Teaching Tips

Self-Knowledge of a Job Well-Done: Reflections on a Teacher’s Self-Appraisal

Since the time of Socrates, great teachers have held true to their distinctive selves; to know thyself continues as a good rule for the rest of us. Institutional awards for good teaching may yield money in the bank and a quick fix to self-esteem, but over the long haul, self-knowledge of a job well done is the more lasting reward for the career teacher. Self-appraisal, however, can drift into self-deception if not guided by a clear conception of what good teachers do and the ideas that influence their thinking and action.

This article is a summary of teaching concepts I’ve emphasized over the years. I hope it confirms to teachers that they have the ability and standards necessary to examine their own interaction with students.

About good teaching, opinions differ. Two self-serving opinions stay in memory: My job is to give students the opportunity to observe the scholarly mind at work; and My responsibility is to teach the subject matter; if students don’t want to learn, that’s their problem. Show-and-tell stories about instructional events and polemics about the art of teaching make easy reading, but college teachers are better served by having access to conceptual information about how to help students learn, remember, and form lasting values.

From the beginning of pedagogical time, teachers have learned about teaching from their own teachers. Plato learned from Socrates and these two demonstrate, well enough, that good teaching is not a new invention. One hundred years of scientific analysis has sharpened our understanding of what does and does not work in the classroom; but dramatic new findings about the interchange among teacher, student, and book are not likely. Over the centuries, good teachers have, in their own way, discovered such basic principles as reward works better than punishment, and students learn what they care about and remember what they understand. In comparison, most rules of teaching are secondary.

Books, films, and computers have speeded and expanded access to information but the in-head machinery for processing remains steady from grandparents to children to grandchildren. Biological evolution has not had enough time to change how the brain works. Students learning to navigate cyberspace are perceiving, learning, and remembering in about the same way as did students who survived the saber-tooth tiger curriculum. The task for the teacher, then as now, is to recognize and to direct the use of basic conditions for learning.

The Smooth and the Zig Zag Curves of Learning

The smooth curves carry nomothetic messages about general conditions for learning while the zig zag curves mark the idiosyncratic progress of the individual student. The professional teacher works at the interface between the abstract and the concrete, between general laws of learning and the instructional realities. As the cook in charge of a kitchen, the teacher draws on principles of pedagogical nutrition that must then be modified and adapted to meet the special requirements of the subject matter, the characteristics of the students, and the teacher’s own distinctive self.

The pressures of instructional mass-production notwithstanding, the individual teacher and the individual student are still the de facto units of instruction. This educational reality is intrinsic for helping students learn and store information, skills, and values in long-term memory. By voice, print, and good intentions, I have been preaching about this kind of teaching for more than 30 years and my scripture was derived from what the science of psychology has had to say about motivation, learning, memory, and thinking as extended to the classroom.

To admonish and exhort about better teaching barely ripples the course of instructional events and teachers report that books tell me more than I want to know about instruction. The message is clear: teaching is a thoroughly personal engagement and this privacy is respected and, by campus common law, well guarded by fellow teachers. Thus, self-appraisal remains as a voice frequently heard and individual teachers will agree and use material from these guidelines in terms of their own distinctive selves and habits for managing the classroom hour.

Five Guidelines for Self-Appraisal

Course Content

Insofar as the teacher controls course content, the first measure of good teaching is the quality of knowledge students carry away when the course is over. Students are able to adapt to less-then-exciting modes of teaching, but compensatory mechanisms are not available for what should have been taught but was not. They place their trust in a teacher’s decisions about course content and the only instructional sin greater than teaching obsolete, irrelevant, or trivial information is to test and grade students about such stuff.

Books and computers are powerful technological aids for the delivery of course content but the classic question remains: What knowledge will be worth a student’s knowing five or 10 years hence? Value judgments of this order call for a touch of prophetic vision which is helped along by listening to what discipline colleagues have to say and by reading about intra- and interdisciplinary developments. In one form or another, relevance continues to be a legitimate challenge to the substance of a course of study.

