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Teach Talk

Strategic Teaching
Thinking about a Handful of Variables Can Make
Your Teaching Much More Efficient and Effective

Lori Breslow

At the foundation of the MBA course in communication I teach at Sloan is the idea that all communication in a professional setting should stem from a strategic analysis of the situation in which the communicator finds him or herself. Our students are taught that before they begin to write or speak, they need to consider several variables at play in the situation, including the characteristics of their audience, their objectives, their stylistic preferences as a communicator, and what constraints, if any, they are working under. Only after a strategic analysis is completed, can the communicator make crucial decisions about content, structure, organization, and tone of the message, as well as the medium that he or she wants to use. This concept permeates our course whether we are working with our students’ writing, presentation, or interpersonal communication skills, and the students tell us it is one of the most valuable lessons they take away from the class.

The Benefits of Strategic Teaching

It seems to me that this notion of working from a strategic analysis is equally useful in teaching. Communication in a managerial setting is deemed successful if it leads to the response the sender wants. The same holds true for communication in the classroom. It is only successful if the instructor gets the reaction he or she wants: that is, if the students have mastered key ideas and skills. But beginning the process of planning a course (or an individual lecture, for that matter) with a strategic analysis is advantageous for another reason: It makes the work that much easier. By consciously identifying the unique characteristics of the course, the instructor creates criteria by which important decisions about content, format, pedagogical techniques, and methods of assessment can be made. As I said, the same holds true at the level of individual classes: thinking about where the students are in their comprehension of the material, what is to be achieved in the class period, or what impediments exist at the particular time in the semester, allows the instructor to prepare for individual classes in a much more logical, efficient way.

The Elements of a Teaching Strategy

The elements that comprise a communication strategy within business can be easily adapted to teaching. In order to formulate a teaching strategy, you should analyze:

The first four of these elements interact and affect each other. And since all communication takes place in a specific context with its own norms about how one may communicate in that setting, these interacting elements rub up against one another within an environment that exerts its own pressures.

I don’t doubt that most instructors take these factors into consideration in planning and teaching their courses. I am only suggesting they ought to be thought about in a more systematic, rigorous way. What follows, then, is a fuller description of each of the five points listed above. In the last section of this column, I’ll provide some examples of how planning a strategy can lead to more effective and efficient teaching.

Characteristics of the audience. It stands to reason that the more you know about your students, the better you can tailor both course content and format to their needs. Some of the questions to ask about your students are obvious: Where are they in their careers at MIT? What is their level of familiarity with the subject? What expertise do they have in related subjects that will have an effect on their ability to master the material in your course? What is their attitude toward the course? What parts of the course do you expect they will enjoy? What are they less likely to be enthusiastic about?

In addition, you need to think about the "ingredients" that are going to create the unique "personality" or "chemistry" that every class exhibits as a whole. Do the majority of students have the same level of technical expertise, or are there vast differences in abilities? Is the class ethnically diverse? What is the proportion of men to women? Is the class a mixture of undergraduates and graduate students?

You may also have a "secondary audience" in the course – for example, your TAs – with whom you also need to communicate clearly and effectively. Going through the same kind of analysis for them as you do for the students enrolled in the course will help guarantee they receive the information they need to do their job well in a form that will be easy for them to integrate.

I’d like to say one last word about "knowing your audience." As I talk to undergraduates, I hear over and over again how much it matters to them that their instructors know their names. Obviously, in a lecture with hundreds, this is impossible. (Although I did have a colleague at another university who had memorized the names of all 400 freshmen in her introductory class before the semester began. Imagine how surprised the students were on the first day of class when she was able to say, "And Sam Smith, what do you think about that?" staring Sam right in the eye.) If you want to get to know your students even better as individuals, ask them to fill out "bio cards" that list, for example, related courses they have taken, their reason for enrolling in the course, outside interests, or what they hope to learn in the class.

