Eighteen years of college teaching has taught me many valuable lessons. One surprising finding is that good teaching does not become easier over the years. This shouldn't come as a surprise, however. In our information age, knowledge is constantly changing and students have access to information in unprecedented ways through technology with communication tools that I could not have imagined only five years ago. I started teaching with a view that direct experience was the best teacher. As a young educator, I strongly believed that engagement with students in hands-on activity and adventure was the best path to quality teaching. This belief no doubt came from growing up in Africa where much of my schooling was negotiated at home, or by a diverse set of schools and tutors and experiences when we traveled. This initial position, I quickly found, was naïve because it presupposed a cross-cultural attitude toward education that was foreign to most of my current students.
In the ensuing years of designing and teaching a diverse curriculum of psychology related courses, I have found that my students’ best learning is positively correlated with effort, self-efficacy, quality time on task, and their intrinsic motivation involving a variety of emotions, the most salient among them being interest and enjoyment. So, my teaching has evolved and I have come to understand that the real value of experience is that it helps students manufacture the necessary and relevant conditions for learning. I use this understanding to design learning experiences (lessons) that motivate students to put in the time and effort and achieve a sense of self efficacy. I try to teach creatively and conduct action research on my methods. I engage students in collaborative teaching-and-learning processes – they facilitate discussions, write critiques, present research findings to peers and edit each others work. I take students on field trips and offer topics that involve travel experiences.
I believe that good teaching centers in relationships. I am passionate about creating new understanding, and the techniques that work particularly well for me come from my comfort in relating personally to others. As a counselor, I learned how to listen. As a result, in the classroom, I find my self most powerfully in the role of facilitator. I prefer not to be a sage on the stage. I work with students interactively and try to bring into the classroom the excitement of inquiry and discovery. My methods encourage student questions and challenge them to engage in discourse, collaborative research and critical writing.
I strongly believe that writing is a powerful teaching tool. I provide students with diverse writing assignments. Sometimes I ask them to be reflective, hypothetical and/or creative. For example, I assign an autobiographical essay in general psychology to teach me about the lives of my students and to introduce them to APA style. I ask students in all of my courses to write essays that are comparative and critical. They may analyze a theory, judge a practice, evaluate a journal article, reflect on a learning experience, or provide critical feedback about a teaching activity. In these ways I personally actively engage in evaluating my teaching and my students’ learning.
I intentionally try to create academic community among my students. I regularly engage them in activities to develop rapport with their peers. I know that when a meaningful discursive connection is made between students, receptivity to the lesson is enhanced. In most courses group projects are collaborative efforts that require diverse talents in the members. I remind myself that each learner comes to the classroom with different values, strengths, and offerings. Each student should also be given an equal opportunity to engage in the discourse and each should have a voice.
Highly motivated and gifted students often benefit from a teacher as facilitator. I believe this is particularly true when we can take advantage of resources available to us in the information age. My classrooms are highly interactive, precisely because I have provided to students web-based tools to interact with content and to access the course syllabus, calendar, quizzes, and grades. Students can communicate with peers and experts, ask and answer questions, conduct research, and submit homework, over the Internet.
Aristotle’s declaration, that the passion to know is the intrinsic motive for all human learning, has always had a ring of truth to me. As a psychologist I have found that it is in our nature as humans to try to make sense of the world – to ask questions – to engage in the joy of research and the excitement of discovery. Teaching about what we have found is the logical expression of our desire to know. I believe this to be true. As a result, I include in all of my courses, an opportunity for students to present their work and teach me something that they have learned.
Along with the enjoyment of discovery comes a duty to contribute to the learning community. The highest honor for scholars, I believe, is the opportunity to teach in return for the freedom to study.
Graham E Higgs PhD. >