How do I decide whether to teach using case studies or key readings, whether to offer a lecture or to use the allocated time for directed problem solving? Should I assign practice exercises, and should they be completed individually or in groups, with or without peer feedback? In other words, how do I decide what teaching methods to use?
A teaching method is anything a teacher might do to foster or support student learning. This includes methods for helping students understand the content, methods for building a supportive learning environment, as well as the tasks assigned to students. Teaching methods include, but are not limited to, class discussion, independent problem-solving, individual inquiry, virtual world simulations, powerpoint presentation, video presentation and student presentation. The range of possible teaching methods is limited only by your imagination.
Given the diverse possibilities, choosing an appropriate teaching method might seem arbitrary. Yet it can be a deliberate, considered judgement if you see your teaching methods as tools for the job of fostering student learning. Then it is obvious how you choose a teaching method: first be clear on what the job is, and then design a useful tool for this job.
Be clear on what the job is
To clarify the learning job you have to clarify: 1) the particular learning outcome you want, 2) the kind of outcome this is (is the outcome new knowledge, understanding, skill, value, behaviour, or way of being?), as well as 3) the learning process that will lead to this outcome; the process by which students get to the learning outcome. For example:
- You want your students to understand photosynthesis. More specifically, the outcome is students will be able to explain the concept of photosynthesis, using their own words, as well as being able to apply this conceptual knowledge to explain how photosynthesis occurs in particular cases.
- This learning outcome involves students having new conceptual knowledge, and also new skills in applying abstract conceptual knowledge to particular cases.
- How does someone learn conceptual knowledge? They need to be offered some information about the concept, perhaps from a lecture or in a book, but they also need a chance to assimilate this information into what they already know. How do they learn a skill? This involves an iterative process of attempting the action (in this case applying the concept of photosynthesis to explain different cases), then getting feedback, using the feedback to improve, then attempting the action again, etc.
To fully understand the job our teaching methods have to do, we have to think developmentally. We have to chart the whole learning path our students will need to take, starting from their initial understandings and skills (including their typical misunderstandings and mistakes), through various stages of their growing understanding and developing ability, until they reach the final outcomes.
Design the right tool for the job.
The second step is to think of what you and tour students can do that would foster this learning process, and what tools are useful for this job. For example, you might have decided that you want your students to be independent thinkers, and now you design methods that will enable your particular students to learn independence.
I sometimes I see this as choosing from a box of pre-existing tools, but a generic tool may not be effective in any particular teaching situation, so it is often more like designing a tool for the very specific job you have. You need creativity to design a teaching method that will lead to your particular learning outcome, in your particular context – it has to work for you and your students.
You don’t have to design your teaching methods on your own, especially if you are new to teaching or unfamiliar with many teaching methods. Talk to others to discover the methods they use, and to get advice about methods that might suit your context. Alternatively, or additionally, you might read some articles or books, attend a workshop, or do your own research.
When you design a teaching method, you also have to think about the hidden curriculum – how your unintended, unconscious methods can affect student learning. For example, if one learning outcome is that your students can make independent judgements, your chosen teaching method might be to ask students to grapple with open-ended problems without obvious answers. However, you also have to consider what they are learning from the other things you do when you teach – your hidden methods. For example, many teachers instinctively respond to student answers by telling their students whether they are correct or incorrect. Unfortunately what the students learn from this unintended, hidden method is that there are right answers, that the teacher has them, and that they should rely on the teacher to judge whether an answer is right or wrong. In this case the teacher’s hidden methods are unintentionally undermining their attempts to foster independent thinking.
Following from this, you also have to make sure you use the teaching method in a way that will let you complete the job. So, for example, even if powerpoint can be a useful tool to get your learning outcomes, there are multiple ways to use it, and some may be inappropriate for your intended learning outcome. Using powerpoint to summarise the main concepts in a few words might be useful to prompt your students to explain photosynthesis in their own words, but if you give too many details in the powerpoint, the students might find it hard to escape your way of explaining photosynthesis, and so be unable to articulate their own understanding of this concept.
Evaluate and improve
Even after going through this process of designing your teaching methods, you can’t be sure whether a teaching method will work until you try it with your particular students and evaluate its success. So, fully answering the question ‘what teaching method should I use?’ will probably take several years of creative design, testing, evaluating, improving and retesting. This at least involves an informal process of research into teaching, and might involve a formal research process.