11 Major Teaching Mistakes to Avoid

May 31st, 2014 21 Comments Features

teaching mistake

There’s a certain class of mistakes that all educators can eliminate with conscious effort, and in this post we outline 11 of them. They range from habits of practice to habits of thought, but all of them have one important thing in common: they make your job harder.

It sounds easier to lecture to a sea of faces than to get through to thirty individuals. It sounds simpler to make students volunteer the answer than to spark voluntary interest. It sounds like less work to administer a few tests throughtout the course than to administer many. But in the long run, it’s not. If you don’t eliminate these “shortcuts” now, you will end up with shallow learning outcomes and more work on your plate in the future.

We all make healthy mistakes, every class period of every day. The point is to recognize the difference between these mistakes and mistakes that can become larger problems if they aren’t monitored. Some of the following blunders you may be guilty of, some of them you may have already eliminated, and some of them you may never have encountered.

They really only scratch the surface of a long list of potentially destructive practices. Whatever your level of familiarity with them, take a moment to reflect on what it takes to snuff out each habit for good.

1. Not learning from colleagues.

Effective instructional strategies change with time; what you learned in teaching school may no longer be relevant to the students you’re currently dealing with. The best way to improve your own instruction–aside from reading this blog, of course–is to watch what others do. If you have a free period, ask another teacher if you can sit in on their class. Film your own class, hand out copies, and ask for feedback.

Sure, it doesn’t hurt to watch TED talks and inspiring videos of others teaching, but using the resources within your own environment should be the first place you start.

2. Assuming a lesson taught is a lesson learned.

We all know there’s a difference between giving a presentation and actually teaching. But how do we achieve more of the latter? The answer really lies in Blunder 7, as you’ll read in a moment, but a good first step is to never assume (or hope wildly) that you’ve gotten your point across.

3. Failing to establish relevance.

Establishing relevance doesn’t mean filling your lecture with analogies to the interests of every individual student in your class. Not only would that take an eternity, but it would be counter-productive. Establishing relevance requires a bit of creativity on your part. It can come in the form of a lecture, an assignment, or a chosen text. But it’s not in the details–it’s in the bigger picture. It’s in the difference between allowing and banning cell phones in class, in the relationship between topic and motivation, in choosing to teach Catcher in the Rye or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

4. Teaching without empathy.

I’m not talking about emotional empathy; I’m talking about the ability to put yourself in a student’s shoes and imagine what they want, like, and think (or don’t want, don’t like, and don’t think). You were a skeptical, self-interested, fickle-minded student once. Don’t forget it.

5. Immediately calling on volunteers to answer a question.

When you do this, more often than not, few students will even bother to think about the question, since they know that eventually someone else will provide the answer.

Instead, ask students to write down questions they have on a notecard as your lecture progresses. You can either collect them at the end of class or save ten minutes for Q&A time, where students are free to bring up any point covered in the last forty minutes.

This is a great way to offer a re-cap before the bell rings.

6. Failing to provide variety in instruction.

It’s a good moment when you realize you’ve got a solid enough cache of lessons to last you the whole year – and then some! Just be sure that part of your routine includes breaking the routine. Variety is the spice of the classroom. It’s also proven to enhance learning and memory.

7. Testing 2-3 times per term.

Some of us only administer two tests a semester – the mid-term and the final. This is the absolute worst assessment design ever invented. It encourages cramming, reduces retention, and places immense pressure on students and teachers alike to cover a huge amount of material between testing rounds. You should be testing students EVERY WEEK.

Giving a short, 10-question quiz every Friday will help students remember what they’ve learned, become better test-takers, and allow you to gather weekly feedback on your own effectiveness.

8. Setting low student expectations.

Generally, students will perform at a level consistent with performance expectations. This means we have to consciously treat students equally, make our expectations clear and applicable to all, and constantly encourage improvement. Know the difference between a lazy student who claims a concept is “too hard” and a motivated student who is truly challenged by the concept.

Keep your expectations high but adjust your approach accordingly.

9. Not preparing for silence.

You know the feeling–when you ask a question and receive absolute radio silence. Many of us often fail to anticipate that many students will not share our enthusiasm for a lesson. What happens now? We answer the question ourselves, make an ironic joke, move on.

The best way to deal with silence is to not be phased by it. Smile to yourself and move on, show you are still in control, and your students will feel more comfortable and be more willing to volunteer the next time.

10. Letting the moment pass.

Ever heard of Malcom Gladwell’s concept of “thin slicing”? It’s the the ability to find patterns in events based only on “thin slices,” or narrow windows, of experience. When we need to make instant decisions – ideally good ones — without much information, we rely on this sort of thinking. If we don’t use this type of thinking, and instead get weighed down in details and analysis, we may lose precious moments that could have been used as learning opportunities.

