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Category: Course-Specific Strategies

This particular list was compiled from the responses of more than 700 first-year college students taking courses enrolling 150 or more students. They were asked to answer this prompt: “In your opinion, what is the biggest mistake college instructors make in the classroom?” There aren't a lot of surprises in their responses, but the list serves as a reminder that some teacher actions compromise student efforts to learn.

  1. Lack of engagement—It came in at number one on the list, generating the most student responses. Students commented that lectures were boring and that teachers talked “at us instead of to us.” (p. 37) Teachers failed to communicate the relevance of the material and did not appear interested in the content. “Instructors should recognize the importance of being personally vested in the content they are teaching.” (p. 37) Repeatedly teaching those courses taken by beginning students can sap teacher energy. It's hard to be engaged with material that's already been taught many times before. Nonetheless, for the beginning student the material is new, and the instructor's engagement with it can be a powerful driver of learning.

  2. Faculty assumptions related to students—The primary issue here, according to these students, was how much instructors were assuming students knew about the material. Study authors recommend that instructors collect information from students regarding their prior knowledge. Sometimes instructors confuse what they think students should know with what students actually know or think they don't know.

  3. Incomplete explanations—Not unrelated to assumptions about prior knowledge, the problem here is that students don't think instructors are offering as detailed explanations as they ought to be giving students. They want all the details and in language they can understand. Their objections to instructor explanations extended to assignment expectations. Students wanted detailed instructions for assignments.

  4. Flawed delivery—Mechanical aspects of delivery such as not speaking loudly enough, not using microphones when they're needed, not offering visuals with large enough print, and speaking in a monotone make it hard for students to get and attend to course content. The good news for instructors is that errors like these are easily repaired.

  5. Pedagogical errors—This rather catchall category contained issues related “to the structure of the classroom climate, teaching processes, preparation and organization, and managing the classroom.” (p. 42) There were specific objections to being called on and to instructors who ignored students talking among themselves, making it difficult for others to hear. The authors recommend a version of the golden rule: “Treating students with the same level of respect that instructors expect may provide returns of increased student learning.” (p. 43) It also helps to create a classroom climate where students show respect for the learning of others.

  6. Inappropriate pace—These students objected when teachers went too fast or too slow. There were more complaints about instructors going too fast. Slides whiz by with students unable to copy their contents or listen to what the teacher is saying while they are trying to copy the material. Students process information at different rates, so it is impossible to find a pace that pleases everyone, but if a large number of students are having trouble keeping up, instructors do need to adjust the pace.

  7. Evaluation errors—What ends up being on the exam is not what was covered in class, according to students who listed this mistake. Some students also objected to grades determined only by exams, and some complained that they didn't get prompt feedback on assignments.

  8. Confusing information—These students reported being confused when instructors went off on tangents discussing contents students did not see as relevant to the course. In some cases the content seemed inconsistent to students. What were they supposed to learn and know for the exam?

  9. Ineffective use of teaching and learning technology—Most often the reference here was to the use of PowerPoint. Instructors “stare at the screen and read notes” and “put too much information on a slide and then read it all.” (p. 47) Good technology needs to support instruction, not get in the way of learning. However, improving the use of PowerPoint slides is another easy teaching fix, to say nothing of the many other technology options.

  10. No mistakes—Yes, there was a sample of students in this study who said their instructors did not make any big mistakes. That's the good news—less impressive was the fact that only 5 percent of the cohort offered this assessment of their teachers, although the prompt they responded to assumed that mistakes were being made.

The issue here is not the accuracy of these student perceptions. Some of their assessments do indicate confusion as to the aims of education and goals of instructors. Students may want detailed instructions outlining every aspect of an assignment, but they also need to be able to make some of those decisions on their own. The same applies to the amount of explanations instructors should give. The real value of a list like this is that it identifies those places where teachers need to help students understand who's responsible for what in the teaching-learning process.

The most compelling point of the list is how it highlights the important role of instructor engagement in student learning. Students, especially beginning ones, identify with their teachers as people and if that teacher-person doesn't appear interested in the content or doesn't seem to care about teaching, learning, or students, that's the emotional equivalent of a cold shower to many students.

Reference: Richards, K. A. R., and Velasquez, J. D. (2014). First-year students' perceptions of instruction in large lectures: The top-10 mistakes made by instructors. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 25 (2), 25-55.