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04.26.17 On Teaching College: Interview with Norman Eng

norman engNorman Engis a doctor of education with an unusual background. As an advertising executive prior to his teaching career, he helped clients realize their communication goals and took away a major lesson—know your target audience. This informed his understanding of teaching as an elementary school teacher and then as an adjunct assistant professor of childhood education for the City University of New York.  Eng used his insights from these three diverse fields—marketing, K–12 education, and higher education—to write his book Teaching College , which has proven  popular and exposed the need for more teaching guidance for the diverse range of teachers working at the college level.  Recently he answered a few questions.

DL: What are some of the typical challenges that teachers face at the college level—why is the task difficult?–and why has it become quite possibly more challenging of late?

NE: Colleges typically don’t provide instructional support or training for their faculty. That’s a problem because professors never really learn to teach during their graduate studies. Teaching is not necessarily intuitive, so quality varies tremendously- as any student will attest.

What makes this harder is the culture of professional autonomy. There is a widespread belief that professors have earned the right to run the classroom the way they see fit, due to their advanced degree. I argue that such expertise only qualifies them to set their curriculum. But it does not qualify them to teach.

I know this will offend some professors. But just because you know a lot about math doesn’t mean you know how to teach it. So administrators such as deans and department chairs play a vital role in providing access to professional development and other instructional resources.

Another perennial issue facing professors is how to engage the modern student. On top of the usual commitments (e.g., extracurricular activities, work, etc.), twenty-first century undergraduates have to contend with other issues such as the onslaught of social media. Professors have to vie for students’ attention and time.

There are other broader institutional factors at play too- the increasing number of adjuncts, the norms and incentives of academia—like the focus on scholarship over teaching. Collectively, such factors undermine instructional effectiveness.

In the end, students want teachers who are clear, accessible, and think about their needs. Teaching is a communication and relationship building process. If we don’t understand our audience, how can we help them? That’s why I believe instructors can learn from the best practices in the K-12 world as well as from other sectors.

Think about the last time you crafted your lecture. You’re sitting at your desk, reviewing the topic. What was your first thought?

I used to ask myself, What should students know about this topic?

 It’s not a bad way to begin.

 Now I think the following:

Why should students care about this topic? 

What benefit do they derive?

How does this topic help them (in life or professionally)?

What experience(s) will enable students to most easily internalize this topic deeply?

 These questions focus on the student. It’s a mindset central to my book.

DL: In your book you talk about the over-use of PowerPoint. Why do you think so many collegiate teachers rely—or perhaps over-rely—on it and what can they do instead?

NE: When I taught my first course, I used the slides that came with the textbook. 20 slides per deck, 3 bullet points per slide. This came up to 60 pieces of information that I lectured on—lasting about one hour. But my students failed the midterm that first semester. By covering 60 pieces of information each session, I erroneously focused on breadth, rather than depth.

The problem is that PowerPoint makes it easy to plan and outline your talk. I didn’t have to memorize because I was prompted by bullet points: “OK, what this slide is trying to say is …” So I ended up reading out loud the slide text word-for-word.

This decreases the chance the audience will understand our point. Cognitive load theory suggests it’s hard for our brains to process or store information that is similar or redundant. Not only do audiences have to listen to the presenter, they have to read the slide at the same time. Competition for attention splits their focus and taxes their working memory.

So how should we approach PowerPoint?

One way is to think of the way documentaries present information. They combine visuals and voiceovers too—but the former enhances the latter. You don’t see words on the screen being repeated by the narrator as you do in presentations.

The best slides utilize few—if any—words. They maximize PowerPoint’s visual and audio capabilities to enrich and illustrate the complex concepts we are describing, rather than to provide large amounts of information .

DL: You also advise writing an objective for each lesson- that’s an idea my team and I love—but you advise that the objective is “for you, not your students.”  Please explain.

