Deborah Turner, associate professor of Accounting at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, knows teaching. She’s been doing it for 39 years. For Turner, teaching seems to be an art form as much as it is a discipline. She has been recognized for her dedication to the craft, receiving dozens of teaching awards during her time at Scheller.
Turner’s teaching expertise is storied at Scheller. Many seasoned faculty members have, at one time or another, found themselves in her office seeking advice over topics like fostering student connection, GPA distributions, or working with academic advisors.
Turner joined new and early Scheller College faculty members in a workshop designed by Morvarid Rahmani, associate professor of Operations Management, and Dong Liu, professor of Organizational Behavior. Liu hoped the workshop's learnings would trickle down to the student experience.
“I believe that through this workshop, faculty members can become better prepared and connected with various resources for their career development,” Liu shared. “That includes research, teaching and service. In the near future, the workshop should have a very positive impact on the quality of education our faculty members provide to students.”
Turner’s seven tips for teaching success are sure to educate and empower new and experienced teachers alike.
1. Let Your Students Get to Know You
Though Turner has won many teaching awards, she doesn’t necessarily see herself as the best instructor. The key to teaching is having a great relationship with your students. That great relationship begins when you let students get to know you.
Students enter your classroom with very little knowledge about you; many are there because your course is required for graduation. Turner begins each semester’s course sharing something about herself. She shares a bit about her professional career, including the courses she has taught (which is just about everything), and then hooks them with a fun fact, something interesting or downright funny that shows she is real and approachable.
2. Get to Know Your Students
There is something powerful about hearing someone speak your name. Turner determines to know each of her students by name. This past semester, that was 220 students. Sheer willpower isn’t enough to learn the names and faces of her students. Instead, Turner depends on name tents. She has each student make a name tent the first day of class, keeping it simple with cardstock and markers. Turner asks them to write the phonetic spelling of their name, and she practices it, insisting that the students tell her if she is not saying their name right.
Then, she pays attention to where they sit, the color of their hair, and any other identifiers that can be tied to their name. While she teaches, Turner is constantly glancing at her students, connecting name to face, name to face.
But she doesn’t stop at matching names with faces. She tries her best to get to know a bit more about them. “I want the students to introduce themselves to me,” Turner shared. “I do a self-introduction survey, because usually the class size is too large to go around to each student. In this way, I gather other information about them. For the Evening MBA students, it’s what position and what company they work for. Then I’ll let them know I am going to incorporate that into my examples. I’m setting the stage for connection.”
3. Learn From How It’s Been Done Before
Preparing a class from scratch is a lot of work. Most classes you teach will have flexibility so you can craft a course with the content you feel is most important. But don’t try to do it alone. Before you begin mapping out your semester, consult anyone who has taught the class before you.
You can look over the way they structured lectures, assignments, group projects, and final exams. How did they weigh the coursework? What content did they emphasize and how did they get students to show their mastery of it? Look over their syllabus and use it to build your own.
4. Craft a Watertight Syllabus
Your syllabus should cover everything that you don’t want to be called out on later. Turner’s syllabi set the stage for expectations, some of which are rather unconventional, like her no laptop policy. She includes anything and everything she can think of, with explanations around her expectations.
“For example,” Turner shared, “I need you to bring your name tents every day because I’m going to be learning your names. I need you to not have your laptop because research shows that it’s better to write. I add context with the expectations, so students understand where I’m coming from.”
5. Navigate Course Evaluations Early and Often
The USG mandates that students must be given the opportunity to complete an end-of-semester-course evaluation, the scores of which become available to you the day after grades are posted. In general, Turner shared, Scheller has amazing course evaluations. Those course evaluations look beyond your teaching's effectiveness and consider how effectively assignments and activities challenged the student to think and learn. While you shouldn’t obsess over each semester’s evaluations, it is good to know where you are regarding the median.
6. Encourage Reflection on Learning and Growth
Turner wants her courses to be worth her students’ time. She encourages them to reflect every day on what they learned and remember something from each class. “In my MBA classes, I leave 15 minutes at the end for students to write up three takeaways,” Turner said. “The students are really on board with that. They come to see it as an opportunity to reflect. These takeaways are how I score the class participation grade. I want them to remember something, not just have a friend sign in for them. I allow them to have until midnight the day of class.”
Those three takeaways have often surprised Turner with their insights and awareness of the content and broader themes.
7. Manage Student Expectations
Turner always starts and ends her classes on time. In her words: “I never EVER go over. If I’m mid-sentence, I stop. That’s one students will ding you for; they do not like being held late. Just keep in mind, the last five minutes they aren’t listening anyway.”
During the pandemic, students and teachers learned to be more flexible with assignments, tests, and classroom participation. Education took on a whole different format. Now that classes are fully in person, there are some students still hanging on to the pandemic-era leniency. Turner believes there is no longer any more room for excuses. “I want to be accommodating,” she said, “But it is amazing if you say ‘no makeups’ how many of them are actually able to get to class. I don’t want them coming in sick, but if they realize there is some consequence they will get to class.”
Turner doesn’t feel alone in managing different situations. She has learned to lean on the dean of students and Office of Student Integrity. In that way, she maintains the teacher-student relationship, which is built on the dual principles of care and expectation.