7 teaching tips for university educators

Posted on Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

Head shot of Dave Hume.

After over fifty years of undergraduate teaching, Prof. Dave Hume taught his final class in the fall of 2018. He first joined the University in 1966 in the Department of Crop Science, now the Department of Plant Agriculture. In 2005 he retired but has continued to be actively involved in the department as a professor emeritus. Hume is well respected as a researcher, teacher and industry expert. 

We recently chatted with Hume to reflect on his career and specifically his years of teaching. We wanted to know if he had any tips to share for other university instructors and educators.  

“I wanted students to have every opportunity to be really successful in their careers,” said Hume. “It doesn’t really matter what it is, a farming career, career with a company or whatever, I want them to be successful. I wasn’t just educating people, I’m getting people ready for a career.” 

Here are Hume’s seven pieces of advice for fellow educators.

1. Gain first-hand experience 

Hume’s experience of working as a consultant for AgriTrend allowed him to work with crop consultants and their clients on farms. This provided him with first-hand experience with western crops. When he began teaching the University of Guelph’s Protein and Oilseed Crops course he was able to relay the information and experience he learned while working with growers to conduct trials in farmers’ fields. Hume says that having real world data, bringing current topics in to the classroom and knowing the interests of your students will all help you to show students why the information you are teaching them matters. Having travelled to the Philippines, Ghana, Sri Lanka, China and various other countries, Hume was able to incorporate a variety of first-hand experience into his lectures, which made them more interesting and valuable to his students. 

2. Know your students

On the first day of class, Hume had a tradition of going around to each student and taking their photo and name. With the pictures and list of names, he created a slide deck which he used to learn every student name in the class. He found this helpful in being able to call on students in class to ask questions and engage them in course content. This practice was beneficial for him, but he also feels that knowing a student by name shows a teacher is invested in their learning. With agriculture being such a small industry, there are always connections to make and Hume says he’s greatly benefited from getting to know his students and adding them to his professional network. He has really enjoyed watching his students develop over the years and seeing what they do in the world post-graduation. 

3. Pay attention to course evaluations

Hume was happy to have more time to dedicate to perfecting his teaching between 2005-2018, and a key tool he used were course evaluation comments. Hume wanted to give students every opportunity to be successful and listening to their feedback enabled him to make adjustments to benefit the next cohort. Over the years, Hume was provided with a lot of helpful feedback about the way he formats his slides, how much content he provides on Courselink and how he conducts lectures. He also received a lot of positive feedback about how beneficial his course is, and how much students enjoyed learning from him. Hume would take comments into consideration and do his best to improve and adapt his courses. 

4. Be an entertainer

Hume says that it can be a challenge to get students to attend lectures when so much of the course content is provided online and easily accessed on the internet. Hume found himself beginning to think of ways to entice students to come to class when Courselink was first introduced. He evolved his teaching style to incorporate stories about real world experiences and ensured there was some humour in his lectures. Knowing the student’s names, providing real world examples and doing his best to be entertaining during lectures all helped Hume’s class attendance.  

5. Provide a variety of assignments

Hume thinks assigning students a balance of papers, presentations and group work help students develop valuable skills for their careers. He also believes that being a leader is something that can be taught and hoped to encourage these skills in his students. Providing well-rounded and a variety of assignments allowed Hume to see students develop through his courses, which was one of the most satisfying things for him about teaching. 

6. Get students to help  

It was during his very first course as a faculty member where he learned the valuable teaching tactic of peer learning. He told his very first class: “I’ll help you, but we’re going to teach this course to each other collectively”. It’s been an effective strategy for him ever since. Hume found value in assigning students lecture content in groups and asking them to do research and create a presentation for the rest of their classmates. Not only does this make students work in groups and think about the course content deeply, but it also provides them with necessary skills for the workplace. Hume believes the industry needs more people who can think through topics and issues and figure out the best solution or path to a solution, which he thinks the peer learning approach helps to nurture. 

7. Anticipate questions and areas of interest

Anticipating questions was something that first became important to Hume in his consulting days. If he was meeting with a grower and telling them about a product, he knew he needed to have all of the answers on-hand or he would lose their interest. Hume found this to be the same in teaching. He made sure he was well versed in both current and future applications of the information he was teaching. Topics such as “meatless meat” or cotton aren’t the first things you might think of when discussing protein and oilseeds crops, but these are both important topics related to the industry. Hume says it was often these sorts of “hot topics” that piqued the interest of students and it was important for him as an instructor to know about them for student engagement. 

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