A Review Teaching Tips (10th Edition)

by Janice Albert

EVERYTHING ABOUT “Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and
Theory for College and University Teachers” (Houghton Mifflin, 10th edition), by Dr. Wilbert McKeachie, suggests that it was originally intended for the beginning college-level teacher or teaching assistant. Now in its tenth edition, “Teaching Tips” is not so much one book as an anthology written by seven authors. The overall plan of the book takes the reader from the first steps of planning a course through the basic and advanced skills of “facilitating student learning,” finally to a goal of lifelong learning for both teacher and student.

This ambitious plan makes the book applicable throughout
many years of a career, but it also forces a degree of compression
and generalization. In addition, chapters by six authors other than main author (Wilbert McKeachie) are so different in tone and consciousness, that they cry out to be considered separately from the main body of the text. For example, Chapter 2, written by Dr. McKeachie, covers basic practices in setting up a course-ordering textbooks, writing a syllabus, planning your instructional time.

The chapter seems to assume an ordinary, classroom-based college situation. Chapter 3, however, written by Graham Gibbs, is suddenly rhetorical and disputatious. Gibbs asserts that “There is no clear evidence that lots of class contact is good for students or even necessary.” Gibbs, a teacher in the Open University, a distance learning institution in the U.K., goes on to present a series of interesting learning activities from which the reader might glean several useful teaching ideas. But distance learning forces instructors to find substitutes for classroom work, and Gibbs’s agenda has caused him to focus on examples of poorly constructed classroom-based assignments that are simply bad practices to begin with.

In addition, some of his reasoning invites argument. “In Holland students have been found to work on their studies for about 42 hours a week, including both in- and out-of-class activities, regardless of how many hours they spent in class. If class hours are lowered, then these students simply spend more time studying out of class to bring the total up to a reasonably hard-working week.” My guess is that in America students behave differently, and I hope this chapter does not cause too many American T.A.s to find this out the hard way.

A chapter I turned to with interest? Chapter 20: “Taking Student Social Diversity into Account,” by Nancy Van Note Chism of Ohio State University. This chapter fully subscribes to the overarching theory of the text, that teachers are “facilitators” of student learning. That is, the text reminds us repeatedly, students need to
feel welcome, respected as individuals, personally acknowledged.
The professor, like a good host, makes students feel comfortable.
(If students cheat, Chapter 8 suggests that the first step is to “reduce the pressure” in your course.) Who can disagree that American education in this century prioritizes the needs of students above all else? But in Chapter 20 Nancy Chism brings up many of the problems facing college faculty today (please note: you will be expected to come up with your own solutions, as Chism offers little in the way of solutions).

Noting that teachers are faced with the need to adapt to the variety of students in the classroom, Chism calls the instructor to welcome diverse groups, and to acknowledge different perspectives, to examine our curricula for ways to provide role models to people of color, gays and lesbians, older students and disabled students. Yet, she warns, students who represent any of these groups do not want to be identified as such, but want, rather, to be treated as individuals. This is the toughest balancing act in the classroom today, and Chism might provide some “tips” here, some examples of model behavior, rather than relying on obvious racial slurs and acts of insensitivity to illustrate her points.

Useful teaching tips might include how to predict which of the groups to include, how to weigh relevance to the subject matter against the need of a group to feel represented, how to determine whether the inclusion of an author had the intended effect or was an empty, possibly irritating gesture. In some places the text is surprisingly dated. “There are … areas not covered by the formal rules of the college, in which instructors must tread lightly. For example, in most college cultures instructors who become intimately involved with their students are overstepping the bounds of propriety.” On the next page, we learn that “Students have had experience in previous classes with instructors, who, in a more or less fatherly way, gave information and rewarded those students who could best give it back.”

In a discussion of “Angry, Aggressive, Challenging Students,” McKeachie says, “I use the male pronoun because these students are most likely to be males.” Perhaps in his experience this is true. And finally, on page 246 we read, “Remember that your problem students are human beings who have problems and need your sympathy and help — no matter how much you would like to strangle them.” Sometimes books with a simple purpose turn out to be so popular that they become candidates for transformation into multipurpose, do-all, fix-all wonderworkers. While the tenth edition of Teaching Tips still has some excellent parts, it is no longer the elegantly simple, useful tool it was in past editions. However, the book is still a fine resource for faculty who understand that tips are just that, helpful suggestions.

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