Objectives. In her book, Guide to Managerial Communication, Dartmouth Professor Mary Munter describes a process of honing goals from the general to the specific. She advises would-be managers to begin with "general objectives," which are broad statements about what is to be accomplished. But then in order to think more concretely about what is to be done, she suggests formulating an "action objective" by stating what specific results will be accomplished within what specific time frame. Finally, she recommends devising a "communication objective" by completing the sentence: "As a result of this communication, my audience will . . ." (p. 4)

Teaching objectives likewise should undergo a refining and winnowing process. Berkeley Vice Chancellor Barbara Gross Davis in her book, Tools for Teaching, advises instructors to start writing goals for a course by thinking about the "big picture." What – in no more than a sentence or two – is this course about? What will it contribute to the students’ education? If students remember nothing about it except one thing, what should it be? The "big picture" is your sense of what the course will impart to the students that will be of lasting value.

But stopping with the "big picture" isn’t likely to be very helpful when it comes down to deciding what you will teach in the third class or what needs to be covered before the midterm. Sometimes, however, when instructors attempt to formulate more specific objectives for the course, they ended up creating a laundry list of topics. This, too, isn’t very helpful – especially at this institution where standing operating procedure is often to see how much material can be crammed into 14 weeks. Instead of producing a list of topics to be covered, Fuhrman and Grasha in their book, A Practical Handbook for College Teachers, recommend instructors devise both broader content goals (e.g.,"to understand electromagnetic fields") and noncontent goals (e.g., "to be able to use mathematical concepts to understand physical phenomena"). Adding a rough time frame that sets out when you expect to accomplish these goals (realizing some may not be achieved until the end of the semester) is a version of Munter’s "action objective."

Finally, goals need to be cast in terms of what you expect the students to know and/or to be able to do by the time the course is complete. Another way to restate Munter’s third, most specific goal ("communication goal") in teaching terms is, "By the time I finish teaching, the students will be able to . . ." In the end, course goals are not about covering a certain number of topics; they are about passing on knowledge to students in a way that they can understand and subsequently use.

Two more quick points about course objectives: First, restrict them to a realistic number. Four or five goals for the semester should be sufficient. (In planning a single class, I would recommend organizing the period around one main idea with no more than three or four subpoints supporting it.) Second, in an earlier "Teach Talk" ("Contracts in the Classroom" [Vol. VIII No. 4, May/June 1996]), I advised including a list of objectives on the course syllabus. It may be that the course objectives, as you formulate them on the syllabus, correspond exactly to how you have conceptualized them in creating the course. But it may be that you will need to recast them in a slightly different form for the students, which is simply another example of how text must be composed with audience the in mind.

Characteristics of the communicator. A common question that comes up in the teaching workshops I lead is this: "Since I’m not naturally a very good ‘entertainer,’ how can I ever hope to succeed in the classroom?"

Here there is good news. In a number of studies about what produces good teaching, one characteristic of the teacher’s presentation style stands out above the rest, and it’s not the ability to get students rolling in the aisles or to mesmerize them with dramatic oratory. The one quality of the teacher’s personality that students most respond to is enthusiasm.

The problem is that teachers often incorrectly equate "enthusiasm" with "entertainment." The dictionary defines enthusiasm as "intense or eager interest"; entertainment as "diverting, amusing, interesting." While much of what goes on in the classroom is hopefully "interesting" (note that is the one adjective enthusiasm and entertainment have in common), it doesn’t have to be "amusing," and it certainly shouldn’t be "diverting."

This semester I am co-teaching a Ph.D. course, "Teaching College-Level Chemistry," with Dr. Miriam Diamond. Our second class was about creating an effective course, and on the spur of the moment I found myself asking the students (who by now are veterans of 18, 19, or 20 years of schooling) whether or not they could tell within the first class or two if a particular course was going to be a good one. Every one of the students said they could. When I asked them how, they told me they could tell right away whether or not the professor – and here I’m using their word – cared about the course. And when I asked them how they could tell that, they said by the enthusiasm he or she exhibited for the course material, the course goals, and the students.

As long as you are enthusiastic about your work in the classroom, good teaching can accommodate a number of individual styles. Some teachers are animated; others are more low key. Some may stand in one place and lecture; others go up and down the aisles of the lecture hall like a pedagogical Phil Donahue. Some professors are good at infusing humor into the class; others engage their students by asking thought-provoking questions.

The point is to find your own style – the manner in which you are most comfortable presenting yourself – and cultivate that. Audiences respond well when they sense the speaker is most his or her own self. In other words, if you’re not MIT’s answer to Jay Leno don’t worry about it . . .