NE: We all agree the best lesson plans require objectives. But I always go back to the so-called “user experience.” It’s part of the student-focused theme I mentioned before, and it refers to customers’ overall experiences with a product or service. When I buy a laptop, for example, I want to be able to use it right away. I don’t want to spend time reading manuals. I don’t want to waste time searching the website to find the right info or waiting an hour to talk to technical support. Companies that understand this, like Apple and Amazon, succeed.

It is no different for instructors. If we want to maximize learning, we need to master the user experience. So I imagine how my lecture will play out through the following questions:

Are there areas where students might scratch their heads?

Am I overwhelming them?

Do I pause enough for students to ask questions?

Am I being accessible when I ask if there are any questions?

“Perspective-taking” forces me to question every pedagogical decision I make. If it doesn’t benefit the student or if it adds a “hiccup” to the learning process, then I nix it.

For me, posting objectives is a “hiccup,” albeit a minor one. Mostly because it’s written in the third person using teacher language:

Students will be able to use benchmark fractions to correctly order and compare fractions.

It does not address students. If I’m thinking of the user experience, then objectives ought to be modified. I prefer to frame lessons with a question, such as the following:

How does ½ on a number line help you figure out where to place other fractions?

It invites students to find out. Objectives do that less. In my classroom, I want to empower and encourage them to take ownership of learning.

DL: In my experience, poorly run discussions could often be as brutal as poorly run lectures. What advice can you give collegiate teachers to increase the quality of discussions in their classrooms?

NE: You’re absolutely right about discussions. I’ve sat in classrooms where students take the lead and the teacher just sits back and listen. We know what happens. A small fraction of students dominate. Conversations get sidetracked. Students ramble. And the experience becomes a waste of time. Students hate that .

What do I do? First, I post discussion questions on the board. That visible reminder keeps both students and teachers on track. Second, I keep prompts focused and discussions short. One thread should last no more than 10 minutes—unless there are clear signs of interest (e.g., students clamoring to participate).

Having students write before and/or after discussions, as TLaC advises, is also a great idea. Doing this prepares them to talk. Writing also puts the focus on developing ideas rather than merely performance (which can trigger anxiety and competition). So in some classes, I pose questions on the board and ask students to spend the first 5-10 minutes jotting down ideas. Participation rates increase.

Also, students don’t always see the point of discussions, so I devote time to address this early on in the term. This involves asking students questions like, “What is considered a good or bad discussion?” or “What is the point of having discussions?” Follow-up lessons help them differentiate facts, opinions (e.g., does everyone have a right to an opinion?), beliefs, biases, preferences, and assumptions. We talk about the pros and cons of each within the context of a discussion. We even delve into specifics, like how to listen more effectively (hint: respond to peers’ comments first, by expanding, connecting, agreeing/disagreeing, etc.). When students internalize the importance of discussions, they will engage with more effort.

Perhaps the most productive thing to improve the quality of class discussions is to focus less on the performance aspect and more on developing discussion skills . Most students have never been taught how to discuss, so the ones who succeed are the naturally loquacious or extroverted student. And then it becomes about individual contribution rather than a collective endeavor. When that happens, students are less liable to build upon, expand, contradict, take issue with, or otherwise respond to a previous comment. It becomes a series of isolated contributions.

Sociologist Jocelyn Hollander has some great ideas to develop discussion skills , summarized as follows:

First, she asks students to write a self-evaluation about their perceived strengths/weaknesses at the beginning of the term. This includes setting a specific discussion goal for the term—one that is concrete, practically attainable, and unique to the individual. During midterms, she asks students to evaluate their progress: What is going well? What could be improved? What progress have you made toward your discussion goal? Finally, students evaluate their growth at end of term. They write about what if any changes in their discussion skills they have noted over the course of the term.

Focusing on strategies that teachers can do is a start, but increasing the quality of discussions is a partnership. How can we balance the responsibility between teacher and students? That’s the challenge.

Norman Eng can be reached at or you can check out his website


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