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Learn Something Fun, Improve Your Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Think of something you really want to do that is just fun. Do you want to play golf, ski, play the piano, paint pictures, cook, make furniture, or garden? Why not take lessons in one of these leisure activities, get serious, and take it to a higher level? It could even be something new, something you've always wanted to do



The posting below talks about how to make reflecting on your teaching fun by reframing it through a recreational perspective. It is by Carl Pletsch University of Colorado Denver and is #56 in a series of selected excerpts from The National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Vol. 20, Number 4, May 2011.© Copyright 1996-2011. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Trouble with Diversifying the Faculty


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning 

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Learn Something Fun, Improve Your Teaching 



How do college teachers stay engaged and continue to improve throughout their careers? Teaching is an art, and teachers never teach the same class in exactly the same way twice. As teachers, either we improve or we stagnate. Routine can be deadly. Lively teaching depends upon staying interested in the process. The key-as in any art-is to reflect regularly on what we do, and consciously make adjustments. 

But how can we continue to reflect and improve? We have so much else to do! Two obvious strategies present themselves, but only occasionally: We can attend good, interactive teaching workshops, and we can trade classroom visits with colleagues. Both provide opportunities to reflect. But we can't do these things very regularly. They tend to be one-off experiences, hardly ever involving follow-up. And professors under pressure to publish are jealous of their time. So let's not get moralistic or worry too much about what we should be doing. Here is a way to stay reflective about teaching and have fun too:

Think of something you really want to do that is just fun. Do you want to play golf, ski, play the piano, paint pictures, cook, make furniture, or garden? Why not take lessons in one of these leisure activities, get serious, and take it to a higher level? It could even be something new, something you've always wanted to do.

The Swing of Teaching

Golf is my example. Just going out to play golf is a diversion. But I asked myself, why not find a professional coach and take golf lessons? I did this in part to create some private time for myself, a time each week when I will not go to a meeting, grade papers, or do any work at all. But as I became a regular student of golf I discovered a new interest: observing how my coach taught me. He is a teaching professional too. Our mutual goal was to improve my basic golf swing. For me, however, the student-teacher relationship was reversed. It was fun. Golf was still a great diversion. My swing improved. My scores improved. And I had many opportunities to reflect on my own teaching techniques. I wondered how I could build some of my coach's excellent techniques into my own teaching.

Here are just a few of the things I have been thinking.

Breaking It Down 

Improving a complex skill like golf is not just a matter of adding or tweaking moves. Making a change without reviewing how it fits into the rest of the golf swing, or without integrating the new skill into a complete swing, is not very helpful. This reflection inspired me (among other things) to develop a series of connected writing assignments that lead students to build on earlier skills. I call it "Beyond correcting."

Lasting improvement starts with the setup and stability in the lower body. Apparently some skills are more basic than others and must be firmly established and routinized before they can serve as a foundation for the more recondite skills that come later. Reflecting on that, I reviewed the need to be more aware of where my students are in terms of their basic skills and knowledge before I attempt to lead them higher. "Build a foundation."

When I make even a modest change in my golf swing, my coach may take me back to review some of the more basic parts of my swing to ensure that we haven't upset the balance established earlier. Progressive learning requires that basic skills be revisited and refreshed. This reminded me of a time-honored teaching practice that is easy to neglect-reviewing knowledge already covered and skills already practiced. "Review!"

My coach keeps me apprised of my progress with honest feedback. He notes the progress when I learn and integrate a new facet of a good swing into my setup routine, backswing, etc. He also alerts me to aberrations that creep in. Positive feedback is essential, but so is honesty. "Give appropriate feedback."

My coach notices when I haven't quite mastered a new challenge; he presses me to stick with it until I groove that, rather than moving on to another skill. Perhaps I can be more attentive to the pace of learning in my classes as I observe the progress the students make. "Monitor progress closely and adjust."

My coach doesn't try to get me to improve everything at once. He helps me focus on improving one particular aspect of the swing at a time, one that seems to come next, building on what we have already accomplished. I may be able to do a better job clarifying the particular knowledge or skill set that I am attempting to teach my students at any particular time. "One thing at a time."

Teaching as Coaching

Finally, the whole experience has reinforced a belief I have held since a baseball coach explained it to me when I was a boy-excellent perfor- mance depends upon three things: native ability (which doesn't change much), good coaching, and effective practice (which can change almost everything). Effective practice-as distinct from practicing without awareness of how or what to change-depends upon good coaching. It makes me think of myself as a coach when I teach. I want to be as good a teacher of history as my golf coach is a teacher of golf. Here I have developed anew the habit of more actively encouraging students to seek coaching from me, from fellow students, from other professors, from the writing center, and so on, emphasizing that effective practice always involves guidance. I don't want them simply to become more proficient at writing poorly, for example, any more than I want to practice a poor golf swing. "Encourage effective practice."

Taking lessons in another, much different leisure activity like cooking would give rise to other reflections. I'm sure there would be something about timing in there! Those reflections would be different, but just as valuable. What matters is that when the teacher becomes the learner, even (or especially) in a leisure activity, lots of new thoughts can arise.

Teachers are learners in any case, as they pursue additional knowledge in their fields of specialization. But when I opened myself to instruction in golf, I became more alert to the teaching-learning ratio and refreshed my attention to my own teaching. All teachers can transfer reflections like these to their own teaching. More self-aware, innovative teaching is likely to result. And by the way, this is a great excuse to have fun on a very regular basis.