The Four Cornerstones of Teaching

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In my first semester as a teaching assistant in the English Department at the University of Houston, I took a course for beginning teachers which asked me to reflect frequently on teaching and learning. That class gave me the chance to begin my teaching career by examining the assumptions I hold about how learning happens and what good teaching looks like. By acknowledging my assumptions, I could look more closely at both my own teaching practice and the wide body of literature on teaching and thoughtfully implement good teaching strategies for my students and myself.

For me, one of the most difficult parts of this process was understanding the ways that I — who chose to devote my life to reading, writing, and learning — was different from my students — who took First Year Writing because of a requirement, not because they enjoyed writing. It is easy  for those of us who have succeeded in college to forget that not all of our students have the same goals, learning styles, and drives that we do (especially when we don’t take the time to acknowledge these factors for ourselves), and when a student’s primary goal is to finish a degree and get a job, her attitude towards learning and motivation is different than for someone like me. By understanding that difference, I am better able to relate to my students, and better able to meet their needs, learning strengths, and individual motivations.

Examining the assumptions we hold about teaching and learning is the beginning of a reflective teaching practice, which I have come to think of as the most important part of teaching. Too often, teachers — especially new teachers — don’t take the time to examine these assumptions and so don’t have  framework for this kind of reflection. This leads to unreflective teaching, and the kind of teacher who may not even realize the problems in his classroom. But doing what has worked for other people and even following “best practices” will only really work when we pause and reflect on how our teaching works for us, with our specific students, in our classrooms/departments, in the various institutional and cultural contexts of our university.

In Rethinking Teaching in Higher Education (2004), Saroyan and Amundsen define these factors — teacher, students, subject, and contexts — as the four commonplaces of teaching. They agree that our assumptions about each of these areas affect everything about our teaching and our students’ learning, and only by examining our assumptions about these four commonplaces can we begin to improve our teaching by moving beyond what we know (or what we think we know), and finding out what works. As we think about the four cornerstones of teaching, it is important to remember that teaching is about more than covering a subject area — it is about covering a subject area so that students learn. While our subject matter certainly impacts our teaching, we have to think about the classroom as a complex intersection of these four commonplaces and reflect frequently on what is working.

Even better than improving teaching by reflecting on these commonplaces, though, is starting new teachers on a path of reflective practice. It was with this goal that the Division of TA Resources hosted its third annual TA orientation. On Thursday, August 23, a group of 150 new teachers from 10 departments gathered for a CTE-sponsored orientation for new TAs at the University of Houston. The new teachers listened to a brief presentation from CTE Director Dr. Dave Mazella and the CTE Division of TA Resources Coordinator Dr. Tamara Fish about Saroyan and Amundsen before discussing their assumptions about the four common places of teaching. Instead of sharing their ideas verbally, the new TAs created a small gallery of observations and thoughtful ideas about the four common places of teaching, and came away from the event with important reflective questions to ask themselves through their teaching careers.

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In considering themselves as teachers, TAs noted that we should “Think about [our] ‘teaching persona’ and how that fits into [our] teaching experience.” Another group suggested that we should remember the kinds of “student-centered” learning experiences student we enjoyed as undergraduates and do our best to create those experiences for our students.

When thinking of their students, TAs know we need to remember that “Cultural Differences may affect how students interpret information. We should be sensitive to this.” Another group noted that the diversity at UH also means that our students will have “different levels of interest, ability, self-discipline, language, etc.” We should remember the differences between ourselves and our students, but also remember the differences between our students — we can help create an environment where students can learn a lot just by interacting with other students with different backgrounds.

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When thinking of their subject matter, TAs noted that it is important to help students understand their course by modeling good thinking and learning, and to set clear expectations in all classroom activities. Another group noted that no matter the subject, “Active engagement and discussion will promote retention of course content.”

About the context of the university of Houston, which certainly includes the diversity noted above, one group reminded us to take into account the parking situation and potential weather and traffic issues specific to our university and our city.

And one group gave us some especially good advice, especially on the first day of classes:

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What are your assumptions about the four cornerstones of teaching? How do those assumptions play out in the classroom?


DTAR Fall orientation, 8-23-12

We had over 150 students and supervisors in attendance yesterday in the Farish Kiva.  Allison Laubach Wright will be providing us with a summary and discussion post soon, but I wanted to thank once again Dr. Tamara Fish, our new TA Coordinator, Bruce Martin, Allison Wright, and members of the UH Rhetoric, Composition, and Pedagogy Colloquium for making this such a successful event, as well as the Provost’s office for their support.


