General Teaching Practices

Effective teaching in higher education is open to interpretation, but here we will define “effective” as presented in Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. First, effective professors succeed in helping students learn in ways that make “a sustained, substantial and positive influence on how those students think, act and feel.” These instructors help a wide variety of students succeed, and produce graduates who continue to be interested in the discipline and seek additional learning and understanding. Second, effective professors produce a deep understanding of their discipline in students. In addition to specific knowledge, students should gain skills in critical thinking, problem solving, ethical issues, appropriate methodologies and literacy in their field. Evidence of learning may come from national board exams, or student evaluations, or student success in future work in the discipline.

Given this definition, we are listing resources associated with effective teaching that are particularly useful at large research universities.


Active learning in large lectures

“Active learning” is a term that covers a large number of course activities, but can be generally defined creating a class-time space where as A) students are visibly engaged in learning (reading, talking, writing, calculating, building, collecting data, producing art) and B) students receive feedback in real time (1).

  • A thorough exploration of teaching large lectures well is found in this 26-page outline from the University of Maryland.
  • Purdue has published a 23-page booklet with extensive references listing activities for large lectures, from simple word pairs to collaborative writing. Lots of tech ideas included.
  • A list of class activities is explained at Brown University, including exit tickets, debates, think-pair-share, and minute papers.
  • Is lecturing well a critical part of your discipline? Stanford has resources on effective lecturing.

The flipped (and semi-flipped) classroom

The “flipped” classroom was popularized in the 2010’s, and was embraced by teachers at all grade levels who felt that students spent too much class time listening to lectures and not enough time actively engaged in learning. A “flipped” class requires students to learn some content before class time, either through reading or watching a video. Time spent with the instructor is then more focused on problem-solving, group work, research or writing.

A fully flipped class has moved all lecture to pre-class work, while using class time for activities, content mastery and instructor feedback. But as creating these resources is very time-consuming, it is also possible to only flip portions of a class. Perhaps ten minutes of introductory content can be moved out of lecture each day to provide time for more active learning. Alternatively, carefully curated assigned reading can free up several Fridays to work through a case study or provide extended time for in-class writing.

Effective writing assignments

  • The traditional “big paper at the end of the quarter” is missing the two characteristics that students most need to improve their writing: drafts and feedback. Consider redesigning your writing assignments to encourage shorter but increasingly complex writing. Below we have links that may give you good ideas for your discipline.

Effective group work

  • Student groups have two main benefits: they prepare students for the reality of workplace teams, and they (if managed correctly) can expose students to a diversity of culture, experience and opinion that will help them better understand human diversity. The best group work is carefully structured by the instructor to produce effective learning. Some resources:

Promoting student reading and comprehension

Effectively incorporating class readings requires more than merely assigning them. Four factors have been shown to promote student reading and comprehension: accountability, relevance, instructor guidance, and time management. Consider how you will motivate the assigned readings, equip students to complete the readings, and hold them accountable. Below are some helpful resources:


  • Assignment and Exam Wrappers  are metacognitive exercises that encourage student reflection on study habits and the learning process. A wrapper is a short form that students may complete prior to, in conjunction with, or after an assignment that focuses on how the student prepared for the assignment or examination rather than the content. By identifying their strengths and weaknesses and then figuring out how to improve upon them, students who perform metacognitive practices are more likely to positively alter, monitor, and assess their learning strategies for future assignments and exams.
  • Tips for Professors Interacting with TAs

(1). Definition modified from Olson, Steve, and Donna Gerardi Riordan. “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Report to the President.” Executive Office of the President (2012).