Seven Habits of Highly Effective Educators

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Educators


Proceedings of the American Society of Engineering Education Conference in Nashville, 2003.

ASCE Journal of Professional Issues and Engineering Education, pp. 175-177, Vol. 131 (3), (2005).

“If you don’t let a teacher know at what level you are – by asking a question, or revealing your ignorance – you will not learn or grow.  You can’t pretend for long, for you will eventually be found out.  Admission of ignorance is often the first step in our education.” –  Steven Covey (1990).

In 1987, the Education Commission of the States and the American Association of Higher Education co-sponsored the work – “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (Chickering and Gamson 1987).  Supported by extensive research and experience, this work came up with guidelines for faculty, students, and administrators for improving undergraduate teaching and learning.

In the 1990s – Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey 1990) and Emotional Intelligence (Goleman 1995) became best sellers in the personal growth segment.  These books and other similar ones shifted the prevailing paradigms from efficiency to effectiveness and from prestige to self-contentment.

This article on the techniques employed by highly effective educators is a synergy of the above three works, personal experiences, teaching enhancement seminars, and many discussions (some passionate) I have had with my engineering peers from the University of South Florida and other universities around the nation.

To keep this article readable, I call the effective educator – Efed.  I refer to Efed also as he (the author does recognize that engineering has a continuing deep-rooted challenge to bring gender diversity and opportunity to its profession) for the sole purpose of keeping the article readable.

The Habits
1. Efed is organized
Before every class, Efed asks himself, “Do I know what topics I will cover in my class?  Do I have an outline?  Am I beginning with an end in my mind?  Have I marked my lecture notes so that I do not fumble around to find them during the class?  What problems am I going to assign for homework?  To engage the students, do I know what questions I am going to ask during class?  Do I have usable dry markers in my pocket or am I going to use the dried-out ones available in the classroom!”

Efed clearly explains the expectations and the goals of the course, and their relation to the overall curriculum and education of the student.  Since he has spent time and effort in developing the course handout, it clearly includes test dates and make-up policy, grading components and their weightage, teaching assistant information, generous office hours, objectives and outcomes of the course, homework assignments, course schedule, and assigned page numbers from the book.  All policies are fair, and there are no surprises during the semester.

During office hours, Efed can get the opportunity to recognize different learning styles of the students.  Centuries ago, one could account for every style of learning, as the teacher to student ratio was 1:1.  Nowadays you could be teaching courses with hundreds of students, but you can still account for different learning styles during classroom presentation (visually vs. verbally), office hours, class discussions and activities (inductive vs. deductive modes), recitation hours with TAs, and more importantly in the grading policy.  If you extend components of grading from only quizzes and tests to include homework assignments, web-based quizzes, projects, class presentations and participation, reflective writing, and attendance, it can encourage and accommodate the students’ natural learning style.

2. Efed understands the importance of the first day of class
First impressions last a whole semester, if not more.  Often, Efed sees his peers excusing the first day of class right after taking the attendance and passing their one-page course handout.  However, for Efed, it is the most crucial day of the semester.  After taking the attendance, he remembers as many names possible and before giving the handout, asks students, “When you signed up for this class, what did you expect from this class?”  Many will give him that confused look that says, “We are here, aren’t we?  What more should you expect from the first day of class?”  Efed then asks them, “Do you go to a movie and not know anything about the movie except its name?”

As the students open up with their thoughts about the course, Efed clears any rumors heard from former students.  He dispels myths that they may have already developed about the course and its pre-requisites.  He answers statements – “I am never going to use this course” carefully and passionately, but without unnecessary emotion.

3. Efed uses teaching tools effectively
No matter how many times Efed teaches the same course, he keeps on improving his teaching methods to make him more
effective.  Efed continually learns new ways of teaching via new textbooks, continuing education classes, education articles, and new multimedia resources.

