Faculty Focus


Four Teaching Maxims That Endure

As part of a special section in a recent issue of Teaching Psychology, Bill McKeachie, author of the best-known book on college teaching, the venerable Teaching Tips, first published in 1950 and now in its 11th edition, looks back to ascertain what’s changed and what has stayed the same. This retrospective appears in a section that celebrates a 100-year-old book on teaching psychology written by William James, Talks to Teachers and to Students.

McKeachie begins with what isn’t new: learner-centered education and active learning. He finds descriptions of it in James’ book and in the very first edition of Teaching Tips. “If we grant that a rigid authoritarian method of teaching is one way of handling student anxiety, we still may not grant that this is the most desirable method to be used in an educational system which has as its aim preparation for life in a democracy.” (p. 41) And claims for the effectiveness of these more student-centered approaches are supported by research, conducted by McKeachie and a colleague and published in 1949.

Obviously much has changed since 1950. McKeachie discusses what is now known about learning and memory, changes in cognitive goals (we now believe that we can teach students to think) and a growing commitment to teaching values. But much has stayed the same. McKeachie lists four themes that have remained “stable” across all the editions of his book. He highlights them this way:

  1. The importance of students’ feeling that the teacher cares about their learning and them as individuals. At its center, this is what learner-centered instruction is all about. Having a teacher who cares doesn’t cause learning, but it significantly impacts the motivation to learn.
  2. The value of getting students to participate in discussion. In the very first edition of the book, McKeachie and co-author Kim focus on breaking large classes into small groups so that students will have a chance to talk about the content. Now the interest is in cooperative learning but the basic premise is the same. Students can learn from and with each other.
  3. The role of testing and grading in student motivation. “Teaching Tips has always stressed the importance of keying examinations and grading to one’s objectives. If grades are based simply on rote memory of details, teachers are not likely to achieve goals of thinking and later application.” (p. 42)
  4. The value of getting feedback to improve a course. Ahead of his time in the first edition of the book, McKeachie was calling for the use of student ratings and supporting that call with references to research documenting the value of student input to course improvement.

To validate his last point and to illustrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same, McKeachie includes a treasured “bad” rating he received at the end of his first year of lecturing. “Dr. McKeachie is very interesting and worthwhile, but I have rated him low because he doesn’t give us enough facts. The sort of job I get will depend on my grades, and I have little chance for beating other students out for A’s unless I can get at least a couple of pages of notes on each lecture. To make matters worse Dr. McKeachie summarizes the most important points at the end of the lecture so that everyone can get them.” (p. 43)

Reference: McKeachie, W. K. (2003). William James’s Talks to Teachers (1899) and McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (1999). Teaching of Psychology, 30 (1), 40-44.