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It takes hard work to be an amazing teacher

Frank Morgan is a wonderful teacher. I took a course from him in college and was impressed by his ability to help students of varying ability levels. (This was MIT so I guess the abilities were all on the high end, but still I think this is a challenge in any group.)

A few years ago I invited Frank to come to give a seminar on teaching to the mathematics and statistics departments at Columbia. One message I got from his talk was that much of teaching success comes from hard work. For example, every semester Frank would put the names and photos of his students on flash cards and memorize who was who.

This sort of thing was impressive to me. Any expert can demonstrate how great he is, but it takes someone very special to convey that anyone could achieve that level of success by just working hard.

That said, hard work is not enough. For example, statistics T.A.’s often spend dozens of hours preparing elaborate handouts for their students; this is almost always (in my impression) a waste of time. Better to adapt to the textbook, I think.

Anyway, I noticed this note by Frank on how he helps students prepare for their senior presentations:

At Williams every senior math major chooses a faculty advisor and gives a 35/40-minute colloquium talk. Since we currently have over fifty senior majors, this keeps us pretty busy, but we think it well worth the effort.

Here is how I like my advisees to prepare, starting a month before the talk and consulting with me every day or two . . .

Every day or two . . . that’s impressive!


  1. C. Zorn says:

    The one point on which I'd differ with you is on the handouts issue. As long as the textbook is a good one, I agree that adapting to it is better. But so often social scientists are stuck teaching out of texts where the examples are counts of liver spots in lab rats and the like. In those circumstances, handouts that show the students how the techniques they're learning can be applied to the sorts of data they'll actually be analyzing are invaluable.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:


    I agree that handouts with worked examples are fine. The sort of handout that I don't like is where the instructor or T.A. re-derives some mathematical formula, or explains how to interpret the log transformation, or whatever. I used to do this sort of thing myself but at some point I realized it just doesn't work. Ya gotta go with the methods taught in the book (with your own examples, possibly).