Teaching: suggestions, advice and mentoring

For faculty the time between semesters includes reflecting on the previous semester, developing and revising courses, and adopting a few teaching resolutions.

Over the years, I have spent many hours during the breaks between terms updating class plans for the next term. I often read books, articles and blog posts related to teaching for inspiration and strategies.

So I read Shayla Love’s New York Times article on seeking and assessing advice — ”How Should You Be? Try Taking Suggestions” — with interest to see how her insights could apply to teachers.

Love’s article included her research on the origin of the suggestion box and interviews with five university faculty who study different aspects of advice – from communication science to workplace psychology.

One of the people Love interviewed was University of Chicago philosopher Dr. Agnes Callard. Dr. Callard discussed the differences between instructions, suggestions, advice, and mentorship. And all of these apply to reflecting on and improving your teaching.

Instructions provide directions on how to do something and are concrete, Dr. Callard says. Typically, you are seeking instructions because you want to do something. Examples given were how to assemble a piece of furniture or un-jam the copy machine.

Then there are suggestions and advice. Even though “suggestions” and “advice” sometimes are used interchangeably in conversation, Dr. Callard says the two differ.

Suggestions can be offered by, well, anyone. Those suggestions don’t have to be informed, designed to be helpful or even relevant to you.

Dr. Callard distinguishes advice from suggestions, saying that advice comes from “someone who purports to be in a position to know what you should do.”

Mentorship or coaching, Dr. Callard says, is “less about advice-giving and more about building a relationship based on interpersonal knowledge.” She said mentorship is “more intimate and robust than advice.”

So how do instructions, suggestions, advice and mentorship apply to you as a teacher?


As teachers, we seek out instructions for all kinds of teaching activities — from how to construct a multiple-choice exam to how to embed a video clip in a slide presentation.

The internet enables teachers to find great instructions on almost any teaching topic. University teaching centers – at your university or others — provide helpful instructions in the form of online directions or online or in-person workshops. You also can talk with a colleague.

Let me clarify that in the context of Love’s article taking suggestions and advice is optional.


As a teacher, you know there is no shortage of suggestions offered to teachers.

Colleagues, university administrators, conference presenters, podcasters, teacher organizations, and politicians are just some of those offering suggestions. As long as these are “suggestions” and not “mandates,” you have the option to consider the suggestions and then adopt or ignore.

Students sometimes make suggestions in their end-of-term course evaluations. I’ve read a lot of student suggestions. I’ve read them in my own student evaluations and in the tenure and promotion packages I’ve reviewed, I’ve also read student comments in the more than 70 portfolios of graduate students I’ve reviewed as a member of the University of Florida’s Graduate Student Teaching Awards Committee.

Some suggestions are meant to be helpful and encouraging. Some student suggestions are unfair and even rude. The key is to read the end-of-term student evaluations for what they are – the reactions of some students at the end of a term. With the advent of the online evaluation system at the University of Florida, the rate of completion is less than 50 percent in most courses. So, the student comments you receive may be from the most disgruntled students.

Sift through the student suggestions to identify any that would help you improve the student learning – and that are realistic.

[If you’d like to receive student feedback that you can respond to in real time, I’d encourage you to do Early Student Feedback.]


All of us as teacher have time when we need – and want – advice. For example — How can we deal with a student who is disruptive in class? How can we structure group projects to make the workload more equal?

Identifying someone to seek advice from can be a challenge.

Typically, we’d like to talk with someone so we can explain the nuances of our course and teaching situation. You can attend a workshop offered by your campus teaching center, but such a workshop may be too broad in approach for your specific situation.

You may or may not want to talk with a colleague, as you may not want that person to know you are having a teaching problem. You might talk with a colleague you know at another institution.

The key is talking with someone who you respect as a teacher and who is able to listen to you explain your situation and then offer relevant advice. You may want to ask several different faculty to get a variety of views. Then you have to decide what advice seems most appropriate for you.


Mentoring or coaching was the final category mentioned by Dr. Callard.

Having a teaching mentor or coach can be a real gift. A person who can be a sounding board and can offer strategic advice.

Some schools and universities have formal mentoring programs, where new faculty are assigned a mentor. The New Teacher Center is a model of formal mentoring – with trained mentors who follow research-based best practices in working with new teachers. Such well-designed mentoring is not always the case.

If you have an excellent assigned mentor, that’s great. If not, you can seek your own informal mentor.

What is my advice?

You’ll continue to grow and improve as a teacher by being open to input from others. So seek ways to receive feedback on your teaching and to find out about new-to-you teaching approaches and strategies, and find at least one trusted colleague to have on-going teaching conversations with.


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