What I’ve Learned about Teaching

Many of us in higher education had no training in pedagogy. We did our research in our area of specialization and wrote seminar and conference papers, journal articles, and our dissertations. If we had opportunities to teach, we may have picked up some hints and tips about organizing material for a classroom presentation or to lead a discussion.

When we begin our teaching careers, however, we may be overwhelmed at the prospect of building syllabuses for three, four, or five courses, organizing the course content, and imagining creative and effective assignments.

I learned most of what I know about teaching from colleagues who shared their experiences and were willing to help me. I recalled some of these last weekend, and I’d love to hear from others about their experiences and what they’ve learned about teaching.

  • When you’re teaching a course for the first time, don’t be afraid to ask a colleague who has taught it before for his or her syllabus. You can also find courses syllabuses on the SBL website. It’s far easier to work from something and make it your own than to develop a new course from nothing.  Most colleagues understand the pressures involved in beginning a career and are happy to help, so just ask.
  • Someone mentioned this last year at the ATS gathering and I’ve kept it in mind. Your students aren’t you. We’re in the guild because we’re Bible and theology nerds who love this environment. We may have had the luxury of studying full-time while in seminary. Our students, however, have jam-packed lives, often work full-time, or are consumed by stressful ministries. When I first began teaching at the seminary, I built my NT Exegesis syllabus as the ideal course I wish I had taken when I was in seminary. It was way too much and I needed to make modifications as the semester progressed.
  • Journal after class. I spend five minutes after class writing down some thoughts. I note what worked and what didn’t. I reflect on what students found helpful and what needed further clarification. I may comment that a certain textbook is very helpful or that I won’t use this or that article the next time I teach the course. But I collect my thoughts in one document for each course that I open when I need to prepare for the following semester and make some adjustments.
  • Seek to improve a course by 10% each semester. A colleague told me this once and it gave me permission to not feel I had to overhaul each class every semester. Make minor tweaks here and there to gradually improve a course so that it becomes excellent over time.
  • Consider posturing yourself as the lead learner rather than the authoritative voice from on high. That generates enthusiasm for the process of discovery and invigorates students about exploring the course content along with you.
  • Consider doing your own mid-semester or post-semester evaluations. You can ask basic questions about aspects of the course to identify areas in need of improvement. I’ve used a very simple form in the past given to me by a colleague (find it here).
  • Be creative with assignments. Many of us expected (and loved!) research papers. We wanted nothing other than to spend long hours in libraries chasing down sources, building bibliographies, and working through issues on our own. Increasingly, however, students don’t have access to libraries, have full-time jobs, commute from long distances, and can’t do the sort of research that was “normal” in former days. There’s much to be said about all of this, of course, but my point here is that you ought to consider perhaps a series of smaller and more strategic assignments throughout a semester whereby students engage the material rather than research papers.

Educators, students, and others, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned about Teaching

  1. Rick Wadholm Jr.

    This is fantastic advice, especially for someone like myself who is just now beginning full-time instruction at the undergrad level and will next year be teaching more at the grad level. While I have been teaching for a couple of years, this is my first full-time position. Finding time to work on 5 courses a semester gets to be a bit much so I deeply appreciate the advice. And also your followup post on writing (which is something I have made a point of doing every day). Blessings,

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