August 17, 2015—For some years I worked with a group of teachers who were motivated, and committed, to improving their courses and their classroom teaching performance. These teachers had been in a teacher in-service seminar I gave some years previously (almost a decade previously!). It was one of those rare experiences when everything seemed to click: the right people in the same room at the same time sharing the same interest and serendipitously finding the right learning experience. A small group from this seminar continued to pursue their work of becoming excellent teachers, and it was very gratifying to see.
Over the years this group of teachers discovered ways to develop their “killer courses.” These are courses that were extraordinary in their effectiveness, and were not only fun to teach, but became recognized as “must take” courses through the student grapevine. Each of those killer courses was unique to the teacher, of course. Teaching is more art than science, and there are some things you just can’t package. But over the years we developed a formula for creating a killer course based on sound educational principles.
In case you want to develop your own killer course, here are the ingredients of the formula:
1. Don’t separate knowing from finding out. Learning is a process and the key to helping students is to not deny them the process of learning. That may sound obvious, but it doesn’t seem to translate to many teaching practices. Too many teachers still use the “teaching-by-telling” approach in their classrooms, the primary characteristic of which is that the teacher spends most of the time lecturing and “telling” students what they are supposed to learn. But teaching-by-telling doesn’t work because it does the students’ thinking for them. Just because you, as the teacher know and understand something does not mean your students will also just because you explain it to them. The best way to help your students learn is to provide the environment, process (experience), resources, and structure for them to find out for themselves. Student are notoriously good at mimicking a teacher’s “explanation” (they can be adept test-takers), but that is different from actually understanding or comprehending the matter.
2. Get students engaged in the learning process. My golden rule for successful teaching is, “Never work harder than your students.” So, stop doing all the work and get your students engaged in all facets of the course learning experience, from setting down learning objectives to engaging in assessment. The process of learning is experiential. For a killer course, create the kinds of student learning experiences that will yield meaningful learning.
3. Insist on clear and accurate evidence of learning from students. Whether it is in the use of language (terms, concepts, definitions, writing), answers on an exam, or the production of products, artifacts, or projects, effective teachers insist on clear and accurate expression. This is one of the quickest ways to uncover and correct misunderstandings and to foster critical thinking. The practice that was most helpful to the groups of killer-course-creating teachers was the crafting of thoughtful, elegant, and rigorous learning-assessment rubrics.
4. Practice collaboration. Learning is a social enterprise, and we must create ways for that reality to be a truth in our classrooms. Use a team-oriented approach to projects, small groups for dialogue and problem-solving, task groups for creating products, group presentations, study groups for learning, etc. One added benefit to collaborative learning experiences is that you facilitate soliciting self-awareness on the part of students. It is worth noting that part of what enabled these teachers to get highly skilled in creating killer courses is that they themselves were collaborating with others in their process of gaining knowledge and skills toward that end.
5. Foster freedom and aesthetic in the learning experience. Fostering freedom means not only empowering students to learn, but making them responsible for their own learning. Students are the agents of their own learning. Fostering freedom also means giving expansive permission to experiment, explore, and, fail in the process. But failure is not evidence of a failure to learn—often, the most important insights and lessons are learned from having tried and failed, and understanding why one failed so as to avoid future errors. Attention to the aesthetic addresses the affect, and there’s no learning if we don’t engage the emotions. The aesthetic cultivates appreciation, and, a sense of the beauty facilitates discernment.
So, now you have the formula for creating a killer course. Are you ready to create your own killer course?
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).