Tips for Teaching General Education Courses

Many of you are busy teaching general education courses to students who may feel less than enthusiastic about the subject matter and who may not seem particularly adept at learning material so distant from their area of interest and ability. Here are a couple of basic hints about how to make these courses easier for the student and for you to enjoy. Adapt whatever looks usable for you and ignore the rest. (Creative and selective thievery is always a great technique.)

  1. State your goals often.

    • Why should your students really care about what you are teaching them? Can you explain this in terms that relate to their life? Help them see how this material will be something that they will use in the rest of their life. This needs to be stated often, not just on the first day. If your discipline is a foreign language for them, they may need multiple exposures to its usefulness before they begin to envision it.
  2. Teach the essential minimum.

    • Decide what your non-majors really need to know, what they will really be able to grasp in depth. Always keep this minimum in mind. The temptation is to overload a course with detail and complexity because the basics seem too easy to us, now that we can navigate comfortably in the material. Non-majors will probably get more from the essential minimum with lots of work on application to different situations than from exquisite complexity and detail.
  3. Teach to your students.

    • Of course, as much as possible, know them by name. But also know them as your audience. What do they bring in their skills and in their context that you can build on, connect to, appeal to? And what (cognitively or emotionally) stands in the way of their learning your material? Teaching, like any other form of communication, is profoundly shaped by audience and purpose as well as by “objective” content.
  4. Be enthusiastic and optimistic.

    • Help the outsiders to your discipline to see themselves as eventually able to access this information in practical and/or meaningful ways. These students may appear unwilling, untalented, and uninformed; but at heart they may be discouraged and convinced that they can never access this material. A solid dose of relentless optimism may do much to energize them.
  5. Build a bridge.

    • Since many of your students may think in patterns different from those of your students or of professionals in your field, you may need to make the thinking processes of your discipline more transparent for the student. (i.e. How do historians [philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, etc.] know that what they “know” is true? What questions do they ask of the world? What questions can you ask of their “truths”?

You may never “convert” the mass of your non-majors, but if you help them appreciate the place that your discipline could rightfully have in their life, you will have enriched their life and yours too in the process. You have wonderful treasures to offer their lives and your relentless optimism and untiring enthusiasm will eventually help them access those treasures.