University Teaching: Instant Wins

One of the most enjoyable things I did in this last week of term was my department’s teaching induction session for graduate students. I was leading a session on undergraduate essay feedback, and we had a great chat about all sorts of different approaches and mechanisms, the difference between formative and summative commentary, between coaching and judging, and so on. One of the big principles that we always come back to in sessions like this is that there’s rarely a single right way to do things, and that a lot of the fun in teaching is in learning what suits you and your students. And I’m sure that this is right, but I know from my own experience that knowing that there are lots of different ways to get teaching right doesn’t take away the anxiety of simply getting it wrong, especially right at the beginning. What if I look stupid? What if I get something wrong? And, above all: What if they just won’t talk? This is where some basic rules can come in handy, some reliable foundations and simple fixes on which to build over time all our different, personal, creative, and idiosyncratic teaching strategies.

No one is born a good teacher, but there are a few things that (almost) always work, and a few things that (almost) never do. Every jobbing teacher will have their own favourite tricks – less often, I suspect, worked out explicitly from first principles or even experience, than picked up from conversations with other teachers. So the ones I’ve collected below include a few of my own, but also incorporate suggestions coming out of a quick facebook seminar on the topic with friends and colleagues, with particular thanks to Chris Pelling, Patrick Tomlin, Arietta Papaconstantinou, Matthew Nicholls, Peter Olive, Lucia Nixon, Amy Russell, Neville Morley, Jennifer Trimble, and Christopher and Caroline Brooke.

I’ve kept the in-class list to ten here, and then added a few more on prep and marking; comments and further suggestions very welcome, here or @josephinequinn.


1. Get everyone to say something right at the start – it will make it easier for them to speak up later.

2. Better still, get them to write something. Put a question on the board, or an image on the screen, and ask the students to spend a couple of minutes writing down their thoughts before going round the room for quick individual comments as a way into a more free-ranging discussion. This increases their confidence, and it also creates a useful, formal break for everyone between their busy day and class time.

3. If you want students to talk, and ideally to each other, say as little as possible yourself.

4. If loud people are dominating the conversation, acknowledge it in a friendly way that invites other voices: “X, I see you, but let’s hear from some people we haven’t yet heard from yet.”

5. My own golden rule: If you ask a question and no one answers straight away, wait. And then wait some more. And then carry on waiting. Enjoy the peaceful silence. They will crack.


1. Don’t ask two questions at once. (You think you are rephrasing for greater clarity; they hear two different questions and don’t know which one to answer.)

2. Don’t say “anything else?” unless you want to close the discussion down. “What else?” opens the conversation up. (This works for eliciting more questions after lectures too.)

3. Don’t ask “Do you understand this concept (or argument, or word)?”. Ask them to explain it (back) to you.

4. Don’t talk to the board, or screen, and don’t read out slides full of text – PPP: Power Points are for Pictures.

5. Don’t be afraid of admitting that you don’t know something – no one knows everything, and there’s no harm in them seeing you as an active learner and researcher rather than an all knowing sage: instead, use an unexpected question as an opportunity to talk about how or where one could find such information out.

Before and After

1. Give prompt questions along with reading lists, things you expect to come up, so that students can prepare better in advance.

2. If you are creating additional materials such as handouts, or downloadable powerpoints, make them a starting point for annotation, not a substitute for the session itself.

3. When it comes to feedback on written work, start with the one most important point that you want them to remember and do something about.

4. Say what’s good as well as what’s bad; what’s wrong, but also how to fix it; what should have been added, but also what could have been subtracted (especially if there’s a word limit).

5. And don’t use a red pen.