Student Perspectives on Good Teaching
What makes a good teacher? At one time or another, most college and university professors who are serious about their teaching have probably asked themselves this question. The answers occasioned by this query inevitably entail descriptions of particular characteristics or traits such as "interesting," "knowledgeable," and "enthusiastic" and specific behaviors such as being able to "explain difficult topics clearly" and "delivering well-organized lectures."
A small empirical literature linking teacher traits and behaviors to student evaluations of good teaching has accumulated over the past two decades. For example, Murray (1975) demonstrated that individuals who are extroverted and high in anxiety control are rated by students as being better teachers than individuals who are low in these traits. McKeachie, Lin, Moffett, and Daugherty (1978) showed that teachers who the adopt roles of "Facilitator" and "Person" created more favorable attitudes toward the class from students than did teachers who adopted the roles of "Authority" and "Expert." Students also highly regard teachers who are empathetic and who deliver well-prepared, well-organized, clear classroom presentations (Branwhite, 1988; Carifio & Hess, 1987; Marcus, David, & Preduscu, 1985).
Although some teacher characteristics such as personal warmth and rapport seem universally valued by all students (Hudak & Anderson, 1984), other traits appear to be valued differentially as a function of student experience and year in school. For example, in one study college sophomores described good teachers in terms of personal qualities (e.g., flexibility and enthusiasm) while seniors focused more on specific aspects of the instructional process (e.g., asking thought-provoking questions) (Dershimer, Saunders, Artiles, Mostert, Tankersley, Trent, & Nuttycombe, 1992). Thus the answer to the question "What makes a good teacher?" may vary with the characteristics of one's audience, particularly its previous experience with higher education.
Miller (1997) attempted to explore further this relationship and to examine more thoroughly the similarities and differences among various student audiences, based on class standing and experience, with respect to the question "What makes a good teacher?". The remainder of this essay describes the methods she used to explore students' answers to this question and what she found.
She asked freshmen enrolled in an introductory psychology course, juniors and seniors, and graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) to participate in a study of "qualities of good teachers." Although the groups participated independently, each group experienced the same sequence of events. After reading and signing the informed consent form, the experimenter read the following instructions to each group: Each student in each group was asked to generate a list of not less than 5 qualities that a person must possess in order to be considered a good teacher. Once this task was completed, she asked the members of each group to discuss the items on their individual lists as a group and to develop a "master" list of qualities that good teachers possess.
The freshmen described 18 qualities on their list, the advanced undergraduates described 12 qualities, and the GTAs described 13 qualities. Across all groups, only three common qualities emerged: "flexibility," "clear communication skills," and "sense of humor." However, examination of the definitions of these qualities showed that each group viewed these qualities slightly differently.
For example, freshmen defined flexibility as "willing to adjust to the needs of students," advanced undergraduates defined the term as "ability to change teaching based on what seems to work and doesn't work in the class," and the first year GTAs defined the term as the teacher "being open-minded, tolerant, and patient." Despite such definitional variations, some degree of flexibility, clarity in communication, and making classes fun are highly valued teacher attributes among students, regardless of class standing.
Comparison of different pairs of groups revealed other commonalties. Freshmen and advanced undergraduates each had four qualities common to their lists ("likes to teach," "available to students," "listens to students," and "is well organized"). Freshmen and first year GTAs also had four qualities common to their lists ("knowledgeable about subject matter," "fairness," "concern for students," and "personable"). Advanced undergraduates and first year GTAs had only one quality, "humility," common to their lists.
Groups also listed different qualities. These differences may be interpreted, at least when comparing freshman and first year GTAs, as reflecting differences in educational experiences. The six qualities listed by freshmen ("use clear English," "offer multiple opportunities for testing," "be easy going but firm," "use good handwriting," "give fair tests," and "know your audience") emphasize things that teachers can to help them get through (i.e., "survive") their courses.
On the other hand, the qualities listed by first year GTAs ("be positive and reliable," "provide feedback," "be challenging," and "select good course content") seem to take into consideration the larger picture of what constructing a good course entails from a teacher's perspective. This broader point of view is likely due to this group's recent learning history as GTAs-teachers in training. The list of qualities generated by advanced undergraduates ("be patient," "respectful," "realistic," and "committed to teaching") seems to reflect more how these students wish teachers to treat them than either what a teacher can do for them to get through a course or what is involved in putting a good course together. Although these students had some experience as "teachers," it was apparently not sufficient to introduce to them the larger picture of what teaching, from a teacher's perspective, might involve.
The qualities that define good teaching vary to some degree on the audience that is being taught and its unique educational experiences. All forms of classroom teaching seem to involve three elements-a teacher, one who possesses certain knowledge on a specific topic; the specific topic to be taught; and a student, one who stands in need of the knowledge that the teacher possesses). Good teaching seems to involve various combinations and permutations of the characteristics of each of these elements. Miller's work suggests a wide range of qualities that are most likely to comprise these arrangements. Further, it provides a reasonable starting point for all college teachers to think about ways to improve their classroom teaching with respect to their audience. For example, a teacher might ponder the extent to which he or she possesses the qualities mentioned by the students in Miller's study and then explore the ways in which he or she could behave that might reflect these qualities.
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Miller, E. (1997). What qualities make a good teacher: Three student perspectives. Unpublished manuscript, Auburn University.
Wragg, E. C. (1985). Training skillful teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 1, 199-208. Table 1. Similar qualities described by each group.