11. Not getting to know your students.

Getting to know students too often comes second. The truth is, whether you learn anything about their learning preferences or not (which you probably will), the gesture itself is powerful enough to increase student motivation, self-expression, and performance.

Got a bad habit you think should have made this list? Share it in the comments below.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

21 Responses

  1. Forrest says:

    Great article, Saga!

    I’ve only been teaching ESL for a little while, so I am no expert– but I have encountered some of these problems already and I definitely agree with a lot of your points (especially about testing more often– we don’t do tests where I work. This makes it very hard to motivate the students… Also, it can be very hard for me to evaluate where students are having trouble or if they are making progress0.

  2. Walt says:

    You nailed it!
    Great advice.

  3. Saga Briggs says:

    Thanks, Walt! Forrest, that’s interesting about testing at your school. What’s the reasoning behind it? I know of some schools these days that choose to evaluate students in other ways, but it must be especially challenging to do that with language students, since language is so practice-oriented. I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much in high school French class if not for constant quizzing!

  4. ParthibanTR says:

    Yeah Saga, you are right. I often have self doubts on the 2nd mistake. I have seen that I’m repeating the same things again and again, while teaching. This I do because there’s no signals (verbal nor non-verbal) from the students that acknowledge. It was pointed out by a few students and then started avoiding that. 11th mistake is the most important which we must avoid. 3rd mistake is abundant which is the reason for very low attendances in some teachers’ classes and so lowering standards. Also one must not be worried about how much money he/she is getting to teach which would affect our teaching, because I feel there’s no equation that relates the amount of knowledge with its quality that you deliver and the amount of money you get/should be paid.

  5. Forrest says:


    I think there are a number of things at play in that decision– For one thing, I use the word “school” for convenience, but I actually work in a “training center” for English language– so I’m not teaching in a traditional school with other teachers or topics. I think that’s part of it. Also, I think that my job center really wants to get away from the traditional Chinese education system (which is partly good and partly bad). In China, students are in school for like 10 hours a day and many of them take extra lessons on the weekend. They work insanely hard, and then they also come to take English lessons in their time off. So I think my job wants to make it a more engaging and fun experience— however there are serious pitfalls to just abandoning serious teaching.

    I also think there are some other very serious design flaws in the program. For one thing, it’s a business first and a “school” second. It’s about recruiting wealthy Chinese students to pay lots of money more than actually teaching them. Also, the lessons are done mostly through a computer program similar to Rosetta Stone (but much less well designed). That means that most of the learning is done through interaction with computer software, which has serious drawbacks… In theory there is a “test” on the computer as the student progresses through the units…. A student needs a certain % grade— I think an 80, before they can book the corresponding class with me. However, I don’t see those tests or the material they are working on. They also have the opportunity to take the test multiple times and it isn’t designed to be very hard.

    So, basically, not an ideal learning environment, but maybe that’s just part of being a teacher.

  6. Saga Briggs says:

    I’ve heard of tutoring programs like that in South Korea. Private tutors can make millions of dollars per year because it’s a “free market” for teachers, so to speak. The pressure is so high to perform well on tests, students take lessons on top of their regular schooling, sometimes before and after class.

    Apparently Chinese students flock to the US and Australia because they believe the programs there allow for greater creativity. But none of us go about testing the right way. There’s no sense obsessing over standardized tests, and there’s no sense in eliminating them either. We just need to figure out how to measure the things that really count these days, like creativity, innovation, and critical thinking skills. One country that’s really leading the way on this front is Singapore.

    • Forrest says:


    • rich kealey says:

      Nice article, Saga! Many fine points to consider and reflect on. I’ll review this before school starts in the fall, so THANK YOU!

      Two mistakes many of us educators make that I don’t think I saw in your article (but maybe they’re in there using different terms/phrasing?) are SELF-REFLECTION and teaching CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS (you did mention critical thinking in a recent reply, but in my opinion, it needs more discussion and analysis).

      One MAIN lesson I learned while obtaining my teaching degree was meta-cognition, or thinking about how we as educators reflect on our teaching effectiveness (or lack of) after lessons, and how the lesson could have went better! Now my inner-city school in Chicago is asking our students to verbally explain their thinking process (the HOW, the STEPS, the PROCESS of coming up with the answer) when they solve the problem. When several students explain the process or steps they used to get an answer using different approaches, students start realizing that there are often several different ways to solve the same problem!

