May 18, 2016

Let’s see a show of hands: Are you a great teacher? (hint: you can be)

  • Have you ever felt like not matter how hard you try, the students just aren’t getting it?

  • Have you ever felt like teaching is a constant uphill challenge, that rarely let’s up - and you’re still waiting to see the other side?

  • Have you ever felt like being an “excellent” teacher is somewhere between elusive and impossible?

I am very fortunate to work in our Center for Teaching and Learning, where we receive visitors from universities around the world interested in learning about how we foster teaching excellence at Berkeley. Without exception, they all ask me the same question: “What does great teaching look like at Berkeley?” And, without exception, I offer the same response: “That’s a trick question. There is no one way to be a great teacher at Berkeley.” It’s the truth, but hard for some to accept.

So, if there is no one single way to be a great teacher, and great teaching can look like an infinite number of different things in practice, how does one become great? The answer is surprisingly simple. I’ve spent the last several years developing something I call a Strengths-Based Pedagogy for faculty. This is not the same thing as what many think of as strengths-based learning - where the focus is on teaching to the strengths of the students. Instead, I use Strengths-Based Pedagogy to refer to how instructors draw on their own strengths as teachers to optimize student learning. You become a great teacher when you stop trying to teach a certain way because that’s what someone, or everyone, else does, or because it’s the way you’ve been taught. And, you also become great when you stop trying to teach using the latest and most buzzworthy pedagogy because it’s the latest and most buzzworthy (“Hey, flipped classrooms sound cool, let’s do that!”). All great teachers have one thing in common, they become great (and you will become great, too) when they put student learning and their own natural aptitudes as a teacher first, and use them to guide almost everything that happens as part of a course.


Interested? Here are five steps to begin utilizing a Strengths-Based Pedagogy to leverage your natural aptitudes in your courses and maybe even find yourself more engaged in the teaching and learning process. One caveat, not everything you do has to be a strength, or can be a strength. This is about identifying places and spaces in your course/s where you can better leverage strengths, and therefore minimize weaknesses.

  1. When do you do your best teaching? It could be delivering an inspiring and engaging lecture, facilitating a class-wide discussion or small group/seminar discussion, working with students one-on-one in office hours, conversing with students on the walk back to your office after class, or anything in between. Take a few minutes to reflect and name it/them.

  2. Identify an area in which you’ve struggled as a teacher and students have struggled as learners for a previous, current or future course. Articulate your desired student end-point (at course, unit, or individual session level) that was not reached. For example, “Students always seem to have difficulty grasping how to use x concepts and draw on y skills to solve z problems - no matter how many times I go over it.”

  3. In order to achieve the end-point, what must students know and/or do? Utilize Bloom’s Taxonomy as a tool to help articulate the desired student learning end-point. Here, it’s all about the verbs you use - they will play a very important role in steps 4 and 5, so choose accurately and wisely: “Students should be able to solve z problems and provide an appropriate rationale for the solution.” (Both verbs are at the high/est levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which naturally prescribe certain pedagogies).

  4. What learning experiences logically follow? Based on what students must know and/or do to achieve the end-point, use the verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy to create a weighted list of learning experiences that could be used to facilitate the desired student outcome/s. If it is to solve and provide a rationale for something, you might engage students in these pedagogies (in weighted order): direct problem solving in groups, discussion/debate, presentations, and some lecture to preview/review, offer examples, or outline processes.

  5. Where possible, prioritize the learning experiences that align with your strengths for your direct work with students, and move other learning experiences to indirect work with students. For example, if you excel when teaching students as they do problem solving, then that should ideally be what you spend the majority of time doing with them directly (either one-on-one, or in groups, depending on class size). Topic introductions and content should ideally be delivered indirectly as much as possible (e.g., via homework readings, recorded video lecture, and perhaps supplemented with a micro-lecture to bookend the problem solving bulk of the class session). The purpose is not to completely avoid certain learning experiences the students need just because the pedagogy that aligns isn’t your strength. Instead, you’re aiming to utilize your strengths more when working with students directly, and leveraging indirect instruction for other pedagogies whenever possible. This is how you maximize student learning by optimizing your strengths when teaching a class.

Here’s your homework: Choose one desired student learning endpoint, then match it with its corresponding “what students must know/do” and the learning experience/s that follow. Create a NEW or amended concept for the implementation of the strengths-based approach for yourself in this specific instance. Based on your identified strengths and the chosen end-point, how might you teach/engage students in learning that better moves them towards that end-point? This is particularly helpful in areas where you are typically dissatisfied with student learning and/or feel a great sense of discomfort with the pedagogy typically used.

*Need help leveraging your strengths when teaching a class? Contact us in the Center for Teaching and Learning to schedule a teaching consultation ( We’re here to help!