Professor Jacques Berlinerblau—who shared his insights about the problems with higher education in a Top Hat webinar—takes passive learning to task in this extract from his book Campus Confidential

There are two kinds of professors who seem like they’re engaging their students—Fun Professors (FPs) and Vaults of Knowledge (Vaults). But whether they can make new information stick in their students’ minds is another matter.

Good teachers, undeniably, engross students. But that’s only part of the challenge. They must ascertain whether the engrossment is leading to actual learning. Experience has taught me that even students who are mesmerized by my lectures, who dig the cut of my jib, who nod their heads appreciatively at my every utterance (and even when I cough) might hand in piss-poor essays. A very underappreciated teacherly skill is understanding when your students don’t understand. You see what I am saying?

Passive learning lacks an immediate feedback mechanism. It is thus difficult for teachers to monitor student progress. It’s even more difficult if the instructor is so into him- or herself that she never takes students into consideration. The same self-indulgence that powers an uproarious classroom rant or a bravura lecture may be a lethal vice for an educator. Sometimes the sheer force of the FP or Vault’s personality, thought, and rhetoric becomes the dominant feature of a semester’s work. Students certainly savor the spectacle. Yet what do they learn?

FPs and Vaults direct their brilliance to a collective known as a class. But effective teaching always retains an individual dimension as well (something that the Mentor intuits). Committed professors in the humanities must focus on how a student writes, reads a text, reasons, speaks in public. Fun Professoring and Vaulting, where so much depends on the sass, wow! factor, and awesomeness of the instructor, can potentially relegate these skills to oblivion.

In short, good teachers think a lot about their students. In turn, their teaching engenders thoughtfulness. With that we arrive at my master metric for effective college instruction.

Like good art, good teaching colonizes your psyche. The novel ends, but you can’t stop thinking about the characters. The film credits are rolling, yet you embark on a long meditation about a troubling scene. Class is over, but students are still pondering all that was said. Humanists [humanities teachers], at their best, stimulate deep, unusual, unsettling, and omnidirectional thought in their charges.

It is thoughtfulness that we are after. That’s most likely to occur if we are as attuned to our students as they are to us.

From Campus ConfidentialUsed with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2017 by Jacques Berlinerblau.

Watch our free webinar, Fixing America’s Higher Education Problem, where Jacques Berlinerblau covers topics such as teaching metrics, interdepartmental politics, and why the tenure track no longer serves education. Stream it here.