There is one other important characteristic of the communicator to be noted: that is, his or her credibility vis à vis the audience. When we teach this concept to the MBA students, we are careful to remind them that a message going from a subordinate to a superior is likely to be framed very differently from one traveling in the other direction. We also know that "credibility is in the eyes of the beholder," and that there are ways the individual can enhance his or her credibility in a situation.

The case with teaching is somewhat different in that the instructor, at least hopefully, comes into the classroom with ready-made credibility. Yet there are things we can do to solidify that credibility. For example, the chemistry Ph.D. students also told us that if the instructor showed up on the first day of class well-organized and prepared, that also tipped them off that the course was going to be a good one. A well-thought-out syllabus, a complete reading list, textbooks that are in the bookstore, all enhance the instructor’s credibility.

Constraints. Constraints can be felt at all stages of the teaching process. This isn’t news to anyone who has been in the classroom for more than a day. But thinking about the constraints you will be forced to deal with during the semester ahead of time allows you to accommodate for them as you plan the course. Although there is no way I can list all the impediments teachers may have to deal with, a small sample of the more vexing ones include: the amount of time available to present the material; the number of students that have to be taught; how responsive the students are likely to be to the course material (usually less so for a required course than an elective); what other courses and activities are competing for the students’ time; the condition of the physical facilities; the ability of recitation instructors. As I said, the list can go on and on.

Some instructors deal with these constraints as if they didn’t exist. For example, even though it may be unrealistic to assume that the amount of material included in the syllabus can be covered in the time allotted, all topics are included anyway. What that tends to do is increase the general level of anxiety in the course as the futility of the effort becomes more and more apparent. Better to think carefully about what can be realistically covered as you write the syllabus, so that you don’t have to rush through some topics or jettison material as the semester progresses. While there is no way that every problem can be accounted for at the beginning of the semester, factoring in constraints as part of your "teaching strategy" will no doubt minimize the ones you will need to deal with in real time.

"Cultural" norms. Every individual course is embedded within other social systems – departments, disciplines, the Institute itself – that have their own norms, taboos, beliefs, and rituals. In addition, courses themselves build up reputations, which give students a set of expectations about what they are likely to experience (or endure!) if they have enrolled in that subject. These "ways of doing things around here" (my favorite definition of culture) can exert a strong impact on how a course will unfold.

A faculty member and I were brainstorming about possible changes he is contemplating making in one of the courses that is a mainstay of the Institute curriculum. Although I thought his ideas were excellent, my advice was to proceed gingerly because by the time most MIT students will take his course, they will have already been "indoctrinated" in the Institute culture, and may be unnerved by his new ideas. This is not to say that the changes shouldn’t be made – for one thing they are very sound pedagogically – but it is to suggest that he should make the students partners in this shift. He can do this by alerting them to the fact that he realizes he is doing things "a different way around here," and by soliciting their feedback on how they are being affected. He may also want to introduce the changes gradually – perhaps over two semesters – because cultural norms are powerful and tend to be resistant to change.

How a Teaching Strategy Can Be Used for Decision Making

MIT faculty members often call me with the following kinds of questions about teaching: "I want to use teamwork in my course, how many students should I put into a group?" or "I want to get more class participation in my recitation, should I call on students who haven’t raised their hands?" My answer to these kinds of questions is almost always, "It depends."

Teaching is a craft (or an art, depending on how you look at it). It is not an exact science. There are very few right or wrong answers, correct or incorrect ways of doing things. (This is not to say that all methods or techniques work equally well.) The way to determine how many students should be in a group, or whether or not you should "cold call" is to do the kind of analysis that’s been described.

To determine how to construct groups for teamwork assignments ask: What are the objectives of the group work? What will students be expected to do? How can the groups be put together so they are diverse? In order to decide whether or not to cold call, think about whether or not the students have any experience with cold calling, if the climate in your classroom is safe enough for them to be wrong, or what will be lost and what will be gained if you utilize this technique.

That’s the beauty of working from the concept of a "strategy": It makes decisions easier because you have guidelines from which to work. And although I can’t verify this with large-scale, longitudinal studies, my experience is that it also results in decisions that more often than not work well.

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