11 Major Teaching Mistakes to Avoid

Post by Open Colleges on May 31st, 2014

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.

General advice Popular topic Student success
Open Colleges
By Open Colleges

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