Excellence in Teaching

Excellence in Teaching: It’s Not Mysterious

Rick Ostrander
Cornerstone University Provost

Years ago, before I became an administrator, I was a nervous young history professor teaching Western Civilization. As I bumbled my way through an explanation of the Industrial Revolution at 7:30 a.m. to glassy-eyed students, I envied those charismatic, articulate professors who seemed to be able to keep students mesmerized, regardless of the topic.

Fortunately, research indicates that there’s hope for people like me—which brings me to my second set of remarks on the topic of academic excellence. Last month, using Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I wrote about academic excellence from a student perspective. My basic point was that academic achievement, like any other area of achievement, stems more from hard work and persistence than from innate genius. That’s good news for Cornerstone students, most of whom don’t have 36 ACT scores but who have just as much capacity for hard work as anyone else.
For this column, I’m focusing on excellence in teaching. Recently an article appeared in The Atlantic entitled “What Makes A Great Teacher?” The researchers studied thousands of teachers in the Teach For America program. They concluded that, as one of them put it, “effective teaching is neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance.” Instead, great teachers have these traits in common:

  • They set high expectations for students and hold them accountable for achieving those expectations.
  • They are tireless planners who set specific, concrete goals for each class session.
  • They constantly seek feedback from students and peers in a continual quest to improve.

In sum, great teachers display the same traits—hard work and persistence—that Gladwell observed in high achievers in other areas.

So what does this mean for Cornerstone professors? First, it means that as a faculty we need to set high expectations for ourselves and our students. We need to have clear goals for each class session and make sure that our students know what those goals are. We plan to conduct a workshop on those subjects in the near future.

Second, teachers achieve excellence by being teachable themselves—by seeking feedback from students and peers and using that feedback in a continual process of trial and error. Hence our move this year to a new online course evaluation for every class.

And that’s where students come in. Because great teaching depends on feedback, we need you to respond to those annoying emails and fill out accurate evaluations for your courses. Simply put, you contribute to the quality of your own education by providing professors with constructive feedback about their courses.

But for that feedback to be effective, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, quality teaching produces learning, not necessarily satisfaction. And learning can be hard work. If I hired a coach to help me prepare for a bike race, I certainly would not expect that coach to let me eat ice cream and sleep in until ten. Similarly, you shouldn’t give a professor high marks if he or she is not demanding and holding you to high standards. When it comes to good teaching, “Christian” certainly doesn’t mean “nice.”

Second, written comments are helpful, but they should focus on those specific elements of the class that most contributed to your learning and those that did not. “Dr. Jones rocks!” might boost the professor’s ego, but it won’t give him much help in rocking even more in the future.

Excellent teachers—like excellent students—are made, not born. My hope is that a persistent, relentless quest for improvement, with excellence as a result, will increasingly characterize the culture of Cornerstone.