McKeachie’s Tips on Discussions and Lectures

Wilbert McKeachie is a past director of the Center for Research in Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan (the first Center for Teaching & Learning in the United States). He taught until the age of 84 and produced a large amount of scholarship on teaching – see his long list of publications.

His foundational book on teaching, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, originally published in 1950, is in its 14th edition, and it is often cited as a “must read” book for teaching in higher education. Teaching Tips provides practical strategies for many topics in teaching, including: the first day of class, discussions and lectures, assessment strategies, diversity, active learning, experiential learning, teaching in a laboratory setting, teaching with technology, teaching thinking skills, and more. Teaching Tips is available at the USF Library (378.17 M153). The information below is a summary of Chap. 5 (on discussions) and Chap. 6 (on lectures).

Chap. 5 Facilitating Discussion

McKeachie argues that discussions are “the prototypic teaching method for fostering active learning” and that discussions are more necessary in large classes than in small ones.

Discussion is an appropriate teaching strategy for doing the following:
• Helping students learn to think in depth about the subject matter.
• Helping students learn to evaluate the logic of and evidence for their own and others’ positions.
• Giving students opportunities to formulate applications of principles.
• Developing motivation for further learning.
• Helping students articulate what they’ve learned.
• Getting prompt feedback on student understanding or misunderstanding.
• Taking advantage of the impact that social interaction has on learning and behavior.

Start a discussion by asking students to do the following:
• Reflect on an experience.
• Present their point of view on a controversy (on a topic of disagreement).
• Apply a class concept to another situation.
• Compare or contrast one concept to another.
• Evaluate the value of a concept.
• Ask their own critical questions about a concept.
• Solve a problem.

McKeachie argues that discussions are useful because they help students in the following ways:
• Express ideas and receive feedback that promotes learning, retention, and use of knowledge.
• Develop a willingness to share ideas and to listen to opposing points of view.
• Become motivated to learn out of class.
• Develop evaluation skills.
• Become sensitive to the feelings of other students.
• Learn how to take notes on their own.

Chap. 6 How to Make Lectures More Effective

According to McKeachie, “the lecture is probably the oldest teaching method and still the method most widely used… Effective lecturers combine the talents of scholar, writer, producer, comedian, entertainer, and teacher. Nevertheless, … few college professors combine these talents in optimal ways.”

Lectures are effective for the following purposes:
• Presenting up-to-date information.
• Summarizing material from a variety of sources.
• Adapting material to a particular group of students.
• Helping students read more effectively by providing an orientation and conceptual framework.
• Focusing on key concepts, principles, or ideas.
• Helping students become aware of a problem, conflicting points of view, or challenges to ideas previously taken for granted.
• Motivating students through a display of instructor enthusiasm.
• Modeling academic reasoning skills.

Methods for organizing lectures:
• In the introduction, point to a gap in the student’s knowledge, challenge previous ideas, raise a question.
• Begin with a demonstration, example, case, or application to capture attention.
• Common organizational methods: cause to effect, chronological sequence, parallel organization, problem to solution, pro vs. con and resolution, familiar to unfamiliar, concept to application.
• Don’t include too much information.
• When using examples, move from the concrete to the abstract and repeat the process to help students understand the principle.
• Pause after each major point for periodic summaries, to allow students to catch up, to clarify questions, and to check for understanding.
• At the end, ask students to summarize the lecture in writing (such as in a “minute paper”) and collect the summaries.

Click on the Teaching tag for more strategies on effective teaching, or contact the Dean for Teaching & Learning Outcomes.

How effective are discussions and lectures in your classes?  Please post a comment below.

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