I watch the class carefully. This technique is critical for me. I have often heard people promote the virtues of “making eye contact” when lecturing. It seems to me that eye contact is a natural consequence of caring about one’s listeners. In watching the class, I am allowing the students to communicate both their level of understanding and their current affect. If I am uncertain about their current state, then I will probe them.
Often, I will get the sense that some number of students have lost the thread of what we are covering. On such occasions, I will ask everyone to indicate how well they understand the current material on a five-finger scale, one being clueless and five being total comprehension. Another scale that I use a lot is the head nod. I simply ask the class to nod their heads, yes or no, to answer a question such as, “Should I go on? Do I need to go over this again? Are we getting sleepy? Did this example work or do I need to provide another?”
During class, students are attempting to understand what is being presented and at the same time they are trying to get some of the material into their notes. People are not very good at doing two things at once when both tap the same resources, and thus, understanding and note taking typically suffer through their mutual interference. This does not have to happen. Whenever I am presenting something that is new or conceptually difficult, I instruct the students to stop their note taking. I then tell them that I will discuss this material in a couple of different ways until they agree that it is clear, and then I will describe it one more time for their notes. The intent here is obvious. First, the students listen and ask questions until we agree that the material is clear and understood and then they write it in their notes. When I present material that I do not intend to test them on, I tell them that what follows should be of interest given what we have just gone over but that they need not put it into their notes. With a few absolutely essential concepts, I tell them, “Write this down, underline it, and put stars around it. It will be on the test.” Having done this, I make sure that this material is on the test.
Tests. Some number of years ago, it finally dawned on me that the purpose of tests is not to provide a means for distributing students along a grading curve, but rather to structure their studying. Studying can be a terrific learning exercise if students know what to study. I now believe that the best way to engender effective studying is to provide a sample test and a review session that discusses it. I always do this and the review sessions are one of the most intensely informative and satisfying times for both the students and for myself.