Explaining the hard stuff – 10 tips

We’re spending time today at my office discussing how to explain or present difficult/complex content. A colleague discovered this gem on the topic by Dr. Deborah Mowshowitz, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University.

Having taught complex subject matter going on 8 years, I have a grip on all of these to one degree or another but am weaker in a few and it’s wonderful to see them listed out. Dr. Mowshowitz knows her stuff and it’s a great review or primer if you’re new to teaching hard stuff. Some highlights:

1. Improving Clarity: Avoid pronouns and use nouns instead

2. If you don’t know the answer, admit it, stop, look it up if possible or get back to them.

3. Headline what you’re saying

4. Be on the look out to circumvent sources of confusion and proactively draw attention to/address them

5. Remember to think at their level & consider keeping things simpler, general if needed

6. Probe first, to pinpoint what students don’t understand

7. Chunk it in small bites then don’t continue until A) you’re sure they understand what you explained B) they need the rest

8. Don’t start too far back with the background material

9. Don’t assume too much – it’s not as obvious to them (similar to #5)

10. Figure out what they don’t know by collecting questions, “the old card trick” and asking questions (more relevant for teaching in a physical classroom)

I would add from my experience the following which also helps me a bunch:

  • Connect with relateable analogies (so know your target audience/students) & personal stories
  • Slow it down
  • Common words
  • Repeat
  • Formative assessments
  • Visual if possible
  • Make them teach it back to you
  • Application assignment

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