Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

How University professors ought to be teaching…

I am not a teacher per se. As a professor, I define myself as a researcher first and I do not do research on teaching methodologies. So this makes me poorly qualified to tell the world how a professor ought to be teaching. Nevertheless, I do teach. And I think that some of the time, I teach better than some. In fact, in the last few years, 95% of all students who took my courses would recommend the course to others. Here are the rules I follow:

  • Don’t focus on content. In most fields, the content, the information, is already out there. It has been organized several times over by very smart people. Books have been written on most topics worth the attention of your students. There is a growing set of great talks available on YouTube, Google Video and elsewhere. Your students do not need you to rehash the same content they can find elsewhere, sometimes in better form. You may produce really sharp Java PowerPoint slides, but the value of these slides is very tiny when your students have access to Google. Stop lecturing already! Only produce content when you really cannot find the equivalent elsewhere. (I would attribute this idea to Stephen Downes, though I can’t find a reference.)- Focus on assignments and exams. Many professors are frustrated that students come in only for the grades. Probably because they focus on nice lectures and then prepare hastily some assignments. Turn this problem on its head! Focus on the assignments. If your students are not very autonomous, and they rarely are, give several long and challenging assignments (at least 4 or 5 a term). Do make sure however that they know where to get the information they need. You don’t need to provide all the information, but you need to link to all of it, because most students lack the research skills to figure out where they should look. Provide solved problems to help the weaker students.
  • Be an authentic role model. Knowing that someone ordinary, like your professor, has become a master of the course material (or he can fake it well) means that you, the very-smart-student, can do the same. That’s the power of emulation. In practice, this means that I do stress to my students that I do research in this field or that I have accomplished some difficult tasks using this very same course material. I also stress the difficulties that I have encountered and I give my personal view on the issues.

Note. Feel free to disagree.