The times I taught well

Some students love the way you teach: others don’t. That’s just a fact, and if you’re going to survive the end-of-module evaluations, you’d better accept it. I’ve been thinking again about teaching after an exchange with one of our MA students last week. He was mildly concerned that he wasn’t taking many notes from the first few weeks of our teaching material (we don’t teach through recorded lectures (yawn), but from specially-written text with points at which students think about a question, then read our response – and the whole process is supported by an individual tutor who can answer questions and stimulate more thinking).

I responded by telling him a story: ‘In a job in a brick university a long time ago, I taught Roman Empire. A student came up at the end of an early lecture to complain that she ‘wasn’t getting as many notes’ from my lectures as she was from my colleagues who taught other historical periods. I explained that, if she wanted ‘notes’, she could read innumerable books on the topic. What I was trying to do was raise questions, challenge assumptions – to make the students think. And you can’t measure that by how many pages of notes you scrawl in an hour.’

So that’s my usual method. As you teach, just occasionally, you’ll find something which really creates a buzz. A few times, during nearly 40 years of teaching the languages, history and culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans, I’ve had what a former PhD student of mine called a woo-hoo moment. So here are two which come to mind, offered in the hope that they may inspire you!

Revisiting the Hippocratic Oath

Teaching an ancient medicine course, rather than going through the Hippocratic Oath one more time, I instead began by asking the students what they thought was in the Oath. This was done without prior warning – I wanted to capture the popular, general idea of what’s in it. I wrote all their suggestions on the whiteboard, attempting to group them thematically in different areas of the board. Then I handed out the Heinrich von Staden translation of the Oath, and we went around the board checking what was, and wasn’t, there.

This worked very well. It was non-threatening – anyone could shout out a phrase and nothing written on the board was attributed. It led into those interesting questions of translation – is ‘do not perform abortion’ really sufficiently close to what the Oath is talking about? And it led to lots more questions, on the lines of ‘So if “First do no harm” isn’t in the Oath, where does it come from?’ Most significantly, it led to the point that all the ‘medical community’ material in the Oath – about looking after the person who trained you and teaching his sons without charging a fee – doesn’t feature in our assumptions about this text. The method has something in common with the currently-fashionable ‘flipped classroom’, but don’t let that stop you!

An alternative multiple choice test

My other innovation was the multiple choice test in which all the answers are right, it’s just that – bit of an Animal Farm moment here – some are more right than others. I administered this test in the middle of the term and the aim was to make students aware that they’d come a long way since they started the course. I wrote a maximum of 10 questions, each having 3 or 4 possible answers. The students were asked to go through, circling the best answer; the one for which they thought they had the most evidence. After a few minutes doing that, the next task was to talk to the person next to them and see if they agreed. If they didn’t, I invited them to chat about why they’d circled that answer, and see if they could come to an agreement.

The final stage of this process was done in the whole class of around 20-30 students. I’d begin, ‘OK, question 1. Hands up if you put (a). OK! And who put (b)? How about (c)?’ Then I would direct questions around the room. ‘So you put (a). Why didn’t you choose (b)? Those who put (b), did you think her answer to that was fair?’ And so on. There’s lots of energy around the room when you do this. And it achieves its objective, because by the end of it there’ll be a real sense of confidence with the material.

Learning to teach

I didn’t get any of these ideas from ‘How to teach’ courses. I think you need to develop ideas that work for you and your group, not in the abstract. When I was teaching at what is now Liverpool Hope, I did take the opportunity to read some of the books on teaching in the library (former teacher training establishment – lots of opportunities) and really liked the Spiral Curriculum, where you return to the same things but in more depth every time, and I think a lot of my subsequent thinking springs from that.

Teaching is never ‘one size fits all’ – your ideas develop from a specific context. The first teaching I did was as a postgraduate at UCL taking seminars; this is often the earliest experience of teaching which fledgling academics get. I don’t think I was very good at it. I was delivering sessions on topics I hadn’t chosen – that’s hard. After this experience, as a junior research fellow at Cambridge I was Director of Studies in Social Anthropology for my college, which meant a certain amount of one-to-one or one-to-two teaching. I was also lucky enough to be asked to do some lectures. I did a series of 6 on women in the ancient world; I still have my handwritten notes for these, and although the content is fine the delivery must have been pretty turgid. They were very much ‘I know all this stuff and I’m going to impart it to you’ traditional lectures.

I also taught on a team-taught course on ancient religions and watched my co-lecturers in action; we used to go out for coffee afterwards and critique each other’s style. That was fun, although challenging. At Hope, I co-taught with someone who terrified the students, so I learned how not to do that. At Reading, the era of peer observation arrived, and so you would sit in on other people’s lectures and get a sense of what was possible, what worked, and what really didn’t.

I think at some level I have never been fully satisfied with how I taught, and always looking for something to inspire not only my students but also myself. As a teacher, you really want to communicate your own excitement and enthusiasm, but it isn’t that easy. On those occasions when you come up with something that fully engages your class, celebrate these moments and share them!


One thought on “The times I taught well

  1. I definitely agree with the ‘one size fits all’. In my first few years teaching Later Roman history I found that a seminar group from one year would respond positively to a particular set task, then in the next year the same task didn’t work at all well with the new seminar group. Felt quite disheartening on the day – but forced me to come up with a greater variety of teaching styles and techniques to see which fitted best with different groups learning the same topics.


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