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The ABC of Effective Teaching

Of the many challenges presented by teaching, answering the elusive question ‘what is the most effective teaching approach?’ is one of the most demanding.

A significant impediment to discovering the answer and one that novice and experienced teachers will attest to alike, is the fact that the dynamic characteristics of learning environments, where every student, cohort, programme, institution, and educator, brings to any given situation a distinct set of considerations, perspectives and demands, mean that a one size fits all approach is unworkable.

That notwithstanding academics have endeavored to provide an answer, with notable contributions including that of John Hattie (2009) in his research on Visible Learning, and the ideas of Robert Bjork (1994) exploring the cognitive science of learning and memory and the benefits that ‘Desirable Difficulties’ have on learning. While providing instructional guidance and compelling empirical evidence in respect to the effectiveness of approaches to learning, the plethora of research informed advice and guidance can be bewildering.

To navigate this ultra-complex and continually changing landscape, we can seek solace in the adoption of theories of learning, with key approaches such as Behaviourism, Cognitivism and Constructivism advocated as frameworks to underpin teaching practice.

While valuable however, navigating and interpreting the differences and contradictions inherent in the alternative theories of learning can be challenging and therefore it would be of benefit to define a set of principles that can be applied to learning design and delivery, that transcend the theories of learning and provide a touchstone for academic practice.

Within this blog post I will outline my simple three-point framework for effective teaching, developed through my own practice, having taught in a variety of contexts with diverse cohorts across Higher Education, Further Education and Adult learner programmes, and underpinned by literature, that can be applied to a variety of learning environments and disciplines.

My – ABC of Effective Teaching:  

A – Active Learning
B – Building positive relationships
C – Clear communication  

Active Learning

For learning to occur there needs to be some form of action on the part of the learner. What form that action takes depends upon the characteristic of the learning environment, with the spectrum of action ranging from simple note taking, responding to questions and engaging in debates, to more elaborate activity such as exploring case studies and problem solving, or creating and sharing new knowledge and understanding (Sambell, Brown, & Graham, 2017: 16).

The key is that the learner is engaged in cognitive activity that facilitates an inherent intensity and focus on the challenge placed in front of them, eliciting the processing of new information, drawing upon and comparing to past experiences and prior knowledge, and creating new connections and understanding. This can be achieved in many ways, however ensuring learners are stretched but not too far is important, such that they are working in the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978), just beyond what they can currently achieve on their own.

Some practical applications when seeking to create active learning experiences:

  • Use questioning

One of the most simple and effective ways to engage students in activity is to use questioning. There are many ways questioning (and the process of obtaining responses) can be deployed, from directed questions, open questions, task sheets, polls, online quizzes, provocations, problem solving and case studies. All can be effective in engaging students in cognitive effort to consider and respond, through a variety of response mechanisms/processes. A key to the effective use of questioning is creating a climate where it is understood that engagement with questions is expected and required of students.

  • Think, Pair, Share

This is another simple and flexible strategy that can be extremely effective in engaging learners in active learning and can encompass both constructivist and cognitivist approaches to learning. For instance, learners spend some time formulating their own opinions, ideas, and answers to challenges set, they then get to share these with a partner(s) in small low stakes situations, and finally share, discuss, and critique ideas from across the group. The flexibility of this approach is that it can be adapted to any sort of challenge, be it practical or cognitive, and allows the educator to manage the situation, matching identified learners and groups together, along with encouraging individuals to contribute as needed.

  • Allow time for activity, exploration, and reflection

Active learning requires time to be effective, it can involve elements of creativity and as such this process is rarely linear. For active learning to be effective time needs to be allocated to explore, review, discuss, model, and resolve dilemmas. The challenge can be when time is limited due to a dense curriculum of content, in this situation careful consideration should be given to the content of a programme of study or session – what are the key concepts – or ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer & Land, 2003) – and can certain elements be removed?

Building positive relationships

While the three pillars of my framework overlap and complement one another, if I were pushed to identify the one thing that can have the biggest impact on learning it would be the development of positive relationships, and no more so than that of Student-Teacher.

If a teacher can establish a positive relationship with students, either 1 on 1 or towards the group as a whole, then learners are more likely be receptive to ideas and approaches used by the teacher. This would give them more latitude to try different strategies and activities and students will demonstrate more adherence and commitment to their studies. This can result in a positive cycle of more engaged students and more effective learning, resulting in students identifying the benefits of this approach leading to further commitment.

