Emphasis on Teaching
by Marshall Brain

Students Are People

For some reason it is easy to forget that students are people. Perhaps it is because students are generally young and inexperienced, or because we deal with large bodies of them at once, or perhaps it is because teachers do a majority of the talking while students do a majority of the listening. But it is common and easy to treat students in unproductive ways that ignore the fact that they are human beings.

This point was brought home to me this past summer when I sat in on a class taught by a colleague. By all measures but one it was a horrible lecture. The instructor spoke for two hours in a constant monotone, without a break, without a question, without any acknowledgement of the audience, with almost no eye contact, without a joke or a pause or an interruption. It was numbing.

The instructor had succeeded in transmitting a huge amount of information in the two hour period, and in that sense he was "successful". But transmission and reception are two different things, and he had completely forgotten the receiving side of the equation.

Why is it that teachers frequently forget the most important variable in the education equation: the audience? No civil engineer ever "forgets" about the basic nature of concrete. No French teacher ever "forgets" all of the rules of french grammar and starts speaking gibberish. But it is very easy for teachers to forget the basic rules of human communication and behavior and end up creating a lecture (or even a complete teaching style) that accomplishes far less than it could.

By keeping human nature in mind when preparing a lecture, and by remembering a few basic facts about the world around us, it is possible to create far more effective lectures, homework assignments and labs. The following list summarizes some of these facts: facts that must be remembered when trying to communicate with any human being.

People get bored

Watch David Letterman's show one night and ask yourself this: Why do students watch and love this show, and in fact stay up late so they can see it, but fall asleep within five minutes in many lectures?

David Letterman is interesting. There is something inherantly interesting about a man covered in velcro leaping onto a wall covered in the opposing velcro, and about a dog that sings the national anthem, and about the throwing of watermellons off of a 10 story building. These just can't be compared with a monotone derivation of the Fast Fourier Transform equations on a dusty blackboard.

And why is that? The FFT equations should be far more "interesting" because they are useful. They can be used to solve a huge range of problems. But students don't know that, and therein lies the problem.

If something is presented to students in a boring way, the students react by getting bored. When a student gets bored, s/he stops receiving data, and as soon as that happens the teacher has failed. There are many things that can be done to keep lectures from being boring:

All of these things have been said and heard before. Are you using them?

People love stories

Think about it - all people love stories from the time they are children. Our brains are wired to store stories (note the name similarity there!) much more efficiently than other types of data. Tell stories from your real-world experiences that relate to the concept that you are teaching. Tell stories about the people who developed the concept. Tell stories about your research and how it uses the concept.

People respond to personal attention

Given a choice between two banks, two grocery stores, two gas stations or whatever, people will tend to gravitate toward the establishment that offers personal attention. Would you rather buy your gas from a knowledgeable person who knows your name and waves to you when you drive in, or from a zoned-out teenager watching a soap opera?

Students are people, and they respond the same way. Students work harder for someone who knows them. There are many ways to give personal attention to people, even in a large class:

People respond better to praise than to criticism...

Would you rather be praised or criticized? All humans (and in fact horses, dogs, and even pigeons in a Skinner's box) respond better to praise than to criticism. But it is interesting to note that most classes are set up to efficiently deliver punishment. Points are taken off of tests. Papers are graded by marking all of the mistakes. It is easy to "lose a letter grade" on an assignment, but how often can you gain one back?

People respond best to personal praise. A rubber-stamped "Good Job!" is meaningless. Therefore, you have to work to catch occasions when you are dealing with someone personally and they are doing something right. Do this during office hours ("I really like the way you've done this portion of the problem. Now let's look at what you are doing over here and see if we can't make that look just as good..."), or when someone asks a good question in class ("you know, that's a really good question because..."), or during lab ("You are using good technique there...").

Try to make test and assignment grading schemes incremental rather than decremental.

The book "The One Minute Manager" has a superb section on praise and its effects.

... But on the other hand, people will make good use of constructive criticism if delivered in a positive environment

Within an environment where a person feels comfortable (for example, one in which praise is the norm rather than non-existent), students learn a great deal from constructive criticism. A simple question can often be enough to deliver the criticism, without the student ever even realizing it. For example, you might say, "I see what you are trying to do here, but is there a more efficient way to solve that problem?"

People have natural curiosity

Given the freedom to explore and try things, people will take advantage of it. This trait is the basis of the research process, and should therefore be encouraged.