New Graduate and Professional Student Association, with Inaugural Events on Sept. 1 and 6

This message is from De’Awn Bunch, of the Division of Student Affairs. The new GPSA is planning a grad student tailgate (Sept. 1) and reception (Sept. 6).  Please pass this invitation along to all potentially interested graduate students.


In an effort to connect the students within the University’s graduate and professional programs, the Division of Student Affairs has organized the Graduate and Professional Association. The Graduate and Professional Student Association at the University of Houston will aim to provide a community that allows graduate and professional students to collaborate in order to enhance graduate student academic and social student life experiences.

Our goals are to:
* Provide a social network and support group for graduate and professional students
* Connect graduate students with resources and support services
* Build and maintain relationships among graduate students, faculty, and administration at UH
* Foster an environment in which graduate students can freely express their ideas and opinions on current academic and institutional matters
* Provide opportunities for professional development through workshops and seminars

We have planned two events for September and would greatly appreciate you circulating the electronic invite below to any graduate and professional students you may know. Students may RSVP online at Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Best regards,

De’Awn Bunch
Marketing and Communications Manager
Division of Student Affairs

VIA the Teagle Foundation: “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning”

The Teagle Foundation, a group devoted to improving American undergraduate education, held a convening this June on the question of “What works and what matters in student learning?” The page linked here will take you to the President’s opening address, along with summaries of discussion by Ashley Finley, Senior Director of Assessment & Research at the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and Laura Rosenthal, Professor of English at the University of Maryland.

Lots of interesting stuff here, but I’d like to point readers to the three major strategies, or “promising practices,” included in Finley’s essay, linked here: What-works-for-student-learning-Finley:

1. Develop an Organizational Culture that Makes Student Learning a Priority and Emphasizes Community Building in Support of that Commitment.

2. Enable Learning-Centered Environments that Foster Student Learning

3. Develop Better and more Meaningful Assessments to Understand Student Learning

The report discusses each of these points in more detail, but the takeaway for improved student learning is better community-building, learning environments, and assessments.  Take a look.


VIA Inside Higher Ed: The Bitter Reality of MOOConomics (Carlo Salerno)

Once again, in the continuing debate over whether MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) represent a genuine opening towards the future of higher education, economist Carlo Salerno analyzes the business model of these well-publicized courses (an issue we’ve discussed in our workshops and on the blog).  He writes:

Born at two of the nation’s most elite colleges, MOOCs have received an unbelievable amount of news coverage for offering the potential to solve one of the sector’s most nagging problems: how to provide world-class education for practically no consumer cost. The courses provided via MITx and by a handful of Stanford professors have generated considerable publicity, though it’s the recent announcement that Coursera (another Stanford spin-off) has lined up around a dozen elite institutions that will use their platform to offer similarly styled educational offerings that really has folks thinking MOOCs may very well be the answer to our system’s perceived ills.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed
What I find fascinating about Salerno’s take is that he recognizes the same problem with MOOCs as earlier commentators: that even if universities can afford to hand out instructional materials for free (or as free as contingent faculty can make them), they cannot afford to lose selectivity over admissions or control over credentialing, if they are to maintain their institutional prestige and reputation.  These are the precise issues that caused the conflicts at UVA over Pres. Sullivan‘s firing, and they will bedevil any attempt to equate the instruction provided by MOOCs with courses in a degree program.  But the temptation to define higher education down will remain so long as institutions are faced with rising personnel costs and declining state support. We have not heard the end of this.

VIA Faculty Focus: Understanding Adult Learners’ Needs

Though the study that inspired this blog post came from a recent university study in Singapore, it is interesting precisely because it reinforces existing findings from Higher Ed research running from Gamson and Chickering’s famous “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” article (1987) all the way into the present.

In other words, there are no surprises here, but the article does reassure us that adult learners really do value, and need, our efforts to engage and retain them in the classroom through good practice. Here are a sampling of the results from 2700+ adult students’ responses  to a survey. For example:

Engaging Students in Active Learning
A commonly held assumption is that students like to take the easiest routes/short-cuts and prefer to be passive learners. Despite the fact that adult learners are busy individuals, the student feedback suggested that they do want to be engaged in active learning. They wanted their lessons to be interesting, practical and applicable.

Here are some of their suggestions for facilitating engaging lessons:

  • use meaningful and purposeful learning activities
  • ask stimulating questions
  • use appropriate and relevant multimedia tools/technology to engage students
  • incorporate real-life and application-based examples
  • interact with students and effectively manage group discussions

There are also suggestions about posting course readings and lecture notes in advance, and keeping these available throughout the semester.  Asynchronous self-study and review seems particularly important for adult, working students, as are presentation, time-management, and discussion-leading skills.  Well worth checking out, whatever the age of the groups you end up teaching.