      The other skill which does not seem to be taught enough (at least in the schools I’ve taught here in Chicago over the past 13 years) is CRITICAL THINKING. For example, I teach 1st graders multiplication (even though here it’s not required teaching until 2nd grade) to students who are below-average to slightly above-average (i.e., not too many “Exceeds Academic Standards” students in my group) students, academically speaking, according to their standardized test scores. But I have them learning multiplication (e.g., x0, x1, x2, x5, and x10) NOT by writing their times tables (the “old school” method, and there is a place for some old school practices), but by using patterns, dry erase markers and boards, manipulatives with partners or alone, and pencil and paper groupings when necessary! Rote memorization skills are generally non-transferable to other subjects and concepts, so I believe that teaching STRATEGIES are going to make my students better able to handle unusual problems in the upper grades once they learn HOW TO THINK! Critical, “out of the box” thinking is the key to solving everyday, REAL-WORLD problems posed at elite universities, and thriving organizations such as Google, Facebook, etc!

  7. dominic muia says:

    a few points:

    test what you teach-
    teach the student not the book-
    encourage communication skills-
    find out what students are excited about-
    manners, manners – teach it-
    make it relevant-
    use projects to teach a unit, not repetition or drill….

  8. Avoney says:

    You illustrated some great points here. These mistakes are made daily not only by new teachers but veterans as well. I strugggle with students who come to my class because I give frequent assessments which i believe as you stated reduces cramping and aids in test taking. Additionally, a variety of assessment activities caters to diverse learners.
    I also believe that teachers must vary their teaching strategies to cater to the different intelligences in the classroom. Through this medium, students will enjoy learning and further make connections to the information being presented.

  9. N Hardy says:

    Regarding #11, “(not) getting to know your students”: Whenever I take the time to go watch my students in an extra-curricular event, they ALWAYS let me know that they saw me and appreciated me coming. A funny but satisfying comment came from one of my students, a softball player, after the game when the team members were running line drills. As I headed away from the field she shouted “THANKS FOR COMING, MR. HARDY!”

    In class the next day she talked a little about the game and I was definitely more connected to her life.

    It’s SO easy to do this. Just get away from the classroom after school.

  10. Susan says:

    Saga, This is a great list! I liked the parts about empathy and about silence. I try to watch other teachers whenever I can and I learn so much.

    Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing a potential teacher hire perform a demo lesson in my class. She had great use of an interactive power point presented on the smart board. She gave students a handout on the “Characteristics of Life.” Then, after clarifying what they were, she asked students to identify whether the pictures she showed were biotic or abiotic. Students wrote their answers and then discussed with another student (basically a Think-Pair-Share), but she encouraged students that if they had no ideas, they could share their partners ideas. This really opened the conversation up so that all students wanted to share. Wow. So simple, yet so effective.

    I also agree about using frequent assessments in different forms. When I have presented enough material to assess, I usually use a “game format” with teams of students competing to win a prize. This is a simple way to check on their understanding and on my need to revisit material before I give a more formal assessment. I use many different informal assessments as I teach which puts less pressure on the students since, most of the time, they don’t even know I am assessing their knowledge.

  11. Shireen says:

    I have been teaching ESL, mainstream and AP classes not to mention drama, speech and test skills. I teach in Thailand and the students are all ESL except the AP ones and yet I find lots of good pointers and realize that it is fun and frustrating and yet fascinating.

    For me this is very good as it is essentially what every teacher needs to do but does not claiming that testing is a hassle. Thank you for each of the tips and I know that I can relate to many of the points. Radio Silence is so frequent and so I just sit down and wait. I did like your tip about the write the questions and I will use it in my class and promote it in my department.

  12. Jane E says:

    Underneath it all, we do know that is important to guard against those that those eleven (11) errors in instruction.

    I find that the harder I work, the tired-er I get and the less professional I am when I work in a classroom or as a tutor. Yet the work keeps piling up. Do we sometimes need to give students an hour in which they read or catch up on their work? During that time we can get caught up on paper work, etc. We need to find a way to find a balance in our lives, our professional approaches and the everyday “stress-ors.”

  13. Nita says:

    Excellent suggestions! They really made me think about my own teaching style, and I plan to make a few changes in the fall.

  14. Bernadette Nunez says:

    You are so right.

  15. al says:

    The biggest mistake teachers make is to not communicate with parents.

  16. Saga Briggs says:

    Rich and Dominic, great points that should most definitely be on the list. Susan, Shireen, Jane, and Mr. Hardy–thanks for sharing your stories. We love hearing how you each find your own solutions to challenges like these. And thanks to Nita and Bernadette for reading! This list is by no means comprehensive, but the important thing is to start a discussion, which you all have done. Thanks again.

  17. S Ayyappan Nair says:

    I firmly believe that a teacher should be a life long learner / a student.

  18. musa says:

    I was well motivated by your points as a new coming teaching I hope I will have a safe journey @ student

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