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Great teachers, in the eyes of students

Those in the classroom want to be members of a team led by the instructor in a journey of discovery. This is a requisite for improving academic performance

Gulf News

Students and teachers are back in school, after having rested well and recharged their batteries. Everyone is aiming for a successful academic year and resolving to do what is needed to make it a great one. For teachers, particularly younger ones with less experience, the main question is how to do well with students, how to connect with them and entice them to learn, especially when the material is not the most exciting and appealing.

A few months ago, I read an article on a survey that was conducted among 920 students, 70 professors and 10 administrators at four US university business schools. The survey aimed at determining the attributes of great (business) teachers. To do that, it asked the respondents to rate 28 statements on the usual ‘Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree’ scale. Statements included: ‘Achieves a positive rapport with students’; ‘Challenges students to think’; ‘Is well prepared’; ‘Encourages students to excel and set high standards’; etc. I will tell you about the results shortly.

I decided to conduct my own survey among my students, with 25 statements largely inspired from the above study. I also added one short-answer question: Can you briefly describe the main features of a great teacher?

The results were highly interesting — and particularly relevant to educators, parents and policymakers broadly.

The top attributes selected by my students (and ranked second by the US business students) was: ‘Is fair when dealing with students’. Other common top attributes included: ‘Communicates and presents material in a way that is easy to learn’ (second among my students, sixth in the US survey); ‘Creates an atmosphere where students are comfortable asking questions’ (fourth and third, respectively); ‘Is well prepared’ (fifth and seventh, respectively); ‘Is passionate and enthusiastic about teaching and about the subject matter’ (two separate questions, both rated highly).

At the bottom of the list, i.e. the attributes that students considered least important for a great teacher, were: ‘Is an excellent researcher’ and ‘Incorporates research into classroom teaching’. Evidently, students do not see the relevance of their professors’ research in their own learning; perhaps professors have done a poor job at showing them the connection — something to work on, because the connection is (supposed to be) there.

One result that shocked the US surveyors and was largely confirmed by my own survey was that the statement ‘Challenges students to think’, which was ranked second highest by the US professors (as one would expect), was ranked 20th by the US students and 19th by my own students! Do students not want to think?! Do they abhor challenges?! The comments from the short-answer question that I posed to my students actually shed quite a bit of light on various aspects of the topic. Students, it appears, want interaction; they want to feel as partners in the learning process; they want neither to be boringly lectured nor to be “challenged” with questions that they cannot answer. They want to be members of a team led by the teacher in a journey of discovery. This is a requisite for improving students’ academic performance.

‘Accessible, enthusiastic and caring’

Most importantly for the students, a great teacher will respect their personalities and their minds. Students want to feel comfortable with the teacher, encouraged to ask questions of all kinds, not intimidated by the professor’s stature and not kept at arm’s length.

One of my students wrote: “A great teacher respects students, creates a sense of community in the classroom and is accessible, enthusiastic and caring.” He/she added: “A great teacher is an inspirational, skilled leader, who can ‘shift gears’ and is flexible when a lesson isn’t working.”

Several students commented about the teacher’s sincerity in teaching. One wrote: “Sincerity and passion can be sensed instantly by students and these two qualities can make all the difference in transforming young minds and infecting them with a hunger for knowledge.”

Other students insisted on the skills required of a great professor in the process of teaching: “It is not just the knowledge within that makes one a great teacher, but rather its successful transmission to others;” “Always be ready and willing to answer any question raised by the students”; “Encourage students to participate” ...

Some students extended the role of a great teacher beyond the classroom: “Students look up to their professors, hence a great teacher should teach his/her students some things about life and give useful advice that’s relevant outside of the course ...”

Neither survey queried students about humour. In my experience, students want some amount of humour and wit, but not too much. A humourless teacher tends to be dull and makes the course unexciting.

As we embark on a new school year, let us all (teachers, students, administrators, parents, communicators) resolve to work as teams in a community of learners. The journey of discovery should be an endlessly fascinating and exciting ride, one that combines learning with mutual love, respect, encouragement and support.

Have a great year, everybody!


— Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at:

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