Great Teaching Habits: Advice from Carl Wieman

Setting the Tone for a Productive Classroom

In anticipation of Nobel-winner and 2003 U.S. Professor of the Year Carl Wieman’s visit to FSU on February 14, we’d like to share more of his thoughts on teaching. In “Basic Instructor Habits to Keep Students Engaged,” excerpted below, Wieman shares practical suggestions about both what to do and what to avoid to create a welcoming and engaging classroom environment, where students feel involved and accountable. (We’ve left out a few for brevity, but the rest are in his own words.) “It is best to start doing all of these at the beginning of the term,” he advises:

Habits that Help

  • When you are talking, regularly stop and ask for questions. Make sure you wait an adequate length of time for response. What seems like very long time to you is actually short amount of time for a person to collect their thoughts and phrase a question. Instructors typically wait less than 2 seconds, often less than one, before concluding there are no questions and moving on. A few such very short waits convince students that when you say that you are asking for questions it is just a ritual, and you do not actually want any. Since your time sense in this situation is so skewed, initially you might even use a watch to time yourself to ensure you have waited an adequate amount of time, like 20-30 seconds.
  • If you have a clear impression from facial expressions that students are lost, just say you sense that, and say you need them to ask questions so you can help them, and then wait. At first they won’t believe you, but if you wait long enough (a minute seems like an eternity in that situation) and you look directly at them, someone will ALWAYS ask a question and that starts a discussion. Do that once or twice early in the term, and they will learn that you do expect them to raise questions and will then do so quickly.
  • When a student asks a question, sometimes offer the question to the whole class before answering it yourself. This reinforces the message that whole class, rather than just you and questioner, should be involved with and learning from student questions and answers.
  • After completing a clicker question or in class activity, share student thinking. If you solicit some answers/explanation or questions from students, rather than you just explaining it, it sends the message that this is about communication and feedback, and it will stimulate ongoing questions from students. If they have written down answers, project some of those (if you have a document projector) or sketch them on the board to share with the class. Sharing answers or calling on a student is not very traumatic for them if they have already worked as group. Call on them to present their group’s thinking or answer. Students are normally full of questions after any such activity in which they are obviously engaged, so if you are not getting any questions, you need to figure out what to change.
  • Pay special attention to the back of the room, particularly in a lecture theatre:
    • Walk up aisle as frequently as practical.
    • Look at back of room frequently.
    • Call on students at back in preference to students in front.
    • Repeat student questions so the class can hear.
    • Ask students to speak loudly when asking or responding to a question.
    • Regularly ask students in back if they can see what is on screen.
    • Don’t let chatter in back of the room get out of hand.
    • When groups are engaged in clicker question discussion or small group activity, try to first walk to the back of class and interact with the students there. Avoid the very common mistake of frequently getting grabbed by students at the front and spending a lot of time with one group and so you seldom get up to the back.

Habits To Avoid

  • Avoid facing away from any part of the classroom. As soon as you are talking with your back to the students, you are conveying that this is a monologue, not a conversation/explanation to them.
  • Avoid distractions that split their attention. For example, having a complex image displayed while actually talking about something else. Students will quickly become lost and disengaged.
  • Avoid the tendency to sit back and wait while students discuss a clicker question or in class activity. Instead, circulate around the room and listen to them, so you can use what you hear in the follow-up discussion.
  • Be careful not to send out messages that suppress student engagement. Obvious examples are suggesting a question is annoying or stupid, asking for questions and only waiting a second, or overlooking raised hands. Some others are:
    • Jumping in to correct student use of terminology or a small error when main point is correct or relevant. Either ignore the part that is wrong, or correct as an afterthought after discussing main point.
    • Suggesting at the outset that a clicker question or activity should be very easy for them. This tends to decrease student motivation to discuss it among themselves and ask you questions.
    • Not discouraging highly vocal students who are asking questions primarily to show off rather than to seek an answer. It can send message that asking a question in class is only about showing off.

Although these tips mention large classes, they’re valuable for classes of any size, and even seasoned instructors may find them useful.

Upcoming Events:

Dr. Wieman will be giving a talk for faculty at 11:00 on Thursday, February 14, in the College of Medicine Auditorium.

Alternative Textbook Grants:

FSU Libraries are offering Alternative Textbook Grants to support FSU instructors in replacing commercial textbooks with alternatives that are available to students at no cost. These alternatives not only save students money but also support student success by ensuring barrier-free access to course materials on day one of a course. Nine grants of $1000 are available to instructors who apply by February 1st, 2019. Grant winners will be encouraged to participate in course refinement consultations with the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information and to apply, see: