The Four Cornerstones of Teaching

2012-08-23 13.02.28

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.

2012-08-23 13.12.372012-08-23 14.05.26

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.

2012-08-27 09.05.25

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:

2012-08-27 09.05.04

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.


Please consider attending the UH Graduate Student Literature Conference, March 31st

Student Literature Conference Saturday 31 March 2012, 8:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

[Note: a number of CTE members, including Bruce Martin, Allison Wright, and others, are involved with this event]

Between the recession, partisan rhetoric about class war, and the current Occupy movement, class has moved to the forefront of American political consciousness. Class is also something we can’t avoid in the academy–whether we’re talking about the relative place of men and women (Schell); WPAs, professors, and TAs (Bousquet, Scott); literature and composition (Miller); the university and the community (Mathieu); undergraduate students; or the literary canon and authors that we study. This is a kairotic moment to reexamine our assumptions about class and look more deeply at the class implications in our literature, our languages, our classrooms, and our communities.

Fifteen panels of student presentations, in English and Spanish, with Keynote Speaker Dr. Rosemary Hennessy from Rice University’s Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality as the keynote speaker.

Free breakfast and lunch for those who pre-register before 25 March.

Information and registration can be found at


Midterm Course Correction (conference TA panel), Oct. 14. 2011

Despite the fact that I look forward to the fall in Houston–that giddy thrill that comes the first time I step outside in the morning and have to race back inside for a sweater–I always dread this time of year: the middle of the semester.

Every year, I tell myself that this semester I’ll be ready for the inevitable rush. This semester I’ll plan ahead. This semester I won’t take up papers when I know I’ll have papers due in my own classes. But this semester, just like every semester, I’ve got a stack of grading in addition to my own work, and because it’s the fall, this semester, I don’t have a week-long break to give me time to catch up.

And I know it’s just as bad for my students, who are mostly freshmen adjusting to college coursework in addition to balancing their own family obligations and jobs. With this kind of stress, for both me and my students, it’s easy to see why disengagement grows this time of year. Students who have been performing very well are overtaxed, and their preparation for class slides downhill along with their daily grades.

Dealing with the middle of the semester is difficult. As we were reminded at the UH CTE Teaching Conference Panel on “Mid-semester Course Correction” on October 14, the middle of the semester is a time when it’s important to keep your head on straight–setting clear, achievable goals to make sure you get everything done. It’s a time to rededicate yourself to staying healthy for the push to the end of the semester. And it’s a time to reflect on what’s going well and what could be going better in the classroom.

Maybe you’ve reached the middle of the semester only to realize that your students don’t know as much as they should. Maybe your students seem to be disengaging, coming to class unprepared, or even not coming to class. Maybe you’re all bored with the same-old learning activities. Below are some of the strategies we talked about with TAs Geneva Canino (English), Al Bernard (Atmospheric and Earth Sciences), Chris Nicholson (Political Science), and Veronica Sanchez (Atmospheric and Earth Sciences), along with moderator Dr. James Lang (On Course).

Some strategies we discussed for when your classroom needs a little kick, or even a complete overhaul:

  • Introduce activities that engage students in different ways. For example, try kinesthetic activities instead of lecture and writing.
  • Don’t be afraid to go back over “old” material if your students don’t seem to be getting it. If you TA for a professor who doesn’t want to change the syllabus, tell him or her about the problems you’re seeing and see if you can’t address them in labs or discussion sections. As Dr. Lang reminded us, there’s little point in going forward over new material when the knowledge foundations are shaky.
  • Try some activities that invite easy grading (that can be done in a few minutes right after class) or that get students to grade their own or each other’s work. In-class grading has the added benefit of introducing time to discuss mistakes that might otherwise be forgotten.
  • Remember that studies have proven than minimal feedback, especially on writing assignments, is the most useful. You’ll save time by only writing down two or three things to improve on, and students will get more out of your more focused comments.
  • Hand out a simple mid-semester evaluation that asks students to evaluate and reflect on their learning over the semester–this can help you as you make changes, and can also inspire students to make changes to their own learning habits. Dr. Lang suggested three simple questions for a midterm evaluation: 1) How are you doing in this class? 2) What could you be doing to improve your learning? 3) What could I be doing to help improve your learning?
  • If you can adjust your syllabus so that you’re only taking up assignments when you have time to deliver prompt feedback, both you and your students will be better for it. Remember that the more time passes between an assignment and your feedback, the less valuable your comments become.
  • Finally, remember that taking time to do things you enjoy isn’t a waste of time–it’s necessary for your health.

What are your strategies for handling the stresses of the middle of the semester?

Allison Laubach Wright