3 The Skills of the Class Teacher

As a class teacher you will need to hone your personal and communication skills. In particular, your listening skills, questioning skills, ability to give complex and difficult explanations and your ability to end classes effectively. This section includes some advice in these areas.

3.1 Effective Listening

  1. Try to keep an open mind and listen to what is actually said.
  2. Listen for meaning. For example a student maybe asks you a muddled question about a small detail. Actually, what s/he may be telling you is that s/he is completely lost and doesn't understand this at all - or this student may be dyslexic.
  3. Try not to pre-empt what a student is saying, by cutting them off mid-question and giving them an answer to a problem as you see it. As much as possible, let them explain their uncertainties and confusions. According to a reasonable body of the Higher Education research literature, concept development often requires that students first understand how new ideas presented fit in relation to what they already know, and IF the new concept requires them to let go of some previous understanding, this needs to be actively acknowledged (ie: you can't simply overlay a new and contradictory set of ideas before the old ones have been explored and deconstructed).
  4. Try to find a workable balance between, on the one hand, thinking ahead in the discussion in order to maintain the flow and focus and, on the other, being overly directive and forcing the discussion along your set path.

3.2 Questioning Skills

There are a number of techniques you can use to encourage students to ask questions and to open up discussion.

The most obvious is to draw on students' questions and comments and to enlarge upon them with your own remarks. What do you do if the subject matter is new and your students are too?

You may want to jot down several statements or questions beforehand and use these as a springboard.

For many quantitative subjects, you may want to plan out a sequence of short questions aimed at helping students work their way through a problem, or grasp a better understanding of a theory or model. A number of class teachers in Economics, Maths, Statistics and Accounting and Finance use this approach. Some will go round the class more or less sequentially, so students know when their "time" to answer is approaching and can prepare. Others take a more random approach, calling on people by name. Yet others ask questions to the group as a whole, and let whoever wishes to respond.

This issue, of whether or not to call on students individually and by name to contribute to the class, is one of the more controversial aspects of questioning. Clearly tutors have different styles and students will have varied expectations. The advantage of addressing individual students is that you can tailor comments and make interventions that are appropriate for specific students. It may be a way of involving a very quiet student who you know has useful contributions to make but finds it difficult to raise them in the class. However, great care should be used when 'spotlighting' students. If some students think that they may be 'picked on' to answer questions it may make them very uncomfortable in the class and less able to think and work out their own position or solution. (This may particularly affect the non-native speakers of English in your class and those with disabilities.) This may also have a knock-on effect on the other students and so the positive atmosphere in the class can be eroded.

If you choose to use a direct questioning approach it is also sensible to think through what you will do when a student cannot answer your question or gives a muddled or an incorrect response. It is likely to fall to the tutor to 'rescue' the situation and in some circumstances to help re-build the confidence of an embarrassed or flustered student. Because of these potential difficulties it is, therefore, suggested that you do not ask individual students to answer your questions so directly until you have established a good rapport with your class and you have got to know your students better.

With more discursive subjects, it is generally preferable to open up discussion with open-ended questions which will get students thinking about relationships, applications, consequences, and contingencies, rather than merely the basic facts. Open questions often begin with words like "how" and "why" rather than "who", "where" and "when", which are more likely to elicit short factual answers and stifle the flow of the discussion. This more closed questioning approach tends to set up a "teacher/student" "question/answer" routine that does not lead into more fruitful discussion of underlying issues. You will want to ask your students the sorts of questions that will draw them out and actively involve them, and you will also want to encourage your students to ask questions of one another. Again, it is for you to decide whether to call on students directly, or leave the discussion and discussant "open". Above all, you must convey to your students that their ideas are welcomed as well as valued.

Very occasionally you may have a student in your class who suffers from more than the normal level of anxiety or shyness when called upon to contribute to the class discussions or to present their work. In some circumstances this may be related to a disability, or to language proficiency. Treat such situations with sensitivity and if appropriate seek specialist guidance.

Top Tip

"On the introductory workshop we heard about a discussion technique that works well for me. I ask a question, I then ask the students to write down their answer and then compare it with the person sitting next to them. I then ask the question out loud to the group again and I always get someone happy to kick off the discussion."

There are a number of pitfalls in asking questions in class. Here are the four most common ones:

  1. Phrasing a question so that your implicit message is, "I know something you don't know and you'll look stupid if you don't guess what's in my head!";
  2. Constantly rephrasing student answers to "fit" your answer without actually considering the answer that they have given;
  3. Phrasing a question at a level of abstraction inappropriate for the level of the class - questions are often best when phrased as problems that are meaningful to the students;
  4. Not waiting long enough to give students a chance to think.

The issue of comfortable "thinking time" is an often-ignored component of questioning techniques. If you are too eager to impart your views, students will get the message that you're not really interested in their opinions. Most teachers tend not to wait long enough between questions or before answering their own questions because a silent classroom induces too much anxiety for the class teacher. It can be stressful if you pick on a student for an answer and all the group are waiting for a reply (see below). Many students, particularly those with certain disabilities or dyslexia, students who are not confident in speaking in public, or not confident in speaking English, may become unduly flustered in such a situation. Creating a more comfortable space in which to think is likely to induce a better 'quality' of answer and increase the opportunities for all students to contribute effectively.

