How Can You Teach If You Don’t Learn? (27 Things Teachers Can Learn About Students by Changing Roles.)


Nothing Like A MOOC.

As I write this, I am finishing my first MOOC, titled ‘Think Again: How to Reason and Argue’*. The triumphs and failures I have experienced in this course have taught me a career-refreshing lesson about what it is to be on the receiving end of teaching. I have always been an enthusiastic serendipitous learner, but I haven’t done any structured studying since university. Now, I am the student again. And things feel very different on the other side of the red pen.

I have learned an incredible amount about pedagogy and learning technologies from my professional friends on social media, but most of this is from the teacher’s point of view. I state this categorically: being a student yourself is the only way to feel what it is REALLY like to be exposed to good and bad teaching. MOOCs are to a teacher’s professional competence what an honest look in the mirror is to the ego.

Learning About Teaching by Learning.

Some of what follows I dutifully try to avoid in my classroom, or to embrace – as the case may be. But I do fail… perhaps even more often than I care to admit. You, dear reader, may very likely be the kind of super-teacher who wins praise and admiration for all of your heroic pedagogical deeds, while the evil blunders bounce off your invulnerable chest. For the rest of us mortals, it may help to see how gravely the things we get wrong hurt our students, and how motivated they become when we get things right.


In no specific order then, here are the things I (re) learned about learning by being a student again:

  1. SHARE: Make course materials available immediately – even if it is just a transcript or rough notes. Students like to be sure they have everything – why not let them double-check against what the teacher uses?
  2. SQUASH GREMLINS: Ensure that course materials, and especially assessments, are accurate and error-free. Glaring errors, especially in tests, irreparably rupture the bond of trust between teacher and student. I cannot say this strongly enough: they will never trust you in the same way if you get it wrong.
  3. WIKI LEARN: Encourage collaborative learning and peer tutoring through wikis, discussion forums and collectively-edited notes.
  4. ALMOST GOES WITHOUT SAYING: Make absolutely sure you are not tripping up students in assessments by asking them something you haven’t explicitly taught. If you haven’t taught it – even if you were supposed to, don’t ask it.
  5. PUZZLING PERIL: Avoid using silly / absurd / perplexing examples. Use real-life, relevant and simple examples. You might think you are being a great wit, but your perplexed students will probably think you’re a twit.
  6. POLICING READING: Don’t include terminology in assessments as a means of checking that students have done their reading. Discuss those terms before you test them.
  7. OLD ISN’T ALWAYS GOLD: Beware of rehashing old material. Some teaching material just needs to be put to pasture.
  8. GET REAL: Being friendly and self-deprecating always trumps being self-important and aloof. Always!
  9. FUN FOOL: Try to make things fun. Even failing and making an utter fool of yourself is far better than not trying to liven things up at all.
  10. CONVERSE UNPRETENTIOUSLY: Talk naturally and clearly. Keep it clear and simple. Affectation of any kind kills student engagement. How can they learn to leave behind their protective layers when you don’t?
  11. UNPREDICTABLY PREDICTABLE: Mix things up by trying different techniques and entertaining activities, but hold to a predictable general pattern. Think about it this way: You’re on a journey. Nothing stops you from visiting interesting diversions along the way – but make sure you’re still driving as you always do, and that you are steadily travelling to where you need to be.
  12. STARRING STUDENTS: Use students as examples, but do so sensitively.
  13. ‘FESS UP: If you get it wrong, confess and make amends immediately.
  14. THE BIGGEST SIN: 10 to 20 percent of your knowledge evaporates instantly the moment you are faced with a stressful situation. Try to build student confidence with smaller, easier tests and do all you can to soften stressful situations. Don’t get them unnecessarily worked up before a test or exam. They do ‘take it seriously’, and do not need you to remind them how important it is. Instead, ease them into it and help them to feel comfortable and relaxed before they embark on a formal assessment.
  15. INTELLECTUAL PLEASURE: Most students take great pleasure out of learning. Teach them new things, spark their imaginations and ignite their innate curiosity. Just because it seems boring and self-evident to you, doesn’t mean it is for them.
  16. I WANT MY A+: Help them to do their best. We all like to do well in assessments. Just because you may scoff at marks as being inaccurate signifiers of student ability doesn’t mean it isn’t important to them.
  17. JOYFUL STRUGGLES: There is an immense joy in struggling through a difficult problem or section – but only if you’re sure you will get it in the end. It’s a huge thrill getting it right after a grueling challenge, all on your own. Set them a challenge, but ensure that they know you’re there to guide them if needs be.
  18. WHEN YOU ASSUME: Don’t assume anything. If students need any background knowledge, either teach it to them in a ‘master-class’, or schedule catch-up lessons. It is extremely demoralizing when you’re trying to crack a new challenge without the tools you need.
  19. IT ISN’T SIMPLE: It may be for you. It isn’t for them. This applies to both lessons and assessments. Issue explicit requests to moderators to put themselves into ‘kid-mode’ in checking readability and anticipating possible misinterpretations. Be absolutely sure that nothing that can possibly be misconstrued.
  20. PLEASE NOTE: Push pause. Allow time for students to take notes. (He pauses. With a silly look on his face.)
  21. LET IT SET: Allocate time for new learning to solidify. Like concrete, new concepts can sometimes take a longer time than you realize to set properly.
  22. I CAN’T BELIEVE I MISSED THAT: Pay very careful attention to the layout of questions in assessments – perhaps even consider using check-boxes or teach students to cross out questions they have completed. It is so easy to miss a question if you’re a little anxious or rushed.
  23. PSSST! Let them learn from each other in class.
  24. SECOND CHANCES: Give them a second (or even a third) try to get it right. Why not?
  25. CHUNK IT: After each small section, stop and allow students to practice.
  26. PREPARE THEM: Make sure that the way questions are asked in smaller assessments match the way they are asked in more heavily-weighted ones. It is painfully disconcerting, during a high-stakes assessment, to suddenly come face-to-face with a question-type the likes of which you’ve never encountered before.
  27. BE FAIR.

And that’s it. That is what I have learned. Now it is time to apply.




* MOOC: For those not in the know, ‘MOOC’ (pronounced ‘mook’) stands for Massive Open On-Line Course. You watch a series of video lectures, complete the practice activities and then write your assessments – all on-line. Most MOOCs offer certificates for completing the course successfully. All you have to do is to go to a provider such as Coursera, register and start picking what you want to learn. It’s all entirely free.

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  1. Hi Sean, some really great suggestions here especially for ADHD students such as Chunking, taking off the pressure, not making assumptions and giving checkboxes to mark off questions answered. By the way I have just started my first 6 week MOOC on Infographics and data visualization. I thought it would be laid back and a bit of a doddle. Ha Ha taking me 6+ hours per week and really making me think in a very different way. Infographics is not just about creating pretty pictures.


    • Hi Pat. Thanks for your comments.
      Honestly, I think most children display some of the less serious symptoms of ADHD from time to time… Perhaps because of the many things vying for their attention. (To be honest, I feel that I am sometimes a little ‘attention deficit’ for the same reason!) I think it behooves us all to take a leaf out of the ADHD experts’ guidelines to keep our charges learning to the best of their abilities.
      Eish. These MOOCs are hard work! I have two starting next week, and I still have two weeks left on the first one. Still loving it though!


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