How I Teach: Some Nuts and Bolts Pedagogy from a Learning Teacher

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In the comments section to THIS POST, my buddy Pat McCullough from kata ta biblia asked the following:

So, what makes you a fun teacher? I’d love to hear some more about nuts and bolts pedagogy.

A very fine question.  I by no means claim to be an expert on pedagogy, but I will admit to having had great success and joy in the classroom.  I responded to Patrick’s question in the comments section to that post, but I thought I would also raise that response to its own post here, to offer it both the possibility of a wider audience, and to allow others who are experienced teachers (Bryan Bibb, Chris Heard, Chris Brady, Mark Goodacre, etc.) to weigh in and offer their views.

Here is my response to Patrick’s question:

Good question.  I’m not entirely sure; it just seems natural and comfortable to me.  I’m not beyond having fun.  Religion is a very visceral topic . . . it is far more important to a person than math, science, etc. . . so I think being able to have fun with it is a key.

To offer a more concrete answer, though, here are some things that come to mind when I reflect on my teaching thus far (some obvious, some perhaps not so obvious).

1) Learn your students’ names.  And use them.  Greet them by name when they walk in the room.  Talk with them before class.  It is incredible how far this goes.  It is tremendously important.

2) Have a sense of humor.  This, to me, is tremendously important.  Levity is a vital part of my teaching.  I want it to be fun, yet helpful.  In the blogging world you wouldn’t know this, but I’m actually quite quick and sharp-witted, so I like to interject various bits of humor into the class, and a bit of improv.  The students seem to find me funny, which is always a plus.  The potential downside to this is if you are genuinely not funny; then this could cost you points!  But I do think jokes, levity are important vectors to my success at teaching.

3) Set high expectations, and hold to them.  Yes, my students find me hilarious.  They also, though, know I am a serious scholar (I must be one because I did the unthinkable . . . . I said the textbook was “wrong” about something!!).  My syllabus is tremendously explicit as to my expectations.  My class will be work.  It will not be easy.  But it will be fair.  And I am glad to be helpful along the way.  I also see my course, since it is composed of 98% freshmen, as an exercise preparing them for the next four years of college and beyond.  If I cut them too much slack I am doing them a disservice.  But again, be fair—impossibly unattainable goals are counter-productive.  For instance, I give quizzes.  POP quizzes.  On any given day they can have a reading quiz.  This keeps them honest with the reading.  It shows I expect they will do the reading.  Similarly, they are doing three brief writing assignments.  I have specific expectations I have outlined clearly there.  So set high expectations.  You will have students who will certain students who will readily meet the challenge, and a great many who will work assiduously towards that goal as well.  This is college; it should be a challenge.

4) Make your expectations CLEAR.  Clarity will only help you out, and your students.

5) In the classroom, don’t lecture from a script.  I do not use lecture notes.  I use powerpoint (though I dislike it very much), but it is helpful to me.  It serves largely as my notes, giving me a prompt upon which I can then expand.  Just think about how tiring it can be to listen to papers at SBL sometimes.  Now imagine undergrads doing that.  So be a dynamic lecturer as best you can.

6) Be mobile in the classroom.  Don’t stand in one spot the whole time.  I’m all over the place when I teach.  Up front, on the side, approaching individual students as they ask questions.  I’m everywhere.  I think it adds something to the class.

7) Let the students realize you are a real person.  This may seem a bit odd to say, but make sure they know a bit about you.  The first day of class this semester I spent half the class covering the syllabus then another half doing an introduction to me.  I included some pictures of me growing up (along with a funny, made up narrative to go along with them), as well as a picture of my wife and son, my time at Duke, a picture of the famous Corn Palace from my home town, etc. 

8 ) Be approachable and welcoming outside of class as well.  Always reply to student emails, promptly, and with respect and proper email form you would expect (though not always get) from them.  And if a student schedules an office visit, be open and helpful.  I try to come out from behind the desk and sit across from them; it balances things out and I think contributes to the comfort.

I am certain there are more, but these are things that are coming to me right now.  So, what do you think?  Surprises?  Clarifications?  Insights?  Additions?  I look forward to hearing them!

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10 thoughts on “How I Teach: Some Nuts and Bolts Pedagogy from a Learning Teacher

    John Hobbins said:
    September 20, 2009 at 10:56 am


    Your advice is excellent. I imagine you as a challenging but approachable teacher.

    John Anderson responded:
    September 20, 2009 at 1:50 pm


    Many thanks! Your words mean a lot. The descriptors you offer are ones I hope my students would share . . . along with the word “fair” as well.

    Patrick George McCullough said:
    September 20, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Thanks, John. Very sensible. As you continue teaching, I would love to hear stories too. I’d love to hear more teaching stories from all bloggers who teach.

    Matt said:
    September 20, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    My Church History/Systematic Theology prof taught using powerpoint too. I see upsides and downsides. Students can tend to just write what’s up on the screen and not bother listening to the prof. However, I heard from that prof that there was one guy who used his iPhone to take a pic of each slide so that he could pay better attention to the prof instead of focusing on notes the entire time.

      John Anderson responded:
      September 20, 2009 at 10:09 pm

      Matt, what you cite is indeed one of the potential downfalls of powerpoints. I have sought to remedy that, however, by making them as ‘bare bones’ as possible. They can’t help but take notes if they want to have any idea what I’m talking about!

      Their first test is this Wednesday; I am trusting it will be a reality check for some.

    Jason said:
    September 20, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Most of my profs in seminary only put up basic outlines, which forced us to listen and focus.

    robgreid said:
    September 21, 2009 at 7:57 am

    Fantastic post. I may follow suit as well. It seems we have very similar notions regarding pedagogy and classroom etiquette :)

      John Anderson responded:
      September 21, 2009 at 8:12 am


      Many thanks! I am glad to be affirmed by my students, their parents, my colleagues at Baylor, and now my colleagues elsewhere.


    Karyn said:
    September 24, 2009 at 9:01 am

    This is a great list of ideas. One thing that I like to do is cook for my Hebrew students. Especially during the summer intensives (two semesters of Hebrew). I will bring in griddles and all the fixings for a good pancake breakfast. During the regular semester I bring in food that fits with whatever Jewish holiday we might overlap with. For example, apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah (and an explanation of the name and holiday in class). I just posted a few of my favorite “fun” things to lighten up class on my blog.

    [...] of 60 undergrad; all but one were freshmen.  I have reflected already HERE , HERE, HERE, and HERE on my teaching.  In hindsight, now, with the semester behind me, I can honestly say that it was one [...]

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