7 Deadly Seens
by Annie Peshkam
All professors have very likely come across a tip sheet for "good" teaching from a blog, newsletter, teaching website, or an institutional handout. You don't need me to tell you that, quite decidedly, the chances of learning how to teach from a tip sheet are minimal. And they are reduced to almost none when they are not proffered from the hands of a colleague or coach after observing you teach.
Decontextualized teaching tips are almost useless because they are often too broad and too obvious.
The opposite of tips - pitfalls - might be equally broad but less obvious (because people are often unaware of falling prey to them) yet more valuable when coupled with suggested strategies to replace them.
Thus, here is a less banal and more applicable teaching tip sheet.
Here are the 7 Deadly Seens in MBA Classrooms:
1. Verbal Mismatcher
Your first slide with text is on the screen. The information you narrate from memory doesn’t match the words on the slide. What is your audience doing? A few students are reading your slide and not listening to a word you're saying. Others decide to listen to you, and then halfway through, tune you out to read the slide, and when they're done reading, decide to tune back again, maybe 30 seconds later. Research shows that the brain is not capable of attention-rich multitasking. Consequently, your audience is not cognitively capable of processing two streams of different information at the same time.
On your slide: (1) present as little written text as possible, (2) begin the sentence corresponding with that bullet by reading exactly what is written on the slide, (3) continue to orally elaborate, explain, or provide an example. Repeat. Your audience will literally experience a surge in sustained attention when you do so.
2. Tablet Centric
You are excited and geeking out. It’s the first day you are using a tablet to present your slides. Colleagues have told you that students appear to pay attention to the lecture and discussion when they have the space to take notes, fill in concepts, write formulas, or problem solve while you write on semi-blank slides on the tablet. You spend most of class standing behind the lectern, contentedly writing away with your stylus, reading from the tablet...
By all means geek out and use your tablet for what it affords, like co-constructing ideas or problem solving together. However, do not forget the humans in the room. They enjoyed the eye contact you were making before the tablet arrived. As soon as you are finished writing, step out from behind the machine, angle your body towards the audience, read from the drop-down screen, and regularly reach out to humankind.
3. Verbal Ticster
For me it was "and...and....and" during one of my first research presentation rehearsals several years ago. When my advisor picked up on it and requested that I do away with this tic, I simply replaced it with "so...so...so." Verbal tics are incredibly difficult to get rid of. What are yours? The ones I have heard most are "um..." "err..." "well..." at the beginning of every other sentence. Let's stop this once and for all.
Tics are a state of mind. Rather than trying to remove your verbal tics, focus on speaking deliberately. That might require writing out exactly what you might say for each slide or each discussion segment, and then repeating or rehearsing those sentences over and over again. Practicing speaking slowly and intentionally can be a painstaking investment. But once you are tic-free, you will trigger fewer interruptions to your students' attention, and speed up their comprehension of complex ideas. After rehearsing, if you still find yourself with the urge to “um” and “ah”, pause; pausing to think about what to say next is a cover story for you, and the hallmark of a thoughtful speaker for the audience. You may even find an enhanced aura of credibility bestowed upon you.
4. Exhaustive Responder
You walk back to your office after a session worn out and annoyed that you ran out of time before getting through all of the material. An unexpected portion of class time was spent answering many student questions.
The deepest learning takes place when each student’s question is answered, we generally believe. In a community discussion, when you are standing in front of the room running a session, fielding question after question will have the opposite effect. Leading a case discussion, lecture, or analysis from the front of an amphitheatre does not afford in-depth learning for each individual student. These pedagogical methods are designed for whole-group learning; for reaching group learning outcomes. By all means, respond to questions that move the discussion or analysis forward, or clarify misunderstandings. However, with each question, think to yourself, "Does responding to this question deepen ideas for everyone, or will it overcomplicate the lesson, raising additional questions in other students' minds?" If the audience may be diverted, feel comfortable telling students that you want to move on, you will address that question later in the session, or you are willing to answer these questions offline or over coffee. Remember, you set the group learning outcome(s), you know best how to meet them.
5. Overenthusiastic Expert
You just reached a few research slides, a complex mathematical problem, or a specific set of ideas that are really exciting to talk about. Fantastic. Part of great teaching is transmitting your excitement for a subject. But, then, do you remember enthusiastically scribbling on the board or flipping through slides for more than 15 minutes and the audience starting to fade into a listless fog?
Next time you prepare for a session and can foresee feeling particularly inspired to speak about a topic, try to pre-empt losing your audience to a lengthy, passive matriculation. Rethink that session or section of the session. Design questions for the class that remind you to acknowledge the students’ presence (at the very least) and value their participation.
6. Overindulgent Informer
The adage “too much of a good thing” will ring true when you cram excessive information into 90 minutes. In fact, I’ve often been a first-hand witness to professors assigning “extra” reading, projecting “additional” information, handing out “further” material. Extraneous information that is not pedagogically sequenced into the session or course will lead to student resentment if unaddressed, and minimise rather than maximise learning.
Quite simply, if you will not use it to inform or support ideas in class, do not assign the reading. If you are not going to talk about it, do not put it up on a slide. What is relevant to you is not relevant to them. If you know there is a subset of interested students, create an “optional” reading list. Optional indicates readings that can deepen specific learning but it is beyond the scope of the course.
7. Defensive Disciplinarian
Few 30 year old students are willing to (re)live disciplinarian parenting. Assertive pushes seem to result in only stronger push back. For instance, cold calling on almost every student to “check” whether each person has prepared for a case will only lead to disruption and frustration in the classroom. Telling students off in a defensive tone of voice for showing up late, being absent, or using banned electronic devices can lead to potentially rude commentary or an equally defensive atmosphere. There are very few strong personalities who accomplish their goal and earn student cooperation using this method. They usually know who they are early on.
For the rest, strike a balance. Use a firm yet relaxed tone. Set expectations at the beginning of the course, and at the start of the first few sessions. Remind students that you are in a social contract together. As a professor, you invest a great deal of time and you are committed to students’ learning. In order for that learning to take place, you need their investment in return. If you will be cold calling, one option is to let students know your strategy up front. For instance, at the beginning of the course, notify students that for each case discussion you will ask three different students to open the case, and you may also cold call occasionally when you believe that a particular student would be suited to analysing a concept. Also, let students know that you understand it is difficult to show up on time. Acknowledge their busy lives, heavy workload, and job searches. But set a rule and stick to it. Tell them to please not come to class if they know in advance they will arrive late. Explain why it matters. If a student breaks this rule, stop the discussion, nicely and firmly ask him or her to leave, thank the student for cooperating, and say you look forward to his or her contributions in the next session.
Now that you are privy to the 7 Deadly Seens, and have read the strategies to overcome them, where can you go from here?
“Don't think about the white bear,” was a remark made by an experimenter to a confederate in a classic psychology experiment. Results revealed that making a concerted effort not to think about the white bear only led to a significant increase in thinking about it.
Read over each Deadly Seen. Recall moments when you may have fallen prey to any one of them. Based on the suggested strategies, imagine the action(s) that you could take that would replace those behaviours. Replay those actions in your mind. Close this box.