What makes an engaging teacher?

What makes an engaging teacher? By thinking about some of the teachers and lecturers I have had, and what I consider to be their strengths and weaknesses, I might be able to clarify for myself what I could do from a practical point of view to improve my own teaching.

One thing that my favourite teachers have done is to create a sense of community – that the class and teacher were discovering together. Carole Cusack used to add details from her life in the lectures – I remember her telling a story about her best friend’s husband having an affair and thinking that she was exactly the same lecturing as she was in person in the pub. But of course, that makes her more relatable and dissolves some of the distance between student and teacher. I have used this technique myself, I think to good results. For example, I will often make self-deprecating jokes and refer to myself as “David”, rather than “Dr Robertson”. Something else I’ll do is to make occasional slightly sarcastic side-comments about the scholars we are looking at. These probably go over most students’ heads, but add another layer of commentary and critique for the more advanced students.

A different example of a teacher creating a sense of purposeful community was in the course From Primitive to Indigenous which James Cox ran in 2007. The course was based around his then-unpublished book of the same title, and we were encouraged to be as critical in our tutorial work as we could be. I took him at his word, and he responded with genuine enthusiasm to the challenges, and I believe some of the criticisms were addressed in the eventual book. So the tutorial work, in this case, actually meant something beyond my own marks, and our involvement in the class and the discussion actually involved us in the larger scholarly community.

Another variation of this is the seminar-style classes that some Biblical Studies classes use, where there is no formal lecture material at all, but rather the group work through a text together, with the discussion taking shape as it will. In Helen Bond’s classes at New College, University of Edinburgh, one or more students would have prepared some type of presentation on a significant section of the text, chosen by the lecturer, which provides the seminar assessment. For the rest of the session, however, the group is free to move at whatever pace it wants, going into more depth on whatever piques interest, or even to go off into interesting tangents. This obviously requires the lecturer to have a great deal of knowledge at their fingertips, so might not be realistic for a junior lecturer. Less obviously, however, it requires a firm but subtle hand on the tiller to make sure that the session gets to where it needs to to work through the course. On a more mundane level, such an arrangement only works for a small group of perhaps fourteen at most.

These latter two models of teaching are examples of what Dominic Corrywright refers to as “complex learning”: rather than a model in which “the tutor informs the class of certain facts”, the teachers become “co-users of open access information” (2013, 4). Indeed, Cusack’s style of lecturing brings some of this complexity to the traditional lecture format, by levelling the presumed differences of status and authority between student and teacher. As Corrywright acknowledges, although complex learning emphasises the use of multiple platforms of learning (including group discussion and tasks, audio and video, apps, etc.), the traditional lecture can still be an important component of pedagogy.

An important way of “complexifying” our lectures, then – and something which all of these teachers have in common – is that they give you a lot of interesting data first, rather than top-loading with theory. That model is still followed by more traditional lecturers: my supervisor once told me “If I don’t give them the theory before the data, how will they know how to interpret it?” The issue of authority is clear here – in a complex model, the teacher would be “discovering” the data with the students, rather than presenting their interpretation fait accompli.

Moreover, this approach can alienate a lot of students: essentially, by the time you get to the data, you’ve already lost them. This is a particular problem, perhaps, as an increasing proportion of students are at university as a necessity, rather than on a quest for personal intellectual development. For example, around 40% of Edinburgh Religious Studies students in 1st and 2nd years are student primary school teachers, why typically have no interest in theoretical issues. Similarly, there are always a number of “seekers”, who see studying religion as a way to enhance their “spiritual lives”. If we lead with data, however, the student is led into discovering the theoretical material for themselves – although naturally the course was structured in that way all along. The different groups of students are therefore interested from the start, and are almost tricked into theorising.


Corrywright, Dominic (2013) “Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being”, in DISKUS 14 (2013), pp 1-20. At http://www.basr.ac.uk/diskus/diskus14/corrywright.pdf


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