As a teacher, you have a unique opportunity to influence and shape the minds of your students. It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking and discussing about what we should be doing every day with our classes and students, but it can be equally worthwhile spending a bit of time discussing what we shouldn‘t be doing.

To complement the many times you’ll give directives, advice, and instructions to your students, we’ve compiled a list of some things that you should refrain from asking your students to do.

1. Busy Work

Busy work (or make-work) is any assignment or activity that is undertaken simply to pass time and stay busy.   Asking your students to do meaningless work will frustrate them and cause them to become disengaged faster than anything else. The tasks you assign need to have meaning and correlate clearly to your objectives. Otherwise don’t assign them! Strive to plan activities with real world connections, so students see how their learning activity correlates to the world around them. If a real world connection can’t be made, at least explain the importance of the work.  In the rare event that you finish a course early or have more time set aside than you need, have a few resources, tasks, or additional topics set aside that you can use to prevent wasting time with busy work.

It’s worth noting that the definition of busy work isn’t just meaningless work – it can also mean work that tests knowledge or skills that students have already learned.  This can be a familiar setting for those few students in your class who are smarter and quicker than the rest – they’ll look upon assignments that to others are meaningful as busy work!  Pay attention to this and prepare some ways for these pupils to advance their education.

2. Listen All the Time

Students should not always just listen! Studies show that most adults have between a five and ten minute attention span when listening to a lecture. In order to keep students focused and prevent them from zoning out, create opportunities for them to be involved. Discussion, asking questions and cooperative learning should all be an important part in your classroom.

3. Always Work in a Group

Group Working

Group work definitely has its positive elements and can be a great way to cause genuine learning to happen. However, there can be too much of a good thing! Some students are more shy or reticent and will struggle in groups. Others will abdicate the majority of the work to other group members and not pull their weight. Find a good balance between group work and whole group learning.  It is also okay to let some students choose to work in groups or work independently, but make sure that students don’t always stay within their comfort zone – require a certain amount of work be done outside of their preference. That way all students have opportunities to learn in situations that benefit their learning style, yet still get exposed to styles they’ll continue to encounter elsewhere.

4. Compete with Other Classmates

Competition can be a powerful motivator for many people but can also lead to stressful situations and be damaging if it becomes too fierce. Until you have a good feel for your students and how they will learn best, it may be wise to refrain from competitive situations within the classroom. You can incorporate some competition for those students that like (or need) it by challenging students to compete with themselves.  Encourage students to set goals, achieve them, than look to beat their previous best effort throughout a course for a nondestructive form of classroom competition.  Just make sure that students understand that everyone is different, and the self-competition results aren’t used as a comparison among students.

5. Perform a Task Without Modeling

This is especially important when introducing new skills or concepts. Model for your students first, then allow them to practice with guidance before letting them work independently. Working through this gradual release of responsibility will ensure success for students instead of just throwing them into the deep end. Note that it is occasionally acceptable to ask students to perform a new task as a pre-assessment tool.  Just be sure to identify it as such, and to go back and teach the specific skills necessary once you’ve gathered your assessment data.  Modeling is an important part of teaching, and we talk about this more when discussing “See One, Do One, Teach One” as a method of teaching.

6. Value Answers Instead of Questions

State of Play

Answers aren’t everything.  Students need to be taught the importance of asking questions! Instead of only seeking out answers from the teacher, students need to value inquiry and how it guides authentic learning. Don’t just hand out answers, respond with questions to get your students thinking. Use the Socratic Method to generate discussion and praise your students when they use questioning to delve deep into topics.

7. Set Vague Goals

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is a familiar yet powerful adage. Don’t ask your students to set goals that lack substance or clear objectives. Doing so will only cause confusion and set them up for failure. Instead, guide them through setting SMART goals. Everyone enjoys reaching goals, so teach your students how to set clear goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound!

8. Be Someone They’re Not

You will have a wide range of personalities and abilities in your classes, just like in life! A common rookie mistake that new teachers make is seeking to control personalities in the classroom, particularly those that are bold.  Instead of stifling students’ personalities, use them to your advantage!

If you have a vocal student, leverage them to generate discussion. Use your gifted students to be peer tutors or models for the ones who need more help. The old method of “teaching to the middle” no longer applies – now teachers are expected to differentiate their instruction in order to accommodate all learners. This is not a bad thing, it just means that you need to meet students where they are and help them advance. Use the strengths in your class to help bolster the weaknesses in your class.

9. Give Up

There may be times where a task seems out of reach for a particular student. Whether it is too challenging or just not something that a certain person can easily “get”, you should never tell a student that they can’t do something. This type of  situation can be avoided by careful planning (by taking into account your student’s learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, and the knowledge you have of the material and class) and guided assistance. Instead of instructing someone to accept failure, set them up for success. This doesn’t mean create tasks that are simple and without challenge! Guide and help your students as necessary in order to achieve what they set out to do, and be firm about not letting them give up.


Your authority as a teacher is a huge responsibility, so make sure you’re not wielding it in ways that can hurt.  Hopefully these things you shouldn’t ask of your students will get you thinking, and make sure you let us know if you have any more that we haven’t covered!

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