How can we become better teachers?

Recently, I was asked to give a talk on how we can become better at teaching. In this post, I will try and summarize my talk.

Go to the profile of Madhukar Pai
Feb 13, 2017

As a university professor, teaching is a big part of my life and I have a passion for it. Recently, I was asked to give a talk on how we can become better at teaching. In this post, I will try and summarize my talk.

To begin with, why teach at all? Well, the easy answer is because teaching is an integral part of an academic’s life. But there is more to it. To teach well, we need to understand the subject well! So, teaching is a great way to learn, and stay in touch with our field. To teach is to learn twice, as the quote goes.

Good teachers tend to attract students, and teaching most definitely helps professors stay in touch with enthusiastic, young people (which is a terrific antidote to pessimism and cynicism!). Based on years of teaching experience, I have these 8 suggestions that might help those who are starting out.

Start small, and take those first keys steps

When I was a medical student, I taught in junior school science clubs, and that made me realize that teaching was something I enjoyed. During residency training, I accepted every opportunity to teach medical and nursing students. Again, this reinforced my confidence. As a doctoral student, I worked as a teaching assistant for several professors, and that experience prepared me for my current academic life.

So, the message here is start small, get comfortable with standing in front of an audience, and get that heart rate under control! Never say no to a teaching opportunity! This could mean small group teaching, leading a journal club, presenting in work-in-progress seminars, giving guest lectures is larger courses, serving as a teaching assistant, or pinch hitting for your advisor who might suddenly need to travel. Keep doing this, one day, you will be ready to teach a course of your own!

Adopt a growth mindset to teaching

I am a fan of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, where she describes two core mindsets that shape how people approach challenges: fixed mindset, the belief that one’s abilities were carved in stone and predetermined at birth, versus the growth mindset, the belief that one’s skills and qualities could be cultivated through effort and perseverance. When it comes to teaching, I believe that few individuals start off as good teachers. But with constant, deliberate effort and practice, most people can become good, even great teachers. So, a growth mindset is fundamental for becoming a good teacher.

Iterate, iterate and iterate - good courses require natural selection!

As you can see from my teaching website, I have taught some courses for many years, while other courses are relatively new. And I can see a big difference between my mature and less mature courses. Because I invariably make improvements each year, my courses mature, not because of the passage of time, but because of the tweaks and improvements I make.

Good courses require constant iteration, with cycles of trial and error. Each year, I ruthlessly cut out things that failed or did not work well the previous year. For example, I might drop a book or a reading that did not excite or inspire my class. If a group activity was a hit this year, I will be sure to increase time for this activity next year. Each year, I try and improve my powerpoint slides by adding topical content, new studies, etc. This natural section process of cutting out the bad, and dialing up the good, in my experience, always results in better course evaluations over time, with visible results.

Put students at the center of your course

When I was a student, I enjoyed professors who painted the big picture before diving into details. I liked teachers who gave tons of real-life examples (rather than hypothetical stuff). I liked classes where visual and audio technologies were used. And I most definitely hated classes where there was no real interaction with students!

So, I try and begin my lectures with the big picture. For example, see my big picture handouts, roadmaps, and schematics for epidemiology. I pepper my lectures with tons of real-world examples. See my case files on bias in epidemiology. Because there is much to be learnt from real-world examples of successes and failures, I encourage students to work on case studies as a learning tool. Here are some examples of case studies published by my students.

Personal examples and anecdotes are always good to include in lectures. When I teach epidemiological study design, I share with students the mistakes that I have committed in my own research, and that invariably gets their attention! Who has not made mistakes? So, make sure you highlight your own failures, as well as other classic examples from the literature.

Because no one method works for all students, I try and offer them complimentary approaches to learning the same concept. As an illustration, see my slides on confounding and check out the 4 approaches that I have used to teaching this important concept. Students also like access to slides and materials in one place, and I put all my teaching resources on a website, not just for my students at McGill, but for anyone who cares to use them. A good teaching website sends a strong signal to students that you care about teaching!

Lastly, engage students by calling them by their names, and by giving them a chance to voice their ideas, and ask questions. The more interactive you can make your class, the better it is for the class. To allow for such interaction, you will need to leave sufficient time during the class for Q&A.

Observe and model good teachers

While it is not easy to define a good teacher, it is easy to spot them when you see them! All aspiring teachers and science communicators should watch Cosmos: A personal Voyage, an iconic TV science show by the late Carl Sagan. As a kid growing up in India, I watched this show in the 1980s, and was totally enthralled by Sagan’s ability to communicate complex concepts in the most accessible manner. It is no wonder that this series has been watched by over 500 million people! The 2014 reboot of this series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is equally thrilling to watch, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, a worthy successor to Sagan, does a spectacular job of bringing the subject to life.

I have been privileged to observe and learn from some outstanding teachers (and I am still in touch with all of them!). Each good teacher has taught me something that I have carried forward into my own teaching. For example, one teacher taught me the importance of using humour. Another showed me, by example, how to mentor others. From one teacher, I learnt how to make the best use of a chalk board! So, every chance you get, observe stellar teachers and see what aspects you can incorporate into your teaching approach.

Take a course on how to teach

Most universities offer courses on how to teach, or how to develop new courses. So, take advantage of these offerings! Courses on pedagogy can help you identify weak aspects of your teaching portfolio and help you plug the gaps. I have had experts provide comments on my teaching. Their feedback was hard to swallow initially, but helped me a lot.

Seek feedback and take feedback very seriously

All teachers need feedback! Otherwise, there is no way to get better. So, insist on getting feedback on your teaching. Carefully read the evaluations and reflect on what changes you will make for the next time. Typically, I do a post-mortem with my teaching assistant, soon after the course ends, and prepare a short note on the major issues that I would need to fix for the next course. When I am ready to prep for my next course, I review my notes, and make sure I implement the changes. I then assess if the changes have worked well or not, and the cycle continues!

Sometimes, I get tough feedback. While negative criticism is hard to take, it is important for all teachers to reflect on student comments, and see where things went wrong and what changes might address the comments.

Lastly, enjoy the ride!

Good teachers, you can tell, have a blast when they teach! And when they have fun, students have fun, and learning becomes fun. While such teachers work hard, prepare well, and work on deliberate strategies to enhance their teaching, they take time to enjoy the act of teaching. They enjoy the ride, so to speak.

Go to the profile of Madhukar Pai

Madhukar Pai

Director, McGill Global Health Programs

I am a Professor and a Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health at McGill University, Montreal. I serve as the Director of McGill Global Health Programs, and Associate Director of the McGill International TB Centre.