The Motivation to Learn

In any year and any language, the phrase, “May I have your attention please?” triggers the start of the learning process. Teaching draws a blank in the absence of student interest and good teachers enhance this interest without even thinking motivation. Successful teachers are working demonstrations of a single sweeping principle: enthusiasm for the job at hand. Enthusiasm does more to counter student apathy and indifference than do contrived efforts to attack motivation directly, that is, showmanship, entertainment, or threats of a low grade. If the instructor is indifferent, negative, and simply going though the mechanics of doing a job, students will sense this flat motivational climate and respond in kind.

Enthusiasm is contagious—By precept and example, teachers perform a dual role: presenting information and indicating its worth. Enthusiasm can be wild, charismatic, and spellbinding but it can also be soft, quiet, and low key. The earthworm professor is my favorite example: Professor Jones truly enjoyed teaching but was totally oblivious to matters of instructional technique, classroom style, and laws of learning. What he did have was a deep, abiding, and visible enthusiasm for the structure and function of the earthworm and the wonders of its emerging synaptic nervous system. Students soon took unto themselves the motivational intensity for understanding more about this small part of the biological world.

The earthworm professor is, for most of us, a more likely model than the spellbinding, charismatic, preacher-teacher in the classroom. Low-key teachers may not win prizes, but their quiet enthusiasm for the interchange with students about a subject they love has a powerful impact on what students learn. Enthusiasm is one of the more significant dimensions of a teacher’s distinctive self.

Enthusiasm for intellectual curiosity—Intellectual curiosity is on display when the teacher probes the ambiguities within the discipline and questions out loud one’s own understanding. As a matter of fact, students give closer attention to a lecture involving questions and conflicting issues than to a recital of neatly encapsulated facts, rules, and conclusions.

Fear of failure may be a handy tool for prodding students into line but, as a steady diet, negative motivation is educationally weak. To find students working at their cognitive best, look past the grading system and observe the excitement that comes when students sense they understand what they had set out to study. The hour-after-hour fixation of students at their computers confirms, again, the holding and rewarding power of informational curiosity. When it comes to motivation, the Eureka experience is hard to beat.

Teaching To Remember

On-the-job training is learning today for use today, but college students learn today for remembering tomorrow and, thus, the essence of teaching is defined: to help students store information for retrieval in later courses and in times and places beyond graduation. This is more easily said than done. One classical view, the Doctrine of Formal Discipline, defended the belief that hard mental effort, as in the study of Latin and Mathematics, strengthens the faculties (muscles) of the mind, e.g., reasoning and memory. Today, the instructional line is straightforward and to the point: what students study is what students learn, i.e., what students understand is what they remember.

The motivation to remember—Motivation directs the course of memory. Will this be on the next test? A Yes immediately directs student attention (motivation) to what information needs to be remembered. On a more lasting level, the college experience creates and shapes attitudes and values as motivational patterns that may last a lifetime. These well-rooted motives have a selective influence on what information will move into long-term memory and in the retrieval of same. The heart, as it were, tells the brain what to learn and to remember.

Teaching to remember means hard work for the student—The sunburn theory of instruction says to sit quietly and look interested while the teacher shines the light of knowledge in your face. This is wishful thinking and a reality check will show that to study at the kitchen table is more productive than propped on pillows in bed. A mild degree of muscle tension helps the information go down.

Active participation is intrinsic to learning and students working at a laboratory bench, in a clinical setting, or in a discussion group, generate more learning than passively listening to the talking teacher or gazing at a film. Writing is an established resource for helping students to remember; putting things in black-and-white seems to generate a file copy in the writer’s long-term memory. The fact that writing involves the student’s own understanding and thinking, and modes of expression may account for the memory benefits of this form of active participation.

For many students overlearning is a dreary term, and society does better with practice makes perfect. Bicycle riding is overlearned and this skill lasts a lifetime, as does knowing how to add, subtract, and multiply. The principle of overlearning applies across the curricular board—and beyond. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that (such-and-such) is true. To rehearse and review a unit of information beyond threshold levels of understanding is to generate a stronger fix in long-term memory. Contemplation may be a quiet form of rehearsal but memories are made stronger by writing 50 repetitions of a correctly spelled word or a rule of behavior—as I recall.

