While completing the coursework for my master’s degree from Harvard’s Extension School, I was very impressed with the quality of the teachers. It is easy to find experts, but finding an expert who is truly skilled at teaching is much more difficult. In the vast majority of my classes the teachers were very good–not just at their subject matter, but also at conveying that subject to others.
How do you recognize a good teacher? For me the hallmark of someone skilled at teaching is their ability to consistently take students beyond their capabilities. This was my experience at HES. At the beginning of a semester I’d look at the final projects listed in the syllabus. Usually these seemed so far out of reach that often I considered dropping the class.
The immediate problem sets seemed out of reach as well, but not completely out of the range of possibility. With a bit of hard work I was always able to complete the first assigned project. This type of experience builds a strong trust between the teacher and student. This trust is vital in getting maximum performance from a student.
Students that trust their teacher in this manner are willing to take a leap of faith and give 100% toward a project because they have the foundation that says: “Even if I don’t think I can do this, my teacher does and he/she has always been right in the past.”
This type of trust is even more important in online classes where there is less human interaction. A great deal of the complaints I’ve seen about online education from other institutions comes down to the fact that the students don’t trust the teacher to be skilled at teaching.
To some extent an extremely motivated student can push through in spite of a bad teacher. On the other hand, tackling a tricky problem with confidence gives a completely different experience than launching into an undertaking where you expect to fail. The brain isn’t wired to try to do succeed at stuff where failure is the expected outcome. The mental overhead of pursuing a lost cause is much greater than what goes into a task that is approached with optimism.