Nowadays, there are many tools available to Efed to make teaching effective.  These include multimedia presentation software, videos, Internet, mathematical packages, and interactive educational software.  He uses these tools only when it improves the understanding of the course material.  He does not abuse the modern technologies such as PowerPoint to cover a huge amount of material, or even worse, show page after page of the textbook through presentation viewers.

The number of waking hours has not changed for either Efed or his students.  Therefore, he does not supplement but complements the course with new tools.  For example, if Efed assigns projects in a course, he knows whether the use of tools such as mathematical packages compensates for the extra effort.  Otherwise, expectations can become unrealistic and turn students off from learning.

Efed recognizes that old teaching tools are still effective – whether it is using the chalkboard to derive a formula while punctuating the derivation effectively with underlying principles from previously covered content, or it is maintaining eye contact with the students.  A recent speaker at our university said, “In my Advanced Fluids course, I never saw my instructor for the whole semester.”  Shocked by his remark, he quickly added, “He was always facing the blackboard.”

Most students want to relate their classroom experience to the industrial world.  If they do not see the connection, it is hard for them to be motivated.  Efed does not hesitate to call the alumni and ask them how they have used the course in the workplace.  These queries bring contemporary real-life examples into the classroom.  In many metropolitan universities, students themselves can be a resource of these real-life examples since many of them work part-time as an intern or in co-operative education programs in engineering companies.

4. Efed demonstrates respect for students
Efed believes in his students.  He shows respect for students by treating them as unique individuals but also through his preparedness for the class.  Efed always asks himself how he can improve the students’ understanding of the concepts.

Efed respects the time of his students by coming to class on time and by stop lecturing at the scheduled time.  Nothing is more annoying to a student if a teacher habitually comes late to class or rushes through the material at the end, or uses class time wisely by telling long war stories.  In fact, coming early to class opens informal discussions with the students.  It gives students informal time with Efed to problem solve or schedule time with Efed outside of office hours.  Efed gives full attention to the students who are facing problems in the course.  Although many of the cases are not emergencies, a few deserve Efed’s full attention.  I remember I had a student who wanted to withdraw from my course in the last month of the semester.  If it had been a few years ago, I may have answered with a categorical No.  But, before jumping to an unnecessary conclusion, I wanted to know why.  I am glad I asked.  I learned that he had cancer, and chemotherapy was wearing him down.  Fortunately, with good treatment, his cancer went into full remission.  In the following semester, he made an A in the course.  This is why Efed gives the benefit of the doubt to the student.  As Efed gains experience, he is able to distinguish between genuine and exaggerated excuses.

Sometimes the problems of a particular student stretch Efed’s time and are beyond his capability of help.  In such cases, Efed does not hesitate to refer students to services of the career and counseling centers of the campus.

The contact with students during office hours is very important to Efed.  It is an opportunity for teaching students how to learn on their own.  Rather than just solving the problem they have come to you with, he guides them to find the solution themselves.  Yes, it takes more time to do so, but Efed is efficient but not at the expense of being effective.  Moreover, if criticism is warranted, it is gentle and never directed toward the student.

Efed meets students outside the classroom in hallways, during cookouts, and at professional society meetings.  It gives him a chance to know his students in an informal setting and make him more approachable and student friendly.  By knowing them as a whole person, Efed can give better advice on their curriculum and career goals.

5. Efed gives rapid feedback
Efed returns graded assignments and tests in the next scheduled class period.  Students can quickly assess their strengths and weaknesses, and hence make amends to understand future lectures.  Efed uses modern technologies such as web-based tutorials that give even more immediate feedback to the student.

6. Efed asks questions
On average, an instructor waits ten seconds or less before they answer their own question.  Efed waits a little longer to make the students uncomfortable enough to ask questions.  There is no better way than this to start a discussion.  It is an opportunity to understand what they are struggling with, and what myths they may otherwise develop.