The above approach is likely to help make your students feel more confident for a number of reasons. First the students have the chance to 'check out' their answers with a peer; secondly, they are required to 'rehearse' and put their thoughts into words; and thirdly the answer gains a form of endorsement from the peer which increases confidence in its value. Once the students have confidence that you will give them time to think their responses through, and you show them that you really do want to hear their views, they will participate more freely in future.

Asking Questions Relating to Work Students Have Not Done

This is clearly a different issue from those noted above, and comes back to issues around agreeing ground rules with students to ensure that they prepare adequately for class. It is important to establish agreed working patterns from the start, and follow them through.

3.3 Clarity of Explanation

The first piece of advice here is to try not to do too much explaining in class. This may sound a little strange but it is all too easy to be drawn into the trap of giving mini-lectures rather than facilitating learning. However, there are times when your students will look to you to help in clarifying points or linking class discussions and course work with related lectures.

In giving a clear explanation you should start from where your learners are. You may choose to summarise "what we know already" or indeed ask one of the students to do this task for the group. There are four quick tips to help structure your explanation:

  1. Structure what you say so that you have a clear beginning, middle and ending;
  2. Signpost your explanation to make the structure clear to everybody;
  3. Stress key points; and
  4. Make links to the learners' interests and current understanding. You can do the latter through the use of thoughtful examples, by drawing comparisons and by using analogy.

Top Tips

"All too often students come to class unprepared, sometimes without even having read the question. Thus, reading the question before getting into the answer can be very important. One of the greatest skills is to succeed in making relatively unprepared students understand, and take an interest in the questions at hand, without compromising the level of the explanation offered or delaying the progress of the class." One class teacher goes round the class each week to check who has attempted that week's problem set. Students only need to hand in two pieces of work per term for tutor marking. However he finds that by doing the round weekly, most students do the exercises in advance most weeks, and will be candid (and generally give convincing explanations) when for some reason they have not been able to do the work.

"I try to think of really good examples to illustrate the main points I want to make. If you can find something current from the papers or the news then you are often onto a winner - I like to bring along the paper and hand it round the group. I thought about asking the group to bring in their own examples too and I might try this next year."

3.4 Teaching Diverse Classes

  • Give "minority" students equal attention in class, and equal access to advising outside class. Don't overlook capable but less experienced students.
  • Give "minority" students equal amounts of helpful and honest criticism. Don't prejudge students' capabilities.
  • Revise curricula if necessary to include different kinds of racial and cultural experiences, and to include them in more than just stereotypical ways.
  • Ensure that the teaching methods and materials you use are accessible to students with different learning abilities and disabilities
  • Monitor classroom dynamics to ensure that "minority" students do not become isolated.
  • Vary the structure during the course to appeal to different learning styles and modes of learning.
  • Don't call on "minority" students as "spokespersons" for their group, e.g.: "So how do Moslems feel about...?".
  • Recognise and acknowledge the history and emotions your students may bring to class.
  • Respond to non-academic experiences, such as racial incidents, that may affect classroom atmosphere and performance.

Adapted from "General principles in teaching 'minority students'", in A Handbook for Teaching Assistants, University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB)

3.5 Bringing Classes to a Close

Getting the timing of classes right can be a challenge to most teachers. There is inevitably pressure on time, as many classes try to "do" as much as possible in the time available. Finding that time has simply run out is a common experience. With that in mind, it is useful to plan the end of sessions as carefully as planning the beginning, and then to watch the clock so that you can decide when the "end game" needs to start. An obvious element in "ending" that many class teachers include is to summarise the ground that has been covered, key learning points and main issues raised. This can give a sense of "neatness" and closure to sessions.

Another way of looking at the end of a class though is to see it as an opportunity to prompt students to further study. Rarely will a class manage to "complete" the topic under discussion. As such, you may wish to consider ways of using the summing up more as an opportunity to identify any "gaps" or issues that haven't been addressed, key readings which you may be have noted students have not yet read, but probably would benefit from spending time on, and in giving students some pointers as to further work they may engage with. Finally, it is often worth reminding students what will be covered in the next class and prompting them to plan ahead, to make links to the next lecture and class, and ensure that everyone is on track to make the most of the next class in the series.

Top Tip

"I find important ending the class with a summary of the key arguments discussed, results found and conclusions drawn."

"wishing them a nice weekend at the end of class, showing that they are cared for"

3.6 If Your First Language Is Not English

Many class teachers in UK universities are post-graduate students who are themselves from overseas. Teaching in a foreign language can be a fantastic way of improving your English.

However it may also present a number of challenges too. Here are a few common sense reminders if this applies to you.

  1. Always face your students when you are talking to them so that they can also use your eye contact and body language to fully understand your meaning.
  2. In discussion, write down key terms and names when you are referring to them. You can do this on the white board or flipchart as you speak or include them in a brief handout and explicitly refer to them in class.
  3. Encourage your students to ask questions.
  4. Try to talk slowly and clearly so that students will have every opportunity to understand what you are saying.
  5. If your students ask you a question that you don't understand, you can:
    • Ask the student to repeat or rephrase the question;
    • Open up the question for the whole class to think about (e.g. "That's a good question can someone begin to help us answer it?");
    • Attempt to rephrase the question yourself and answer it when you are sure you understand correctly.

If you experience problems with being understood, your institution may be able to provide voice or pronunciation training: check with your staff development department.

Top Tip

"I know my English isn't perfect, so when I met my class I said to them "you need to stop me if I talk too fast or my accent is too strong". We needed to sort out how they could stop me without feeling embarrassed - one of my groups actually wave at me if I lose them!"