Learning to Manage Concepts

Teaching students how to think is too grand a topic for these few pages but to examine concept learning is more than a substitute. We live in a wordy world and students will be engaged with semantic distinctions for the rest of their lives. Understanding what abstract words do and do not mean taps the peak intellectual strength of students, that is, their ability to manage ideas that go beyond the limitations of time and space. The ability to memorize is a weak second. A teacher can feel that the job is well done when students demonstrate they comprehend the important ideas (concepts)

in the course.

Concept learning—The basic task is to recognize the common features in otherwise different instances—to link an array of independent events into a meaningful unit. Dog and cat are easy concepts but extra study is needed to understand how the principles in the Bill of Rights apply to the religious right, the political left, and to everyone in between.

Using example after example, the teacher places positive (or negative) instances within the frame of reference of the target concept (the negatives help define a conceptual boundary). The concept of reinforcement, for example, takes on depth and breadth with material from Pavlov, Skinner, and such areas of application as education, business, sports, and family life.

Conceptual learning involves tracing an idea through an array of specific sites, particular issues, or anecdotal events. The aim is to understand how a concept (rule, principle, procedure, generalization, theme) functions as a frame of reference giving meaning to otherwise isolated facts. Conceptual thinking is the foundation process for problem solving and for making decisions on one’s own. Memorizing sets of words will not do this.

The maturation of each student’s conceptual knowledge continues as he and she study different subjects and live and learn away from the classroom. They find that conceptual understanding can be exciting as it reduces their own uncertainties and offers some degree of unity and continuity in a world of kaleidoscopic events. Above all else in the teacher-student interchange, the moment of instructional truth is, for me, helping a student grasp the meaning of a significant idea. (Would that we had a video of Plato as he walked and talked Great Ideas with his students in the groves of Academe, a Greek farmer.)

Testing and Grading

Faculty standards for A-grade performance should be the preferred institutional measure of educational excellence. These standards, however, are stretched and weakened by grading on the curve. In this system, the grade measures how well students compete against one another rather than against standards of achievement set by the teacher.

Students work hard for grades that serve as a basis for special awards, admission to advanced training, and the entry job. The GPA is one step removed from the essence of education but has become the most visible measure of academic success; it has become a kind of institutional currency in the exchange with society. With such a payoff, it is unfair for a teacher to be casual or careless when assigning the grade contribution to this index of achievement.

Evaluation is more instruction-specific than is grading. Students need guideposts to confirm they are moving in the right direction and, for this, evaluation has a stronger impact than does grading. A low grade gives little or no feedback about how to answer the questions and usually comes too late for the student to take corrective action. In contrast, a teacher’s evaluative comments written in the margin of a term paper or exam give more specific and constructive information than does the grade on the cover page.

Tests are tools for teaching—Students study for tests and fair play requires that teacher and student be on the same wave length about material to be covered and the mode of testing. Examination time is not the time for tricks, ambiguities or the outmoded game, I’ve got a secret, see if you can guess what it is. Testing, grading, and evaluation are difficult and demanding responsibilities and the self-assessing teacher might benefit more from a workshop on the technical aspects of testing and grading than one on the technical matters of telling things to students.

Tests have various instructional functions. Grade-free diagnostic testing offers an intellectual X-ray showing the strengths and low points in a student’s inventory of information. On the other hand, frequent testing for a grade helps both students and teacher hold their focus on course content. Further, multiple entries in a grade book add reliability to the course grade. The final examination measures, ideally, how well students have packaged worthwhile knowledge for storage in long-term memory. Within the context of this column (students remember what they understand), a term paper is better than an essay exam which, in turn, is better than a machine-scorable test.


From the beginning, college teaching has, for me, been a delightful way to earn a living. Few of us are heroes but the self-knowledge that we are helping students prepare for their own future has a sustaining quality that grows stronger through the career years. As a member of the faculty, these years probably include your share of conflicts, frustration, and disappointment. In contrast, the self-examined life of teaching finds, for most, little discontent.

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