Asking a question or being asked one is also a way to accommodate the different learning styles of students (Prichard and Sawyer 1994).  For example, many students’ questions are about how to solve a problem.  However, most instructors prefer students who ask a why question as opposed to a how-question.  Why?  Because the how-question is misconstrued as – How can I do this problem so that I can make a good grade on the test?  However, how and why questions (Finelli, Klinger, Budny, 2001) are the two main ways our students learn.  Although they eventually need to know how and why of a problem, their natural initial approach will be how they learn best.  The student asking the how question wants to dissect the topic, take it apart, and put it together; the student asking the why question wants to talk it out and find some personal meaning to what he or she is learning.

Discussions in Efed’s classroom do not happen just between the instructor and the student but between the students themselves.  He gives short in-class assignments to students to start an exchange of ideas between them.  Yes, some of Efed’s colleagues complain that there is not enough time to finish the course.  However, Efed would rather have them gain an excellent knowledge of the most important and necessary material, instead of a mediocre understanding an overabundance of material.

Other ways to use classroom time more effectively, Efed asks students to learn some parts of the course on their own.  He then does not hesitate to ask questions on the self-learned material in the tests.  His students hence gain an ownership of the material, build up confidence that they can learn new material on their own, and develop a habit of self-learning.

Efed encourages students to work in teams and study in groups.  He may even allow them to discuss homework assignments but not let them simply copy from each other.  Again, new web-based technologies that generate unique homework assignments for each student fosters teamwork without sacrificing individual accountability.

7. Efed has high expectations
Mention that you have high expectations and many educators will call it an oxymoron.  They perceive students are ill-prepared in the first place.  In fact, repeatedly, Efed finds that when students know that you are serious about their learning and that high (not higher) expectations are the norm for you, they will deliver.  In fact, the high level of student performance no longer surprises Efed.

A word of caution – Efed’s high expectations do not translate to doubling the number of assignments and giving longer projects, but to make no compromises in meeting the objectives and goals of the course.

Concluding Thoughts
The techniques discussed above are intended to characterize an effective engineering educator.  I know you see Efed in yourself, and that there are other techniques you would like to add to the above list.

I will leave the readers with a sobering fact.  The very first principle in “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Teaching” (Chickering and Gamson, 1987) is:“Good practice in undergraduate education encourages contact between students and faculty: Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement”.

The sobering fact is what Astin (1993) found -“Greater interaction with faculty may not have the same positive effect on engineering students simply because these interactions are less likely to be perceived as favorable”.

The author wants to thank all his students who have taught him as much, if not more than what he has taught them since he started his career at USF in 1987. Special thanks go to the Teaching Enhancement Center of the University of South Florida for teaching me that effective teaching is more than an art; it can be a learned habit.  This article was presented at the Annual Conference of the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), June 20-23, 2003, Nashville, TN.  The author thanks an anonymous reviewer for their constructive feedback on this paper.


  1. Astin, A.W. (1993).  What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited.  Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
  2. Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. (1987).  “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education”, AAHE Bulletin,
    39 (March), 3-7.
  3. Covey, S. (1990).  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, New York.
  4. Finelli, C.J., Klinger, A., and Budny, D.D., (2001).  “Strategies for Improving the Classroom Environment, Journal of
    Engineering Education”, 90, 491-497.
  5. Goleman, D. (1995).  Emotional Intelligence, Bantam, New York.
  6. Prichard, K.W. and Sawyer, R.M., (Eds.).  (1994), Handbook of College Teaching: Theory and Applications, Greenwood
    Press, Westport.

Recommended Readings

  1. Gupta, M.S. (1987).  Teaching Engineering: A Beginner’s Guide, IEEE Press, New York.
  2. Wankat, P.C., and Oreovicz, F.S. (1993).  Teaching Engineering, McGraw-Hill, New York.
  3. Yelon, S.L. (1996).  Powerful Principles of Instruction, Longman, White Plains.

CITATION: Autar Kaw, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Educators”, last accessed at