CTL Blog

Each teaching experience is unique

February 09, 2011 | 5 Minute Read

It is worth repeating the title: Each teaching experience is unique.

The phrase VARIABLES before Assessment is meant to emphasize the idea that each teaching experience varies as one approaches the assessment.  Appreciating this is integral, and a necessary but not sufficient step, to achieving high quality teaching.

There are many reasons that I have drawn this conclusion after nearly 15 years of being a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  I don’t think it is unique to the school and I don’t think it is unique to the field of health economics and economic evaluation.  While some things may not change as much over time as economic policy or the application of economic theory, the fact of the matter is that I think that the conclusion that each teaching experience is unique cuts across all subjects and all types of students.

What is it that varies from one teaching experience to the next?

Let us begin with the students.  There will be more to say about this when I discuss the points most directly implied by the word that goes along with the first letter of the VARIABLES acronym.  For now, it is sufficient to note that there are many ways in which students can vary across settings (a faculty member may be lecturing in many different venues on a medical campus—schools of medicine, public health, nursing, pharmacy, and allied health professionals for example—and different venues across an entire university.  This is only the first and most obvious way in which students vary.

Each of us, as an individual, changes over time.  This is important in many ways.  For those of us who teach in classroom settings, the attitude that we bring to class can vary from one lecture to the next depending on events in our professional lives, events in our personal lives, or events in the larger world.  This can influence what we say, how we say it, and how we respond to students’ questions.  Each of these can change the students’ learning experiences.  For those of us teaching in asynchronous online settings, what we post on a BBS or other online interaction forum is likely to depend on the same list of things mentioned above.  It may even depend on the time of day at which we are trying to interact with the online system.  Additionally, from one year to the next we read different things, we experience different things, and the world around us changes.  Each of these provides us with new ways to relate material to current events or to our day-to-day lives.

The technology varies.  Most of us who are teaching now can remember the days when our teachers or professors stood at chalkboards and wrote from one side to the other and then started over again.  There were overheads.  There were physical slides.  Now, we have digital presentations.  Lots of text and graphs.  Not necessarily much sound.  But we can include sound. We can include other elements in our presentation.  There is now in class polling, and smart classrooms are becoming more common.  In online settings there are even more interesting technologies.  The key is not to use the technology so much that the information gets lost but to use the technology in ways to maximize the probability that students will understand the information at the end of the course and be able to use it when they need it in their careers. 

The faculty whose task it is to teach a specific course vary.  What works for one faculty member will not necessarily work for another.  There are personality differences that suggest that some faculty members are more likely to use their imaginations and work with big picture topics while others are better at concentrating on and assuring the presentation of minute details.  Some faculty have a tendency to look at the welfare and understanding of each student as an individual while others focus on the class as a whole.  These differences create fundamentally different teaching experiences and while the General concepts about what works for one faculty member may be generalized, the particulars are likely to be specific to each individual.  Thus, I consider VARIABLES before Assessment to be a useful set of principles and I think I have some interesting and useful examples but anyone who wants to apply the principles will ultimately need to work out the details for herself or himself.

Thus, the use of the term VARIABLES in the name for my system of ideas about teaching seems well warranted.  Things vary.  The term is a useful reminder of just how much we need to pay attention to a large number of variables that describe a situation before we teach and as we are teaching.  The term is also a reminder of the fact that just because a particular approach I used at a particular time in a particular setting with a particular group of students work, that does not imply that the same approach will necessarily ever work again.  A little investment in assessing the VARIABLES before we prepare to assess the students has the potential to make a big difference in the learning experience for the students and in the fulfillment I get from the teaching experience as the students learn.