Teaching Principles

James Wilcox

April 29, 2022 (last updated: April 10, 2024)

This living document collects James’s Teaching Principles™.

I am a relatively inexperienced instructor. That’s ok! I am having a good time and am learning a lot. A consequence of a lack of experience is I make a lot of mistakes in teaching. To improve, I try not to make the same mistake twice. But I am also forgetful, so it helps me to distill insights into principles that I can then refer to later. If you like Star Trek, they’re sort of my own Robin’s Laws.

They’re my personal laws. Every time I learn something essential, I make up a law about it so I never forget.
—Robin Lefler, TNG episode The Game

This post collects James’s Teaching Principles™. It is a living document—I plan to edit it on an ongoing basis.

Before getting to the principles, I should emphasize that I have no idea what I’m doing!!! Through the magic of our Great Educational System™, I spent nearly 30 years going to school, and nearly zero of that time being trained how to teach. Now I plan to spend the rest of my career teaching. Wow. Such education. So you should take all these principles as my own personal current view on my teaching in my subject at my institution. I am not trying to tell anyone else what to do.

Also, fair warning that I break these principles all the time. Some of them are more aspirational than descriptive.

The principles are written as a sort of letter from me to me. So all occurrences of the pronoun you actually also refer to me. Also, when I say something in the imperative tense like do X, I am talking to myself. Similarly, when I make a sweeping statement like Y is wrong, it should be understood as saying James believes that Y conflicts with James’s values, and not anything about anybody else.

Finally, a warning that this post does not really have a narrative structure. It’s just a collection of ideas.

Meta principles

The goal of teaching

Feedback to students


Students: motivations and needs


Feedback from students

Course design

Lecture design

Section design