A Classic for a Reason: McKeachie’s Teaching Tips

McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers
Reviewed by Nicole Deterding, Departmental Teaching Fellow for Sociology

McKeachie's Teaching TipsMarilla Svinicki and Wilbert McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, first published in 1950 and now in its 13th edition, offers a hearty bread-and-butter treatment of college teaching that will both sate hungry first-time instructors and give veterans plenty to chew on.  The book’s strengths are its humorous, practical voice; its clear summaries of research and theory about student learning; and its concrete tips and suggestions for central elements of college teaching.

The book’s tone is one of its main attractions; pedagogical material can be notoriously abstract and dry, but the authors’ humor lightens the mood.  Svinicki and McKeachie provide a balanced treatment of the research and theory grounding their topics—pre-course planning, discussion-leading, active learning strategies—but also include witty commentary about common techniques.  From the chapter on stimulating discussion:

“The ‘classic’ (and I do mean classic) discussion technique is the Socratic method.  In television, novels and anecdotes about the first year of law school, it is usually portrayed as a sadistic, anxiety-producing method of eliciting student stupidity, and even when I place myself in the role of slave boy taught by Socrates in the Meno, I feel more like a pawn than an active learner.  Perhaps this is why I’ve never been very good at Socratic teaching; nonetheless, I believe it can be used as an effective method of stimulating student thinking, and it can have the quality of an interesting game rather than an inquisition.”

This section goes on to list specific types of questions one can ask to help students derive general principles from specific cases, the analytical aim of Socratic teaching. These chatty asides add more than entertainment value: we begin to understand that the choices we make as instructors are, to some extent, matters of personal style.  We don’t need to love a technique to recognize its appropriateness for some learners or some teaching goals.  One hopes that our students leave our courses feeling the same.

Like Lang’s On Course which covers the semester week by week and begins with pre-semester preparation, Teaching Tips begins with a timeline that takes the reader through setting course goals and objectives three months before the semester begins to  designing the first course meeting.  The authors then cover basic pedagogical skills such as building in incentives for students to read the assigned material and leading discussions effectively.  These sections will likely be most useful for beginning instructors or those without much formal exposure to pedagogy.  From here, the book moves on to material that will add to even a seasoned instructor’s repertoire: tips for interpreting (sometimes bizarre) student behavior and techniques to improve students’ engagement with course material.  The sections on group-based and experiential learning provide particularly useful guidance for making active learning techniques as effective as possible.  These include practical suggestions for designing group work (it’s better not to let students choose their own groups—if you set the groups, they’ll likely be more diverse, less determined by pre-existing friendships, and better at staying on task) and guidelines for assessing group projects (develop measures of accountability for learning and productivity that assess individuals as well as the group as a whole).  Instructors might arrive at such practical insights through trial and error, but why not learn from the experts?  I would strongly recommend these sections to those wishing to introduce active learning exercises and projects into their courses.

The book concludes with two important chapters: one on teaching for higher-level goals (such as independent learning and reflective values and ethics) and one on lifelong learning for teachers.  These chapters focus on learning as a developmental process for both students and instructors. Here, Svinicki and McKeachie most effectively outline the philosophy underlying their approach to teaching: instructors serve as powerful models of the active engagement and reflection we hope to see in our students.  There are important opportunities to model these traits in our approach to course material as well as in our approach to teaching as a craft. The authors argue that getting to know new groups of students and experiment with fresh techniques are what makes teaching a continual challenge and joy—and we feel inclined to believe them as they’re 30 and 60 years into their own teaching careers.

Overall, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips provides a thoughtful coupling of abstract teaching goals and practical tips for achieving them.  For this reason, it has served as a great introductory text for our teaching practicum in the Sociology Department.  It’s no surprise that this book has many fans; in fact, the authors dedicate the 2011 edition to the teachers who have expressed their thanks over the years.  Svinicki and McKeachie’s effort to introduce their readers to more thoughtful, reflective practice make this book a classic in college pedagogy.

3 thoughts on “A Classic for a Reason: McKeachie’s Teaching Tips

  1. Enlightening review! The publication looks to be of particular interest to aid in developing an effective learning environment across a wide spectrum of teaching topics. I must get a copy to help with my own teaching challenges. Thank you for the valuable post!

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