Merle’s Seven Highly Applicable Steps to Better Teaching and Team Teaching

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Have you ever found yourself in a teaching situation which was more uncomfortable than comfortable? And, related, I’ll bet you learned a lot from that uncomfortable situation.

It is amazing how much I found out about myself in 2012, working through my first team-teaching opportunities. In so many ways, they were amazing experiences. Working with highly-regarded scholars from four distinct disciplines so different from my own (a hydrologist, a soil scientist, a geographer, and a wildlife biologist), I spent months immersed in ideas and practices that just had not come up, in my work or training as a historian.

I should clarify: I did not teach with four other people at the same time. I co-taught a course on Data Analysis and Management with three other people last spring; I co-taught a course on Human Dimensions of Environmental Change with one other person last fall. Total: four. And, these were not co-taught courses where we traded off (you take weeks one through four; I’ll take weeks five through eight). We were all in the classroom, all the time.

What I learned were lessons about the process of teaching, and teaching well. I’ve thought long and hard about some really basic issues, some of which occurred to me during these experiences; others, as part of my overall preferences as a professor. Here is Merle’s Seven Highly Applicable Steps to (Hopefully) Better Teaching and Team Teaching:

“Leaving on our three day experiential trip”

1. Make sure that each member of the team shares the same vision for the purpose of the class. A good way to do this is to build backwards. Adapting old syllabuses from when the course was taught the year before might seem easy, but I promise you, this avenue is extremely problematic. Get together with your co-teacher(s). Decide the purpose of the class, then decide what skills/attributes you hope students will gain. From there, choose appropriate assignments. Without a central vision, each instructor tends to focus on his or her own area of expertise and there might be a lack of co-ordinating purpose or goals or even ideas on ‘what the students should be learning’ that conflicts or is widely dissimilar.

2. Team teaching requires a major investment in co-ordination. Specifically, the team needs to decide who will be the major point of contact for the students (for announcements), how much and when to use on-line communication, how to handle adversity, and how marking rubrics are interpreted. Thankfully, the last was not an issue — we marked quite similarly — but I know that those can be sticky issues, particularly cross-disciplinary teams. Rubrics can also be tricky for students. In the human dimensions course, where we gave the rubric in the syllabus, students tried to write to satisfy the rubric instead of answering the assignment questions. It was a problem of fit – an older rubric for a new assignment.

3. Go visit the classroom. Have it changed if necessary, before you start. The classroom really matters. I do not like classrooms without windows. I do not like classrooms where the students face the instructor — certainly not for a graduate level seminar, as these classes were. I prefer round table discussion groups and will try to find classrooms that suit these requirements.

4. The first day is incredibly important. When I teach a course myself, I set aside the first day, or a large chunk of it, for a deep investigation of the class, its purpose, and the syllabus. I also like to get to know the students. This is difficult in a first or second year survey course, but easy in a graduate seminar — and critical. What is the background of each student? What are their expectations for the course? What skills are they bringing in, and how can these be shared amongst their classmates? What new skills are they looking to learn? We asked the students in the human dimensions course to provide reflective autobiographies related to environment and sustainability – these were illuminating.

5. Every time I teach, I’m a learner. One of the students was surprised when I said this. He said, ‘but I consider you the expert. What can you learn from us?’ I remember a professor once said to me, early in my grad school days, that you can only write a book about something once you’ve taught it for many years. The point is, you learn a subject more deeply, broadly, and unexpectedly when you teach it. Learning is active, while teaching is a tool. And every time I work with students I learn. I learn content because in explaining it in new ways, I look at it differently and learn it all over again. But more importantly, when I teach, I learn about people skills, what makes a good and bad assignment, how to mark effectively, how to identify plagiarism, how to encourage good writing, how to develop a student’s skills, and how to be organized. The last one is my bugaboo, but I’m improving.

6. Hold debriefing sessions after each and every class to discuss how the class is going and what the team as a whole, and each member, can do to contribute to the overall success of the class. Co-teaching is a larger time commitment than teaching on your own – you have to constantly co-ordinate, plan, back check, and cross check with your team to make sure everyone is happy to follow the path.

7. Find a mentor. In the human dimensions class, we were supported in our team-teaching journey by a superb mentor from the University of Saskatchewan’s Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness. Sheryl Mills was amazing. Find a Sheryl Mills, I implore you. At least, find and read a lot of the great and growing information on the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is as important, if not more important depending on your position or goals, to become a better teacher in all University environments.


Merle Massie is a writer and historian, and a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. Find her blog at:

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Merle Massie

Adjunct Professor at University of Saskatchewan
A writer, editor, historian, and farmer in west central Saskatchewan. Avid social media fan, cloud watcher, snow shovel wielder, reader.

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