What methods should I use in my teaching?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. This learning outcome involves students having new conceptual knowledge, and also new skills in applying abstract conceptual knowledge to particular cases.
  3. 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.

Posted in Planning teaching

That’s a good question

Sometimes in a seminar, lecture or discussion, if we don’t know the topic we feel like we can’t really participate or engage. We might know nothing about postmodern accounts of learning, for example, or the learning styles of accounting students, so we feel like we can’t say anything useful, nor ask any questions. However, there are many ways to engage intelligently with a topic, even if it is unfamiliar. There are techniques for asking intelligent questions that do not require a deep understanding of the topic.

Some questions are about substantive aspects of a topic and can only be asked if you have some understanding of the topic. For example, how is Lyotard’s perspective related to Smetsky’s account of learning without a learner? But other questions simply ask for further thinking about a topic, whatever the substantive topic might be:

  1. What do you mean by x?
  2. Can you give me an example of x?
  3. Can you say more about x?
  4. Why do you think x?
  5. What would be your recommendations about x?

I sometimes call these thought-encouraging questions because they encourage further thinking about any topic: You simply replace the x with something that has been said. For similar reasons they are also called Socratic questions or critical thinking questions.

Thought-encouraging questions are useful for critical analysis or exploration of any topic. In fact, these are the questions I ask myself to assist me to dig deeper into a topic I don’t fully understand – they force me to reflect and clarify my ideas.

Asking a good thought-encouraging questions is simply an expression of puzzlement about what someone is saying; you ask the question that flows from your puzzlement:

  1. If I wonder about what they mean, then I might ask: “what do you mean by x?” OR “can you give an example of x?”
  2. If I’m puzzled by why they think this is true, or I wonder what their justification is then I might ask: “why do you think x?” OR “what evidence is there to support x?

Questions like these are useful tools for engaging in any seminar, lecture or discussion. However, you might also be reluctant to ask questions if you are concerned that only stupid or ignorant people ask questions. However, this is not only a limiting concern, but it is inaccurate. Only the intellectually sharp can ask probing question, and asking these questions is the sign of reflective engagement, not stupidity. I frequently ask these questions, especially when I don’t know much about the topic under discussion. I listen carefully to the speaker, and if I wonder what they meant, or how their idea would translate into practice, or what their reasons are, my first reaction is simply to ask them to explain further, and I express this as a thought-encouraging question. I think that they have not explained themselves, not that I must be stupid if I don’t know.

Posted in Higher education, Postgraduate education, Reflection and improvement

Building a shared conception of critical thinking

If every teacher and every paper in a multi-disciplinary course uses their own conception of critical thinking, students end up more confused than critical. So how do you build a shared understanding of critical thinking in a multi-disciplinary course?

Go concrete: Find agreement about what a critical thinker does. For example, they give reasons and explanations, they uncover and question assumptions, etc. It will be virtually impossible to get agreement if your discussion remains solely in the abstract realm of terms like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘reflection’. Instead look at what thinkers do – their thinking moves or thinking behaviours.

Agree on a developmental core: Find agreement about the developmental core for students learning to be critical thinkers, rather than trying to find agreement about the final, expert version of critical thinking. The critical thinking of a scientist is different from the critical thinking of a health professional. But the path to learn these expert kinds of critical thinking is similar, and there are developmental stages that all students need to go through. Find agreement on the critical thinking needed for a first year student, which will be the basis for eventually learning to be a doctor or an anatomist, or a physicist, etc.

A doctor has to judge likely diagnoses based on what they observe, and what they know about potential conditions. A scientist has to evaluate the evidence from multiple studies in order to make an informed conclusion. However, at the start of the developmental process, a six year old critical thinker merely has to learn to use the word ‘because’ appropriately in a sentence. A first year student at University is at a developmental stage between these two extremes. What is the developmental core of critical thinking that builds on using ‘because’, and which can equally lead to thinking like a doctor or thinking like a scientist?

For example, perhaps first year critical thinkers need to explain, justify and apply. Firstly they have to explain and justify their answers (rather than merely repeating the answer they memorised), and secondly, they need to apply what they learn in lectures so they can solve problems. If they learn these two aspects of critical thinking in their first year, they have the foundations for later learning the more specialised versions of critical thinking.

Stick to a small developmental core: If you stick to what critical thinkers do, and the developmental core of critical thinking, you are likely to find agreement about critical thinking even in a multi-disciplinary course. However, don’t try to include all aspects of expert critical thinking, but only the developmental core.

Having a few core thinking moves or thinking behaviours like justifying or applying is more useful than trying to include everything. Learning to be a critical thinker is like learning to be a great pianist. They both require lots and lots of practise doing ‘scales’ where students are asked, again and again and again, to explain, justify and apply. For example, for every answer you give, you might ask them “why is that the correct answer?” By regularly and frequently engaging in this thinking, students internalise it until it becomes second nature to them and they are critical thinkers. They will learn more by repeating this simply prompt than they will by frequently adding in new prompts and new aspects of thinking.

Assess critical thinking moves and behaviours: You can assess their thinking based on whether they do the core thinking. Do they give reasons or not? Do they apply their knowledge to solve novel problems?

Design assessment tasks that cannot be completed except by using the critical thinking moves. Students should be unable to give an answer by remembering the lecture or the text-book, or by googling. Tasks that involve evaluating and applying are useful for this purpose.

