Teachers make hundreds, if not thousands, of teaching decisions daily. The same can be said for college professors. Some teaching decisions are planned while others occur “in-the-moment.” Some decisions are subtle and intuitive, like moving next to a group of learners who seem to be confused about the content being discussed; while others are overt and deliberate, like deciding to reorder the course schedule to accommodate a field-based component. Other teaching decisions are a direct result of reflecting on a particular aspect of a class session and making a decision that informs future instruction.
Many of us give little thought to the many teaching decisions we make on a daily basis, yet research on teacher effectiveness highlights thoughtful, adaptive teaching as a key characteristic of effective teachers. In my research on teacher decision-making, I found that when I asked teachers to identify, reflect on, and evaluate their teaching decisions, with a process I call “metacognitive decision- making,” they made more powerful and effective teaching decisions the next day, the next hour, and the next moment.
How does one engage in the process of “metacognitive decision-making?” I frame the process around four domains of teacher knowledge: 1) content knowledge; 2) knowledge of educational ends, purposes, and values; 3) pedagogical knowledge; and 4) pedagogical content knowledge.
As college professors, we excel at content knowledge— meaning we are experts in the content we teach, whether it’s British Literature or Microbiology. Our content knowledge helps us make decisions about what to teach and in what order to teach it. Drawing upon our content knowledge, we are able to make decisions about how the course topics can spiral from big ideas down to specific details or how proficiency in a certain skill must precede instruction on another. As Shulman noted, “To teach is first to understand. We ask that the teacher comprehend critically a set of ideas to be taught. We expect teachers to understand what they teach and, when possible, to understand it in several ways” (14). Content knowledge can also help us make powerful in-the-moment decisions. With an in-depth understanding of the content we teach, we can see the intricacies and connectedness of the discipline so when students take us on circuitous routes, we are able to adjust accordingly.
Reflecting on the educational ends, purposes, and values also aids in teacher decision-making. When we ask ourselves, “What are my goals for this particular course or class session?” we make better decisions about what content to include and what activities and assignments will allow us to teach this content in a meaningful way.
For instance, if the discipline requires rote memorization of formulas or a list of terminology, we may make the decision to use direct instruction in the form of a lecture. In another situation, the goal may be to develop reasoning skills around a certain topic so a debate format might better serve the purpose. Regardless of the content being taught, having clear goals in mind, both long-term and short-term, allows for more powerful teaching decisions.
As college professors, we are all passionate about the content we teach. Sometimes in our zest for sharing the content for which we hold dear, we lose sight of the fact that we are teaching students not simply content. To use the domain of teacher knowledge called pedagogical knowledge, teachers focus on their knowledge of the learner. To frame it for a college professor, you might ask yourself, “What are the characteristics of learners who tend to succeed in my courses?” You can extend this point further by asking, “What are the characteristics of individuals who tend to succeed in this discipline or field?” This knowledge can help teachers make powerful teaching decisions as they consider the goal of preparing students for the job market and future careers in their fields.
Finally, the heart of making powerful teaching decisions requires proficiency in pedagogical content knowledge— the intersection between content and pedagogy. In this domain, teachers make decisions about which instructional strategies to use. Pedagogical content knowledge involves knowing how to teach specific content. For example, a teacher may choose to incorporate a variety of instructional strategies within one class session from small group discussions to class lectures; from group presentations to artifact analysis; from guiding questions to video analysis, all of which are the result of a teaching decision.
Teaching well is a skill that requires ongoing refinement. Identifying, reflecting on, and evaluating our teaching decisions are ways to hone that skill. The first step is recognizing the opportunities for decision-making; the second is using our teacher knowledge to act upon those opportunities.
Shulman, Lee. “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform.” Harvard Educational Review 57.1 (1987): 1-23.