Summer is a great time for reflection. Most faculty are on nine-month contracts, which somewhat reduces what they have to do (though not what they want or need to do). Often, and especially if you are someone with a heavy teaching load during the academic year, you take some time off from thinking about teaching. But breaks may be one of the best times to think about teaching. The reduction in emails to deal with and memories of semesters concluded and evaluations read provide an ideal time to cogitate on times ahead. What is good fodder for reflection? One good candidate is what you want to accomplish as a teacher.
Most readers will want to be effective teachers. I addressed ways to evaluate teaching in a previous piece and will provide more in later ones, but this summer I urge us to go even further. When I think about what kind of teacher I want to be, I am reminded of a student comment I received. The student did not earn a high grade, had difficulty submitting assignments on time, and tended to sit in class (when they could attend) with a frown on their face. At the end of the term, this same student, whom I feared I had not managed to reach, said something that gave me a new goal as a teacher. They told me that even though they struggled and had a lot going on in life, I had motivated them to work hard at the material even when they thought they could not. I realized that this is an important attribute and a superordinate goal that may make all the difference. Let’s aim to inspire.
Being inspiring is difficult when you are battered by two-plus years of a pandemic. Being inspiring is tough when you have many classes to teach and students seem less prepared (perhaps the pandemic again here) than they were before. The data bears this out. A large survey of faculty from over 1,500 higher education institutions suggests that inspiring and motivating students was a significant challenge during the pandemic (Fox et al., 2020). A comparable survey of over 1,000 students shows that students had significant motivation problems during the same time (Means et al., 2020). As part of the higher education community, we may have overlooked a key affordance of educators.
So what can we do to be inspiring? First, we need to fact an important reality: teaching must be more than simply delivering content. There are many different elements to what constitutes effective instruction and clear model teacher criteria available to guide you that goes beyond content (e.g., varying instructional methods to increase active learning). Attention needs to be paid to engaging our students and building community. During the pandemic there were many criticisms of emergency remote teaching and remote teaching in general, but the same critiques can apply to all forms of instruction, whether face-to-face or online. Students faced significant challenges over the past few years because of challenges with equitable internet access, stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, unstable living conditions, and existing mental and physical health issues. What many forget is that too many of our students always face these challenges, regardless of delivery method and pandemics. Faculty have faced these challenges too. Our students can do with inspiration, and we can provide it.
How do we do this? One key way is to look at factors that relate to motivation. A recent study of learning during the pandemic highlights a major factor influencing student learning: self-efficacy (Gurung & Stone, 2022). Students who felt they could perform well in any modality performed better on objective exams. Inspiring students to learn can start by increasing students’ beliefs in themselves and their ability to succeed. Teachers can inspire students to work harder and can make them more likely to believe in themselves. This resonates with Kevin Gannon’s (2020) recent call for educators to provide radical hope and moves education closer to an ideal collaboration between faculty and students.
There are other important subcomponents of inspiration. Inspiring educators have students who have better classroom experiences and classes characterized by six factors: compassion, clarity, organization, multi-facetedness, flexibility, and engagement (for more details on each, see Gurung, 2021). These six factors provide a prescription for inspiring teaching going forward, nicely echoing evidence-based practices. These factors—especially being flexible, clear, and organized and providing many ways for students to learn and show their learning—all also nicely increase motivation (Sviniciki, 2004).
While good pedagogical training and reading a good teaching guide can foster many of these factors, it is difficult being compassionate and inspiring if you are exhausted. Especially as we look at a good chunk of summer spreading out before us, we should focus on what will help US thrive. To thrive in higher education, we have to find a way to balance all the different demands on our lives. For those of us at teaching-intensive universities with bigger course loads, the challenges of large numbers of students and great service requirements with the need to do research can be numbing even without a pandemic (Ansburg et al., 2022). One key way to thrive is to make sure we have the bandwidth to engage in both what we have to do and what we want to do. Often this means finding ways to be efficient so that the many things we have to do don’t soak up all our time (see Stachowiak, 2020, for great tips).
In summary, it is also important to force ourselves to take time to recharge, and this midpoint of the summer is a great time to do so. When you thrive, you are more likely to inspire, and you and your students benefit.
Ansburg, P., Basham, M., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2022). Thriving in academia: The complete guide to a teaching focused career. American Psychological Association.
Fox, K., Bryant, G., Lin, N., & Srinivasan, N. (2020, July 8). Time for Class – COVID-19 Edition Part 1: A National Survey of Faculty during COVID-19. Tyton Partners and Every Learner Everywhere. www.everylearnereverywhere.org/resources
Gannon, K. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. West Virginia University Press.
Gurung, R. A. R. (2021). Inspire to learn and be CCOMFE doing it. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 62(4), 348–351. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000277
Gurung, R. A. R., & Stone, A. M. (2020). You can’t always get what you want and it hurts: Learning during the pandemic. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000236
Means, B., Neisler, J., with Langer Research Associates. (2020). Suddenly online: A national survey of undergraduates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital Promise. https://elestage.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/Suddenly-Online_DP_FINAL.pdf
Stachowiak, B. (2020). The productive online and offline professor: A practical guide. Stylus.
Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Anker.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.