Teaching Tips: My Top 3 Tips

Here at ESN, we’ve found that some of our most appreciated posts share practical tips on learning various academic skills that emerging scholars can use to serve God and their neighbors. Teaching is a key way to serve students and love our neighbors by sharing knowledge, and it’s also something many emerging scholars are learning how to do. So in Spring 2017, we started a series sharing Teaching Tips from people in our network. We hope readers will get some good ideas from each other, and also get a glimpse into how Christian scholars in a wide variety of settings exercise the creativity and knowledge God has given them to serve their students. We’re delighted to continue sharing tips this fall, and we welcome Shirley Li to the blog today. Read on for her top three teaching tips. Also stay tuned for a Time Management Tips series starting soon. 


What follows below only loosely “coheres” and undoubtedly offers no new teaching rocket science. But I find my teaching practice often simply needs regular reminders of what I already know about brains, and student-humans, and myself—not new and magical solutions. Here are my top three reminders I would do well to apply more regularly. Note: the following are gleaned from teaching 9th-12th grade students so may need slight adjustments for the college classroom.

  1. On brains: To teach students how to learn. My grad instructors when I studied education often lamented the fact that there’s no robust “curriculum for metacognition” that teaches students how to learn effectively and durably—arguably one of the most fundamental skills for an academic setting. In my lessons, I try to intersperse effortful learning practice and to explain to students why, say, a “free-recall” of the material in the form of a low-stakes quiz is more effective than merely reviewing and rereading it. The idea is to show students that, counterintuitively, learning practices that are more durable may initially be more difficult and more frustrating. Often students dispatch easy techniques that make them feel great—like rereading, which is not useless but almost—over truly effortful techniques: for example, self-quizzing and spaced retrieval (recalling material not just in the moment but later in the day, two days later, two weeks later). The confusion that isn’t entirely their fault: research consistently demonstrates we humans are terrible at gauging our learning, preferring “illusions” of learning that come easily over genuine, effortful learning (Make it stick, Brown et. al). It’s important for students to learn metacognition, to know what sort of learning is effective and why. For similar reasons, I also build in practices of self-regulation and self-assessment when teaching writing. When I return essays with feedback, I’ll give students time *in class* to read and reflect on the feedback. (Really, students might not read your thoughtful, meticulously handwritten feedback for their recent essay on Heart of Darkness otherwise. Give them time in class to read feedback!) When drafting an essay, I’ll have students set specific goals based off previous feedback, and before turning in the final copy they compose a “cover letter” reflecting on their goals and progress as a writer. I’ve found this helps (especially weaker) students make more focused and visible progress.
  1. On student-humans: To see and to know my students. For my first couple years of teaching, I was probably over- focused on students’ minds, in part because I was still uncertain about how to teach content. But one of the most important, though gradual, “aha!” moments came with understanding that students bring their whole selves, not just their brains, to the classroom. Trivially, this means they might be sleepy, hungry, or trying to impress the boy sitting a few seats over (annoying in the moment, amusing afterward). More poignantly, I discovered that for students evaluation of their learning all too often blurred into a valuation of their self and worth. To get an A means not that my work is excellent, but that I’m pretty great; to get a C means the opposite. This makes feedback tricky. To be able to teach students, I needed to be able to wade through the muck of their ego and self-construction of identity, speak encouragement and truth to their capacity to learn and grow (given effective, effortful practices), and only then to offer practical feedback. Without doing the work up-front, my feedback was often useless and demoralizing to boot. To this point, I’ve also found that well-timed interventions, especially when a student is stuck in a rut and unable to or insecure about reaching out, can completely transform a student’s experience in a class.
  1. On myself: To practice healthy habits and efficiency and trust. I’m still working on developing the above items as a teacher. A bad class used to ruin my entire day (or a discouraging encounter with a student, for that matter). I would obsess over what I’d done wrong, over what parts were my fault and what parts were theirs, etc. Oddly enough, I don’t know that, given my temperament, there’s any way I could’ve avoided that phase. It’s taken time to be easier on myself. I’m also a big believer in efficiency. (Why does it feel like “efficiency versus selflessness” in teaching? That seems such an unhelpful binary.) Take grading, for instance. I grade fairly quickly: one item to work on, two items to praise, maybe excerpt examples from the student’s essay. I don’t offer loads of feedback on every last detail (because that would take too long and also would be massively unhelpful to students) and I don’t read essays twice. I also know that paper-based feedback is supposedly, given research, better for student retention of feedback. But I give my feedback and fill out the rubric electronically because, for now, it’s a more efficient system, and also gets feedback to students more quickly. Finally, I’m getting better at letting go of control. Here I don’t mean classroom management. I mean that I used to want classes to go exactly according to plan or better, and for students to learn the things I planned to teach: close reading, sentence structure and grammar, argument and analysis, enduring understandings. But learning is mysterious and students are their own mysterious and wonderful persons. Mine is to do my part and to trust it to bear fruit.
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Shirley Li

Shirley Li taught four years of high school and has just begun the first year of her English PhD in Durham, NC. She’s lived in seven different cities in the past nine years (though some aren’t cities) and written previously for two Christian journals (The Kairos Journal and The Williams Telos). She’s reading Harry Potter for the first time, because she was a pretend book snob as a kid, and now sincerely regrets it.

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