When you assess make sure you distinguish between assessing whether they have said the right thing (you agree with them) and whether they have done the thinking (they have given reasons to justify their answer). Just like assessing mathematics, you need to assess whether they have the right answer independently of whether they have demonstrated their working or their thinking. For example, they might have the right answer but have not given any reasons or explanations to back this up. Alternatively they could have the wrong answer but demonstrated excellent explanation and justification based on a false premise. The second example shows good critical thinking, but the first one does not, yet we are likely to only reward the first answer. When assessing critical thinking we have to put aside whether we agree or disagree with their answer and instead look for the thinking. For example, if they give us the wrong answer, we ask them “Why do you think that is correct?” and if they give us the right answer, we ask them “Why do you think that is correct?”

Posted in Planning teaching

Higher Education research and development … as a movie

I work in Higher Education as a researcher and academic developer, and I also love movies. So, obviously, I began to wonder what kind of movie best represents my work. I originally wrote this for HERDSA News to share my reflections with my colleagues in the same field.

What kind of movie encompasses our various activities: offering workshops for staff and students, teaching on a diploma in HE, developing institutional policies, researching, writing resources, and offering advice on academic practice? Here are some of my thoughts.

Are we in a mystery movie, perhaps? At least part of what we do is identify and solve the puzzles of scholarship and practice – how do you foster engagement in first year students? How can formative assessment best support learning? But higher education research and development is not a Psycho type thriller. Perhaps it’s more like the early Harry Potter movies before they got too sinister (though in our more paranoid moments we may suspect dark, market forces working in the background).

Are we the laconic gunslinger, like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of dollars? Or, because our work is very much a team effort, perhaps higher education research and development is more like The Magnificent Seven? Exciting, yes, but I think this is a damaging metaphor to adopt (and probably sexist). This makes us the good guys, but others have to be the bad guys. This metaphor would mean our colleagues are either villains to defeat or victims to protect, and neither of these are healthy relationships.

For the same reason we are not in a crime movie like The Untouchables. The lecturer that fails to engage their students is not Al Capone. We are not the higher education police. Nor are we in an adventure movie with some black and white story of good vs. evil. We are not Superman and this is not Star Wars. I don’t see us as cleaning up a corrupt town, policing crime, or fighting evil. In fact I don’t see anything wrong in higher education. There are things that can be improved, of course, but this doesn’t mean that we should see them as bad, evil and wrong. Our colleagues, our institutions, and their leaders are not the enemy, not criminals, and not evil.

Even if we’re not in a Western, it might still be important to see ourselves as higher education action heroes. This would certainly make our work meaningful and help us to keep going in the face of the inevitable slog, resistance, and the looong time it takes to make substantial changes. Yet I can’t see myself as Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider or Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, though perhaps I can identify with the hero in a teaching movie. Like Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, we make an inspiring difference (without demonising anyone).

What about a sports movie? Our work in higher education could be nicely framed as the struggle to transform a disorganised team into a winning team, like the Bad News Bears (OK, they didn’t actually win at the end, but they did improve beyond all expectations, and that might be enough). Perhaps we are like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid, providing training and development for our colleagues, students and institutions? (Though I am dubious about portraying us as the master to our colleagues). The dull drudgery of some of our work—marking, transcribing, addressing the same issue again and again—could be nicely captured in a sports movie. Ideally it would all be portrayed in a montage of shots set to stirring music like Rocky training for his big boxing match (and hopefully unlike the soldiers slogging forward, constantly under fire in Saving Private Ryan where almost everyone is killed).

Higher education research and development might sometimes feel like a serious life work, but maybe we would be better to treat it more like a comedy (Back to the Future perhaps), or better still a musical like Singing in the Rain – There are problems to overcome, but let’s sing and dance while we deal with them.

Posted in Higher education

Thirsty learners


Cooper drinking from his cat fountain

They say you can lead your students to knowledge but you can’t make them drink. True, but misleading. You can also make your students want to drink by offering them a tantalising and intriguing fountain, and by giving them salty problems that make them thirsty for the knowledge needed to solve them.


Posted in Learning, Planning teaching, Students

Reinvigorating reading


I recently discovered that reading a good book about teaching revitalised me when I was tired. So now, rather than shelving my reading because I have other work to do, I sometimes pick up a book so I can build the energy to do my other work. As Schwartz (2007) suggests, I am better off managing my energy, not managing my time.

Tony Schwartz (2007) Manage your energy not your time. Harvard Business Review, 85 (10), 63-73.

Posted in Book review, Higher education

Disobedient Teaching

disobedient teaching

Welby Ings (2017) Disobedient Teaching, Otago: University of Otago Press.


Welby Ings doesn’t tell you how to be a teacher, he shows you who you can be.

Disobedient Teaching was profound not because of what Ings was saying but how he was saying it. He pointed out many examples of wonderful teaching or leading educational change, often involving persisting for what was right despite resistance, anger and even threats. But more importantly, the examples were inspiring. In one example Welby describes how he helped hide Pacific Island students under a classroom so immigration officials would not deport them under the draconian New Zealand laws of the time. In another example he describes how he enabled his students to deeply understand prejudice by asking them to walk through town, each student on their own, dressed as ‘losers’. This was a risky but well-planned and weighty learning experience for the students.

I can’t do justice to what he shows the reader. You have to read and feel for yourself.

Posted in Book review, Learning to teach