By Wendy Trevor, PhD
Executive Director, Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Assessment (CETLA)
At the Academic Affairs retreat on September 24, 2015, attendees contemplated our own prior learning experiences and the idea of teaching excellence and identified four key pillars of excellence in teaching. We agreed that an excellent instructor:
- Promotes “outside of the box” thinking and
- Creates opportunities and a learning environment where it is safe to test ideas.
This term CETLA has adopted “Inspire” as a theme and defined it in part as conveying passion about one’s subject and enthusiasm about the discipline in general, and course content in particular.
When we think of inspiration and teaching, a picture of the “sage on the stage” may come to mind. Perhaps it conjures someone with a Robin Williams-esque degree of animation imparting pearls of wisdom with unbounded enthusiasm. We may think this is impossible to achieve in an online learning environment (the prancing at least!) but there are things we can do to engender excitement about our discipline and the course we are teaching:
through our first interactions with students, namely the introduction to the course and ourselves. Why do we love what we teach? Why do we find the subject stimulating and energizing? What makes this course an exciting learning journey? Find those gems of innovation in the experience present from Shakespeare to world politics. What makes the course you are teaching relevant and promising in terms of your students’ stated future or current career objectives? Find those “ins” within your course content to kindle a fire!
- through the tone of our messages to students: Let your language be motivating, uplifting, enthusiastic!
- through discussion posts infused with our passion for our subject that share additional related insights and even our own scholarship related to the topic/subject. You may not have a stage, but you can be a “sage on the page.” For instance, when discussing Twelfth Night I was able to share my work on early modern male friendship and English humanist ideals.
- by asking probing questions that convey our intellectual curiosity and knowledge about our field/discipline.
- through our feedback on assessments that share further our subject matter expertise and note students thoughtful engagement with, and exploration of a question/issue.
- through our announcements that alert students to additional resources, news, relevant events, e.g. an upcoming television program, an article in the newspaper or journal article from the library. For instance, when teaching Shakespeare last term I was able to share news of the release of two recent films.
And finally, to reflect upon those instructors in our lives who inspired us and how they did it. This is especially important when teaching a class that is required for a major and/or is a Gen Ed requirement, as often students come to these classes with a mindset of “having to take” the class. Consider what about the subject offers a “way in” to what’s most interesting.
I remember as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary taking a German Politics course. The instructor injected his passion into his subject such that we were riveted each week. This can even been done in an online course, where we are still knowledgeable and earnest guides for students who often approach their course after a long day of work. How might you make their time more energizing and relevant? How might you light a spark of interest?
Do you have tips about how you inspire your students that you might share with us? I’ll be collecting these in a document, crediting your ideas and posting them in CETLA with the list of retention strategies gathered from your feedback in 2015.