3 things for better teaching (and better learning)


A large parchment map laid out on a table held down by an open book, set of old-fashioned keys, and an envelope and quill

The search for knowledge

One of the things I love about teaching is figuring out how a given group of people’s reacting to what I’m teaching on that day. There’s plenty that’s challenging about this, of course, but I love seeing what examples work, which topics get a lot of interest.

Of course, that’s one of the most complicated things about teaching. You can take the same material, and present it in the same way, to people, and get two entirely different reactions depending on a whole bunch of things, most of which you (as the teacher) can’t control. Teachers who teach several sections of the same class often have stories about one time of day reacting differently, or one class gelling as a group and another not, and how that affects the experience of everyone in the room.

In my experience, this is rather like magic. Or ritual. (Or cooking, or making music, or writing, or knitting, or so many other things we do as humans…) The whole is made up of the things we do intentionally, directly, but it’s also influenced by a whole host of smaller things, in the background, that we’re not consciously aware of. The wind, the room, the background noises, the moods of the people when they came in, whether you hit someone’s favourite topic as an example or something they have had horrible experiences with.

What does that mean for learning? And especially for learning about research? That’s my topic for today.

1) Try things.

Try an example. Try a technique. Try a method of taking notes.

Some of them will work, some of them won’t. Some of them will work great one day, or for one topic, or with one kind of material, and won’t work on another day, or for another topic or type of material. Sometimes, I swear, it’s up to which way the wind’s blowing and the alignment of the stars and whether someone’s done the appropriate propitiatory prayers and rituals to some relevant being.

The point is, have lots of opportunities to try things. Do more of the stuff that works, file the stuff that doesn’t away in your toolbox. Maybe it’ll be the right thing next time, or six months from now, or six years.

The best researchers, the best learners, are the people who have a lot of possible approaches, and who know what usually works reliably for them, but aren’t afraid to try something new or unusual when it can help them.

Most of the time I take my notes on the computer (I type way faster than I can handwrite). I have specific formats I use, conventions to help me keep track of things. But sometimes, I’ll drop all of that and draw out a mindmap. Or I’ll do sketch notes, drawing little designs and doodles and highlighting just the key concepts.

2) Aim for great conversation.

Often, I’ve found that he things that make for the best classes or workshops are the ones where conversation gets going. There are all sorts of tricks you can use to encourage it, and this is an area where people definitely develop their own style.

As a student, I look for the places where what I say might add something. I took an online class this spring, with a fairly intimidating group of people (it was on copyright, and most of the people in my section were lawyers or serious technology developer types, and mostly from outside the US and doing this in something other than their first language.)

I’m not afraid to ask stupid-sounding questions (because honestly, if I don’t understand it, I want to! That’s not going to magically happen if I don’t ask about it or figure out what would help.) But that’s also scary, so a teacher who goes ahead and makes it clear asking stuff is welcome is great.

How do you make it clear questions are welcome? Be human (see my next point). Ask questions. Throw out some examples, including some off the wall things. Consider inserting a funny slide or two. Or some cat photos. Or a story.

(The rhetorical applications of cat photos in slide decks are many and should not be underestimated. They will pretty reliably make a significant number of people in your audience grin, and they’re a great pause if you’re talking about challenging topics, or if people need a chance to catch up mentally.)

3) Be human. Own your own stuff.

In my intro for the workshop in June, I did a little brief groundrules thing at the beginning. My usual intro includes something like this:

“I lived in Minnesota for twelve years, and I spent a lot of that time trying to learn to talk more slowly. Now I’ve moved back to Boston, I’ve given up, sorry.” (I manage a self-deprecating tone of voice and expression here, and people usually laugh, and then I get on to the important info.)

“Please stop me if you need me to pause or repeat something, or speak more slowly. I tend to do a chunk of information, and a pause, and many people find that lets them follow, but if that’s not working for you, I’ll do my best to do something else. If anyone’s lipreading, let me know so I can stay pointed in your direction, and if you need a repeat for any reason and really prefer either the same words or different words, just let me know.”

And then in this case, a “If something’s confusing, and it’s a general question, wave your hand, and I’m glad to help. If you’ve got a question that’s more specific to just you, or a project you’re working on, grab me in the break, or afterwards, or my email address is on the handout.”

That’s me owning my own tendencies. It’s also me making it clear I get that people learn and listen and follow along in different ways, and that that’s fine and accepted, but there some stuff that’s not okay while I’m teaching.

On the one hand, some people may find it hard to tell me what they need in the moment (which is a problem that’s hard to fix in a one-off workshop with strangers) but that’s why I also provide fairly detailed notes in some form, and a private method of contact (usually my email.) But I’m also signalling with the comments about lipreading and repeats that I care about helping people get what’s going on.

On the other hand, it also sets some guidelines – in some workshops like this, someone will get off onto their particular pet project, and take up five minutes explaining it. (In some panel discussions, the “Not really a question, but a comment…” will get some groans from people familiar with the way that can turn into a tangent to the actual thing people are there for all too quickly.)

Finally, that little bit of humour (and a bit of “Hi, I’m a human with my own quirks” at the very beginning) seems to get people to relax and participate a lot more easily. It’s worked for me in Pagan settings, but it also has worked pretty reliably when I’ve done instruction sessions in libraries at work. You don’t need a ton of these things. That one, up there, about my speed of speech? I’ve used it for years. I usually have some other good bits depending on the topic, but I find I only need one or two to get people relaxing and responding to me, and this one is pretty much always relevant if I’m teaching out loud.

(You’ll also notice this isn’t me telling a joke, and it isn’t making fun of anyone else. I have been teased for how I speak, both speed and accent, and I’m sometimes a little touchy about it still, but as an adult it’s not a big deal. I care a lot more people can understand me. So flagging it like this helps everyone, and gives me an in to making the thing I’m doing a discussion, not a lecture. I’m up for that.)

Future posts

I’ve got more things to discuss (I always do). Some upcoming topics I know I want to talk about include:

  • Figuring out how people learn best.
  • Talking about how to evaluate information (and some useful cues for things people often get wrong.)
  • Evaluating a bibliography or reference list.
  • Making use of limited research time and energy
  • Setting up a research plan for yourself.

If you’ve got topics you particularly want to hear about, let me know!

About the Author

Jenett is a librarian and priestess in a small initiatory religious witchcraft tradition fascinated by the intersection of how we find information and how we can use it to make our lives (and other people's lives) better. She lives in the Boston metropolitan area with a cat and a fair number of books. Along with other online projects, she maintains a site, Seeking, with introductory material about religious witchcraft, research, and other useful tools, and offers research consulting on esoteric and eclectic topics through her business Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

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