that the concerns that he has expressed about how God runs things have been heard. Even those students who had never seen the movie were laughing and pondering how the fictitious plot connected with the lesson.
The second clip came more toward the later half of the class time. This one was in a research context. A toddler was brought into a room by a parent, and different healthy types of attachment behaviors were displayed across a few different scenarios. Before showing the clip you asked the students to be prepared to identify what reactions they saw from the child that aligned with what the class had been studying about attachment. After playing the clip, you had those students who were on Zoom pair up in breakout rooms and invited the group who were in person to discuss their ideas together.
It was fun to see how comfortably the students asked you questions whenever they seemed to have them. Both those in the physical and Zoom rooms seemed equally comfortable with asking questions and participating. A few students stayed around after class to either ask a follow-up question, check in about their graduate school application process or share something about their life outside the course.
No class would be complete without a powerful analogy. In your case, you used one you had learned from a professor you had when you were in graduate school. You spoke about when we go to Build-A-Bear and buy the stuffed animal and then proceed to have it stuffed. There are two different components of the bear: the overall frame of the bear and the stuffing. I have thought about the example many times since seeing you teach.
Thank you for inviting me into your class and giving me the opportunity to see you shine. I am devastated that this will be your last year teaching in this capacity. I will confess that I am holding out hope that something will shift such that you will be back teaching college students. For now, however, I reflect on a few of the many lessons that I can draw from my experience observing your teaching:
- Learn students’ names and use them regularly.
- Make sure students who join a class online are given the same attention as those in the physical classroom. Plan, in advance, how you will engage both groups and practice working with the technology to make transitions as seamless as possible.
- Ask questions. Until you get to a point where it is second nature, plan those questions out and try not to have too much time pass between when you’re lecturing and when you’re posing questions that get students thinking more deeply about the topics being explored.
- Use an analogy that can remain in learners’ minds well beyond the class session.
- Mix up your teaching approaches and plan out multiple instances in each class session of what authors Schwartz and Bransford call a time for telling. Whether it is a video clip, a series of questions, or a powerful analogy, purposely construct a way to spark students’ curiosity and prepare them for deeper learning.
With abundant gratitude,