The challenge in Higher Education can be creating positive relationships with a large cohort, where, for example, remembering the names of every learner can be a significant undertaking. When looking to build a relationship with a group as a whole, it is worthwhile considering what students expect from academics and meeting those expectations on a consistent basis (consistency over time leads to relationships building through trust). Beyond subject knowledge and expertise, key actions to help build a positive relationship with a group could include being:

  • Organised

Much like a goalkeeper in a football match, we only usually notice them when they make a mistake! – similarly as a teacher, being organised with sessions and resources is key to seamless delivery that allows learners to focus on the tasks set and maximise their learning.

  • Reliable

In a similar way to being organised, reliability comes from doing what we say we will, for instance if we state we will follow up on something after a session, make sure this is done, if we are perceived as someone who stands by their words, then trust is built.

  • Open and approachable

Students may be hesitant to engage with an academic through the fear of looking stupid, therefore being approachable and valuing interactions with learners can be a vital tool in building positive relationships. Similarly, if appropriate, sharing a window into our own life or past experiences can build empathy with students, further enhancing relationships.

  • Enthusiasm

Being enthusiastic and passionate about your discipline is a sure-fire way of engaging students and creating a positive perception of yourself with the students. Having fun and shared laughter also help to build relationships, so incorporating this into delivery can be effective.

If the learning environment (for instance size of cohort) provides the opportunity to develop interpersonal relationships then further actions, such as those suggested by Kathleen Quinlan (2016) can be taken:

  1. Remember and use individuals’ names wherever possible
  2. Be interested in learners – ask questions and be attentive in conversations, value their ideas and contributions
  3. Consider your non-verbal communication

The final point by Quinlan (2016) above, leads us into the third and final principle of the framework.

Clear Communication

The final pillar of my education framework is Clear Communication. Effective communication skills are considered a key element of what can be defined as transferable or employability skills, and as such are perhaps a rather uncontroversial aspect to my educational philosophy. There are however two key aspects of communicating while teaching that I consider important to adhere to, to ensure effective communication:

  • Clarity

How clearly, we communicate ideas, perspective, instructions, and concepts is a fundamental aspect of teaching and so careful consideration needs to be applied to the process. Empathy and understanding of the student perspective/experience is key – putting yourself in their shoes, considering the different ways a message can be interpreted, and pre-empting further questions helps to achieve this. Aligned to this is the idea of ‘less is more’, and stripping messages back to the fundamentals can aid clarity. A good phrase to remember is the tradespersons adage of ‘measure twice cut once’, applied to communication it could read – ‘think twice, communicate once.’

  • Consistency

Consistent communication includes repeatedly applying effective communication principles (such as clarity – see above), being consistent in the information we communicate, and also creating an expectation of how and when communication will occur.

Examples of consistent communication can include ensuring at the start of every session or activity we explain the expectations and the requirements of learners for the tasks at hand, and always outlining how educational experiences and specific content presented fits into the bigger picture of a discipline.

Additionally, if we can create scheduled points where we can communicate with students, perhaps a weekly email or verbal update, then these communications become an expected routine and ensure we are able to effectively provide the regular updates and reiterate key points, ideas and processes that are fundamental to student learning.

So, there you have it, these principles guide my own practice and are applicable to a wide variety of contexts, learners and theories of learning. It is as easy as A, B, C…

References

Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory consideration in the training of human beings. In Janet Metcalfe and Arthur P. Shimamura (eds.) Metacognition: Knowing about Knowing, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 185-205.

Hattie, J. C. A. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Oxon. England: Routledge.

Meyer, J. H. F., and Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking about practising within the disciplines. In Rust (eds.) Improving Student Learning: Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice – Ten Years on, OXFORD: OCSLD.

Quinlan, K. M. (2016). How Emotion Matters in Four Key Relationships in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. College Teaching. 64 (3). pp. 101-111.

Sambell, K., Brown, S. and Graham, L. (2017). Professionalism In Practice: Key Directions in Higher Education Learning, Teaching and Assessment. New York: Springer. 

Vygotsky, L. S, (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. London: Harvard University Press.

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