In last week's article we discussed the paper by Captain Quentin Cox, Senior Lecturer at Warsash Maritime Academy, which asked whether maritime instructors should be required to take training on effective teaching and assessment techniques. That article generated a tremendous amount of discussion on the MET group and elsewhere on LinkedIn (by the way, if you have not already done so and would like to receive e-mail notifications about future articles, please click here). The opinions expressed about that article ranged across the entire spectrum. On one end, some argued that the industry is over-regulated and favored allowing market forces to dictate instructor training requirements. On the other end, people felt that the quality of training was critical to the success of the maritime industry and therefore instructor training should be better defined and mandated. Despite the diversity of opinion on the subject, there was little debate about the positive impact training can have for instructors in making them better maritime teachers and assessors.
As a former faculty member at a large university, I have attended many seminars designed to help me teach more effectively and have received many bits of good advice on the subject. Whether or not this has made me a good instructor I'll leave to my past students to comment on. However, I have picked up some excellent advice from outstanding instructors along the way, and in this article I'd like to share a bit of that advice with you. I encourage all of you to do the same. Talk about teaching. Talk about the techniques that work for you. Talk about what you've found to be effective and what your students have responded to. Because the truth is that with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of passion, we can all become better instructors. So let me start the ball rolling by sharing a bit of knowledge I've gained on techniques which I feel have improved me as an instructor.
Tip 1: Listen before you talk
When training a new group of learners, before launching into training activities, I have always found it very important to get to know them just a bit. This is partly to break the ice and create a comfortable atmosphere, but mostly to find out what they know and what they don't know. This is critical information in pacing your training and adapting it to the existing knowledge (or lack thereof) that the current group of trainees has. I ask questions about their backgrounds. I ask them to tell me a bit about their experience with some of the topics at hand to see where they are on the subject. When one trainee offers his or her answers, ask the others to see if they share the same knowledge and experience. Be sure to acknowledge what they know and what they have yet to learn. This helps them understand that the training is about them and about their needs - not yours, and that you understand and will accommodate them as individuals. The same technique of listening before you talk should be employed every time a new topic is about to be covered.
I have found that these conversations give me a good idea of where each trainee is on the subject, and will allow me to accommodate each of them. It enables me to ask the more experienced or knowledgeable students to provide their perspective for the others to learn from. It helps me create compatible groups for group exercises. And it helps me get to know each of them a bit to make the connection more personal. Moreover, I simply find it very enjoyable to connect with each of my students this way.
Tip 2: You've listened, now it's OK to talk (a bit)
Despite what many people say, I do not believe lectures are inherently evil. But there are a few qualities that every good lecture possesses. For example, lectures need to be engaging, they need to be relevant, and they need to be delivered with passion for the subject. They also need to be brief, and mixed in with other complementary learning activities. Most importantly, there are two parts to every great lecture - "what" and "why". Everyone delivers the "what". Many people miss the "why". This is a mistake.
When I lecture, I try to make absolutely sure that every bit of knowledge I convey is presented along with an argument about why it is relevant to the learners in their professional lives. I might present all the information a person may need, but if it is not clear to them why they would care about that information, most of it will be ignored. On the other hand, if they truly believe the information is important to their daily lives as mariners, I have found that students will listen (and therefore learn) with intensity.
The point here is to motivate your learners. Motivation is a powerful catalyst to learning and is directly correlated with how well people learn. Although some trainees will arrive pre-equipped with motivation to learn, most will not. They will be there because they are required to take a course to maintain a certification or to fulfil a job requirement. But the truth is that most of what you are teach actually is very relevant to their work - they just need someone (you) to connect the dots for them. As their instructor I feel as though I am doing only half of the job by conveying the information. The other half is to ensure they know WHY that information is important. Simple, but powerful.
Tip 3: You've started lecturing, now stop!
People learn much better when different techniques are combined in training. Lecturing alone will never be as successful as lecturing combined with exercises, discussions and demonstrations.
When I teach, I always ask one or more students to come up to the front and demonstrate some concept that we are covering. This has the effect of engaging the students (even those who are not currently performing the demonstration), It helps me assess what they know and don't know, and helps me understand how effectively the students have learned the knowledge or skill.
In my teaching I always ask the class question after question - far more than they ever ask of me. This is used as a stimulus for discussion and as an additional way to determine how effectively the students are learning. It also engages the class and, frankly, makes it a much more interesting experience for both myself and the students. By asking the right questions I can also help lead the students to discover why the topic is important for them to know. In fact, asking "why is this important" is a great way to begin a discussion.
I am also very fond of performing demonstrations wherever possible. In computer science (my discipline) this typically means physically acting out the steps of some algorithm or disassembling various pieces of hardware and passing them around the class. After all - who doesn't love seeing the inside of a machine which is usually closed to them. This is engaging, makes their learning relevant and real, and gives them "memory tags" to which their knowledge can be attached, thus improving their retention.
Tip 4: Be a story teller
You have experience your students care about. Share it with them. Tell them stories from your own maritime experience that everyone can learn from. People crave of real-world stories. They will be engaged listeners, and they will easily draw lessons from the stories almost as well as if your experiences were their own. If your stories are well chosen, they will always illustrate why the topic being presented has been important to you as a mariner. Stories are powerful learning tools and if you think about it, you'll realize you have many to share.
Stories don't always have to be your own. Another powerful teaching tool is the presentation and analysis of disasters. These can help increase motivation by illustrating how knowledge can save lives. In my case, I use to teach a software engineering class which had a section on safety-critical systems (software systems which, if they failed, could result in loss of life). My lectures described the techniques we use to build and test these important systems. In these classes I would always include video case studies of tragic accidents which were caused by programming errors. These made the consequences of programming errors real in a way that no amount of explanation ever could.
Tip 5: The tip of all tips
As a parent, I have always known that I will be imperfect (I realize we are talking about teaching - go with me on this). I will make parenting mistakes which will have negative effects on my children. I try not to, but I know I will. However, I have always felt that despite whatever mistakes I will inadvertently inflict upon my girls, if I always make sure they know how loved they are, then this will overcome almost any mistake I can make. I believe that there is a parallel in teaching.
As an instructor, I am also sure I will make mistakes and will be imperfect. Maybe I will go too fast, not be as prepared as I could be, or present a topic in a way that tends to confuse. However, I believe that if I always express my passion for the topic I am teaching, it will diminish the effect of all the mistakes I am sure to make. Passion for the subject being taught is an attribute of every great teacher. And I would argue that one cannot be a great teacher without it. I'd even go one step further to say that if you do not have passion for a subject, it is probably best that you do not teach it. Teach the stuff you love, and stay away from the rest.
Passion is contagious. If you truly have love for the topic you are teaching, I assure you, it will come out in your teaching. It will come out in your words, in the way you talk, in how you interact with your students, and in how you tell your stories. You passion will become your student's passion, and they will, indeed, learn from you - both the information and the passion for it. Of course the opposite is also true. If you find the course topic uninteresting, I guarantee that your students will learn that from you as well.
We have all heard the opinion that great trainers are born, and that no amount of training can make a great trainer out of one born mediocre. I actually think there is some truth to that, but I would present it somewhat differently. I believe that some people have great love for a subject - and those people are often great teachers simply because they possess that passion. Likewise, without passion for a topic, no amount of training can make an instructor great. However, instructor training can make a good instructor better, and a passionate instructor a master teacher.