What to Look For

by Larry M. Robbins

"I want to improve my teaching, but I don't know how." This is a statement made by too many teachers faced with the desire and need to create the best possible atmosphere for learning. After more than 25 years of observing teachers (myself included) I would like to offer some suggestions on what to look for in your own teaching style.

First, be objective. Too many people are so self-judgmental that they become self-conscious. Often, when reviewing the videotape of a class, the teacher will say, "I can't stand looking at myself. I don't sound the way I think I should, and I certainly don't look good." Since our eyes are behind our noses, and our ears are behind our mouths, we really don't know how we look and sound to others. For the most part, however, this kind of self-examination is not relevant. More importantly, we should listen to and look at ourselves from the eyes of others, analyzing not what we are doing or saying but why. In other words, if you observe that you walk around the classroom without realizing it, ask yourself, "so what?" And then answer the question: "So, I am probably distracting the students and making it look like I don't know what I am saying or doing."

When you observe your own teaching, analyze structure as well as presentation. In an informal poll I take every year, most students believe that organization and enthusiasm are the best attributes of their best teachers. Good organization shows that you are prepared; enthusiasm shows that you care about communicating your subject. Therefore, you need to spend as much time thinking about the organization of a class as about how you come across to the students.Consider splitting the class into "modules" of about eight to ten minutes during which you introduce, explain and summarize a topic. Remember that students' attention begins to wane after about 30 to 40 minutes, so plan carefully to reinvigorate interest for the remaining 20 minutes of the class. Give a summary of what you have covered or ask a question that will make the students think.

The process of organization begins when you design a course (or when someone else designs it for you). Ask yourself: "Why am I telling the students these things at this time?" In other words, what is your intellectual authority, what does your class need to know and how does the material fit within the general curriculum of your discipline? Examine your syllabus to see if what you are teaching is relevant and if the material is in the right sequence.

Several years ago, I spent many hours with a teacher who tried to cover too much. When I suggested eliminating 20 percent of the material, he balked but later realized that he was using far too many examples of the same topic. He also realized that he started with the "effect" and not the "cause," not necessarily a bad strategy but one that didn't seem to make sense to his students. Although cutting and rearranging were difficult tasks, the teacher and the students were rewarded by a much more economical presentation of crucial material.

Thinking about ideas and presenting them are closely tied. A well-organized person may not be able to motivate students to learn if presentation style becomes a barrier to learning. Some simple suggestions helped one instructor who received high evaluations for organization but negative comments about presentation.

Visit the classroom (with a colleague if possible) before the beginning of the semester. Determine acoustical dead spots (usually right in front of a desk or lectern) and establish clear sight lines (mind the peripheries). Plan visual support--blackboard, overhead projector, computer-assisted display, mechanical devices. Create visuals that truly support and do not dominate. When using visuals, above all, don't put too much information on the screen. Reproducing pages from a textbook is redundant; summarizing ideas in bullet form or showing relationships graphically will focus on important issues. Developments in instructional technology are changing the way we teach; we should manage the technology and not be dominated by it.

In any classroom, even those that are "technologically-outfitted," interaction between teacher and student remains, as it has since Socrates, the most important stimulus to learning. The teacher creates the direction of the course, doing so by clear organization and by the types of questions posed to the students. Whether actually or virtually, teachers need to know how to ask and answer questions. Using a now classic taxonomy developed by Benjamin Bloom, (Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, 1956), instructors can achieve a particular "learning outcome" by the types of questions they ask. The taxonomy suggests six outcomes--knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation-with specific types of directive questions to achieve these outcomes--define, explain, demonstrate, differentiate, combine, justify. There are other valid theories of cognition, but Bloom's taxonomy provides the types of questions that motivate students to demonstrate what they have learned. Asking good questions involves everyone in the learning process.

Answering questions requires honesty. If a student asks a question you cannot answer, then have the courage to say so-once. If you have to say, "I don't know," more than once a class then you haven't prepared well. And if you ramble in your answer, not dealing directly with the question, then you demonstrate a lack of organization. Be economical in your answers, reinforcing when appropriate. If a student asks an irrelevant question or gives an incorrect answer, be honest and say, "no," but always add "because" in order to support your judgment with logic. Some professors respond to questions or statements, with "yes, that's excellent," when in fact not everything is excellent. The student might feel good, but if the response turns out to be wrong, then the message is, at best, confusing and potentially insincere.

"So, how was class today?" To prepare for tomorrow, we need to evaluate today. A simple process of self-evaluation begins with going back over your notes to see how much was covered and in what sequence. Did you have time to finish, and if not, why not? Did the students respond? How many students spoke in class, how many nodded in understanding and how many nodded off? Not everyone needs to speak (unless you are grading for oral participation), but everyone needs to listen. If you create barriers to listening by wandering-in body and mind-then determine what changes you need to make for the next class.

When observing your own teaching, don't be too judgmental. If you say to yourself, "I observed that I kept the overhead projector on the whole class," then ask, "so what?" If the answer is, "what was on the screen didn't support what I was saying," then turn off the machine next time. If the answer is, "my computer display graphically demonstrated surprising trends," then you have a model that works.

Knowing what to look for as you observe your teaching will help you determine what you need to continue doing and what you need to change in order to improve your students' ability and desire to learn.

Dr. Robbins is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning in the School of Arts and Sciences (e-mail: For further information on teaching, consult the Center's website:

His essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series into its sixth year as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 17, January 18, 2000