Cookbook labs kill curiosity. They are boring and routine. Boring, number-crunching and meaningless homework assignments are just as bad. Work to create assignments and labs that give students the chance to explore, try new things, and invent.

People make mistakes

Part of being human is making mistakes, so as a teacher you might as well make the best of it. Mistakes, it turns out, are one of the best learning moments possible--something learned directly as the result of making a mistake will be retained forever in many cases.

There are three types of mistakes: errors, blunders, and unforgivables. It is important to understand the differences between them. An error is a mistake made in ignorance: the person didn't know any better. A blunder is a repeated or stupid (as opposed to ignorant) error: a person knowledgeable enough to know better did something wrong. An unforgivable is a mistake that simply is not allowed, for example cheating. Blunders should be reprimanded (again see "The One Minute Manager"), and unforgivables should be dealt with appropriately.

But mistakes are learning experiences if they are handled correctly. Here is an example: A student sent me email last semester to complain about something and make a suggestion on improving the situation. The student had a valid point and a good solution, but he went further to say approximately "you are an idiot for doing this". He insulted both me and another student in the class.

Clearly the student had made a mistake. There were many possible ways to react, and the situation could have become rather sticky. What I did was reply to the student with the following, "Look, I got your message, and it contains a valid point. However, you've wrapped a lot of other stuff around it that I find quite insulting. Think about how you would feel if you received something like this, and how you would react to it. Look at what you are trying to accomplish, and see if you can't reword the message so that the tone of it is different. I think it will be more productive that way, and you will be better able to accomplish your goal."

I received a rewritten and very useful email message the next day and the original message was forgotten. Several months later the student commented to me that he learned a great deal from the experience.

People have physical limitations

There are limits to what people can do. For example:

Keeping these limits in mind helps you to avoid wasting time.

People would rather not read

Given a choice between getting information by reading and getting it in some other way, people will almost always choose the other way. This is the whole basis for any college. A person could go to any library, check out the appropriate books, read them and work some problems and from that learn any subject. But people tend not to do that - most people would prefer to go to lectures and hear the material rather than rely solely on reading.

Students don't like to read either. However, students need to read. In many cases they need to read a lot. You can help them by directing their attention to specific sections, by providing tutorial information, and by rewarding them for reading (eg - questions on tests related directly to reading material).

People do not hear everything that you say

I still remember a very important experience from early in my teaching career. I needed to change a homework assignment. I went into my next class, in which I happened to be giving a test that day, and wrote the change on the board. I then announced the change to the class as well. The change to the assignment deleted a portion of the work the class would have to do.

The next day an "A" student who I knew well came by during office hours and asked a question about the homework assignment. His question related directly to the deleted portion of the assignment however, so it was irrelevant. I said to him, "Well what did I write on the board yesterday?!", and then immediately regretted it when he said, "I was so busy worrying about the test, I must have missed it."

Students cannot possibly hear every single thing that is said in a class. If they are writing something down, they miss what you are saying. They may misinterpret something that is said. I can distinctly remember being in a class myself and having the teacher ask me a question: all that I could say at the time was, "I'm sorry, I was thinking about something else - can you repeat the question?" I was still trying to understand a concept he had covered five minutes earlier.

If a concept is important, you should repeat it. If you will only say it once, you should stop, get everyone's undivided attention, and then state it clearly. If there is something important in a handout, you should direct your student's attention to it.

99% of the population is honest

Most people are honest. 1% are not. This 1% cheats or lies. However, the creation of rules, procedures, walls, etc. that try to deter the 1% causes problems for the vast majority of your students. Oppressive rules or attitudes that deter cheating often: a) waste time, b) cause distrust, and c) break down student respect for you. It is probably better to gear policies toward the 99% rather than the 1%, and deal with the 1% separately when the need arises.

First impressions stick

Students will remember the impressions that you make in the first class or two for an extremely long period of time. Therefore, you need to actively decide what sort of impression and message you want to convey to your students and make that impression stick early.

Decide what you expect from students, decide your standards for performance and responsibility, decide on the tone of the class and the general learning environment that you want to create, and then impress those things upon students quickly.

Saying, "I expect you to act like adults" during the first class is one thing to try. Start there, and see what else you come up with. Stating your expectations and goals early on can be extremely productive.


Students work harder for a teacher who they like and respect. The best way to earn your students' respect is by respecting your students. Remembering that your students are people is a good way to start respecting your students.

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