4 teaching strategies for college instructors — context, optimism, preparation and engagement

by Julie Dodd

auditorium class

COPE Strategies can help teachers as they begin new academic year.

The start of the school year provides the opportunity for teachers and students to consider the big picture of teaching and learning before getting caught up in the week-by-week view of readings, quizzes and assignments.

Scott Newstok’s “How to Think Like Shakespeare” offers a call to action for the Class of 2020 (and for all college students) to take advantage of the learning enterprise to realize the value of gaining knowledge, to engage in critical thinking, and to seek collaborative environments.

Newstok’s essay, although directed at college students, provides a model for college teachers of how to take lofty student learning outcomes and design classes and assignments to enable students to reach those outcomes.

In speaking at the orientation for new teaching assistants at the University of Florida, I wanted to help those 350+ new instructors consider some big concepts that could help them develop their teaching outlook.

I talked with them about what I call the COPE Strategies to help develop a teaching approach.

C = Context

mind mapping on whiteboard

Mind mapping is one strategy you can use to help students see the context of a concept.

Students can be deterred from engaging with the course content if their overriding reaction is: “Why do I need to know this?”

Too often instructors respond: “Because it’s on the test.” That may true and, indeed, is a reason to learn the material, but that doesn’t provide a personally meaningful reason for the students.

Instead of waiting until that question is asked, talk with the students about why concepts, formulas, readings and assignments are important to the students.

As teachers we can find the content so engaging (because it’s our field of specialization) that we don’t recognize that the students don’t have that same enthusiasm for the topic. That can be especially true when teaching a general education course that students see as a requirement but not directly relevant to their career interests.

Tie the readings to current events. Connect the assignment to skills they will need in the workplace. Explain how a concept ties to other courses they will be taking.

A variety of approaches can be used. Mind mapping lets you lead a class conversation and tie a variety of issues to the main topic, showing its many connections. Have the students talk with classmates about how the readings/assignment is relevant. Students often will sell their classmates on why a topic is important in ways you couldn’t anticipate.

Provide the context for why students need to learn what you are teaching.

O = Optimism

student panel

Each semester I invite a panel of former students to talk with the class about their different paths to academic and personal success. By looking for a range of student successes, the current students can see different options for themselves.

Our own attitude towards our students’ ability impacts the successfulness of our teaching and of their learning. Paul Tough’s “Who Gets to Graduate?” discussed the effective program at the University of Texas to help students – especially low-income first generation college students – be successful in introductory chemistry, which was a stumbling block for many of those students.

The big take-away from the analysis David Laude did of the Chemistry 301 students was that the students who were earmarked for poor grades in the course — based on having SAT scores 200 points lower than the students who were successful in the course — could, in fact, be successful by implementing certain teaching strategies. Those strategies included having smaller classes (50 students versus 500 students), providing advisors, offering extra instructional time, and peer tutoring.

We as teachers should be optimistic that our students can learn and, if faced with poor student performance, should evaluate our role in course design as a factor in student performance.

We also need to be optimistic about our own ability as the instructor. Especially when we are new teachers or if we are teaching a new course, we can feel like we can’t do a good job – and, perhaps, shouldn’t be expected to do a good job. But Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do” reminds us that even beginning teachers can be effective teachers by appreciating the individual value of each student, setting clear expectations, recognizing gaps in students’ information and teaching to those gaps, and fostering trust (among other qualities).

Develop a mindset that your students can be effective learners and that you can be an effective teacher – and then work to make that true (don’t just hope it will happen).

P = Preparation

Mock job interview in class

Setting up this mock job interview in class required scheduling the guest speakers and recruiting a student who would participate in the in-front-of-the-class interview. That required much more time — but was much more effective — than for me to present tips for preparing for a job interview.

Much of how the semester goes and how each class meeting goes is based on the preparing that we do as teachers. That preparation starts with the development of the course syllabus and continues throughout the semester.

Marilla Svinicki, co-author of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers, emphasizes that “the purpose of teaching is to help learning happen. Teaching is not an end in and of itself.”

So teachers should be thinking of those course outcomes and plan instruction and assignments to make those happen. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins promote the Backward Design approach, helping teachers “focus on ensuring that learning happens, and not just teaching (and assuming that what was taught was learned).”

That lively and productive class discussion happens because you have set up the discussion and have asked questions to guide and promote discussion. (And realize that you may need several class sessions for students to become comfortable with that format and realize they need to be prepared to share in class.)

The end-of-semester team presentations were so successful because you broke the assignment into manageable pieces and had regular meetings with each presentation team.

We’ve all be in class session when it seems like the teacher just came up with the lesson on the spot. The teacher may not have notes or may use questions and activities that seem inspirations of the moment to guide the class to a productive outcome. That totally in the moment successful class session can happen occasionally. However, most successful classes require strategic planning.

E = Engagement

Guest speaker with students audio recording

A guest speaker was the source for a writing assignment. During class, students took notes, audio recorded the interview and asked questions.

Excellent teaching doesn’t mean that the instructor must be the only one talking for the entire class period. In fact, giving a full class period lecture may lead to lower student attention levels.

In his book “Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning,” José Antonio Bowen discusses how the current college classroom teaching approach of an instructor lecturing and showing presentation slides leads to students being passive and not reaching deep learning.

He encourages instructors to use instructional games, small group activities, and class discussion to get students involved in their own learning.

From my own teaching, from observing for the UF Graduate Student Teaching Awards Committee and from being a peer observer for colleagues, I know that one of the biggest obstacles for teachers to use student engagement in class is our concern about possibly losing control of class.

If you lead a discussion, the students may not respond as you had anticipated or may ask questions you aren’t prepared for. If you put them in small groups, how do you know that they are task? You feel like you have more control when you are lecturing, but, if fact, students may not be paying attention.

You can work on having engagement and control.

For the class discussion, think about questions you can use to prompt students if the discussion is lagging. You also will need to work on being patient as you wait for students to respond to your questions. If you’re asked a question you don’t know, ask the class to help you with the answer, ask students to do an online search for the answer, or challenge yourself and the class to investigate that issue for discussion in the next class meeting.

If you put students in groups, give them specific tasks to complete and a set amount of time. Walk around class to see that they are on task. You can even have each group write a response and include their names, which will provide class participation points.

Having the class involved does mean that you may have some unexpected results, like the unexpected question or story that gets shared. But those can become some of your best teaching experiences.

In a class discussion of how communications professionals should seek to promote diversity, I asked students to talk in pairs (Think-Pair-Share) about an experience when they felt judged unfairly based on their race, ethnicity, gender, etc. When we moved to the full-class discussion, students share some powerful and moving personal experiences that made the point of the unfairness of stereotypes in a much more powerful way than I could done without their involvement.

Strive to have students get engaged in class every class session. You may find that it will take a little practice for the students to get engaged – but most will appreciate the change of pace. In my evaluations, students tell me that they feel that they need to be more prepared for class and that they have enjoyed working with classmates during class.

COPE = Context, Optimism, Preparation and Engagement

Those four strategies can help you make this a great semester for you and for your students.


2 thoughts on “4 teaching strategies for college instructors — context, optimism, preparation and engagement

  1. Pingback: 10 strategies for active learning in college classrooms | Julie Dodd

  2. Pingback: Orientation for new teaching assistants at UF – tips for success | Strategies for Successful Teaching

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