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The Dangers of "Teaching the Way We Best Learn"

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

You have likely heard the adage, "we teach the way we were taught." It is a phrase often used to explain why so many people lecture. The rationale is that many of us lecture because that is what we experienced as students. Yes, the lecture remains the most frequently used teaching strategy in higher education, a position it has held for nearly 900 years, but there is more than one way to lecture. The term lecture encompasses a variety of delivery strategies, including expository lectures, discussion lectures, story-telling lectures, Socratic lectures, among others (Major, Harris, & Zakrajsek, 2015). Even taking into consideration the many types of lectures we may have experienced, the lecture is certainly not the only teaching strategy we saw as students.

Nearly 50 years ago, Johnson and Johnson (1975) published a book on cooperative learning. Over 40 years ago, Larry Michaelson began using team-based learning at the University of Oklahoma (Michaelson, et al., 1982). Hands-on applied teaching strategies, such as service-learning, date back to the mid-1990s. As with faculty today, our courses were likely delivered frequently through lecture, but also included other teaching strategies as well.

Reframing “We Teach the Way We Were Taught”

As we each became faculty members, there was no mandate regarding how we should teach. We selected teaching strategies that helped us to learn, and that we assume will also work well for our students. Therefore, it stands to reason that perhaps we don't actually "teach the way we were taught," so much as "we teach the way we best learn." Consider the implications of the difference between teaching the way we were taught as compared to the idea that we teach the way we learn best. The latter notion implies we, as faculty, are not passive recipients who select a pedagogical strategy simply because it is all we have ever seen. It suggests we, likely unconsciously, chose a teaching strategy that worked for us as learners. This affinity to employ a particular teaching strategy is a function of personal preference and confidence in what we know worked for ourselves as learners. What we fail to see is that just because a particular strategy worked well for ourselves does not mean it will work well for everyone.

We are not consciously deciding to ignore the needs of others; we simply selected a teaching strategy that makes the most sense, because it worked best when we were students.

Also, in "teaching the way I was taught," responsibility is minimized. If I lecture all the time, I shouldn't be blamed, according to this logic, for I am just teaching the way I was taught. If students are failing, it is their fault, because I am teaching the way my faculty members taught me, and I learned quite well from them. This implicit bias may seem innocuous, but as with all implicit bias, it delivers unintended negative consequences. Not everyone sees the world as I do, and not everyone learns the way I do. Thinking of the implications of implicit bias is scary, but there is freedom in knowledge. Using evidence-based teaching allows faculty to overcome the adverse effects of teaching as we were taught.

Unintended Negative Consequences

We, as faculty members, are not passive recipients who choose a pedagogical strategy because we have no choice. We may select teaching approaches that work for ourselves as learners, not because we are consciously deciding to ignore the needs of others, but more so because we fail to understand effective alternatives exist. This need not be an admonishment on our professional responsibility to educate others. It is merely a recognition that when we look at the world, we tend to see it from our perspective, the one with which we are most familiar. It takes effort to consider other perspectives. When we sell a home, we are surprised to think buyers would repaint such beautiful colors. When we go to a restaurant, we order appetizers and suggest to others that they will love the grilled Brussel sprouts (they are delicious), because we fail to grasp others may have different tastes. We tend to see the world through the lens that makes the most sense to us, which is what we tend to like.

There is certainly no harm in having a preference and then advocating for that preference whenever possible. The challenge is that teaching is not about our learning; it is about our learners. It is not the job of the server in a restaurant to offer only the food they most prefer, but instead to help you to navigate the menu to identify what works best for you, food allergies, preferences, and all. We should be doing the same as faculty members. If I learn best from an expository lecture, then some students, those most like me, will likely also do well if I use that teaching strategy all of the time. There are others, however, who learn better through different approaches such as team-based learning, or a jigsaw technique. The challenge of teaching becomes how best to help those who learn differently from you as the faculty member. When teaching, we must recognize and reach those who have different lived experiences, those with ethnicities different from your own, and those who grew up with a different value of education. Carefully observe your students. Who performs best in your course? Who has difficulty mastering the content? Compare the students who are succeeding with those who are underperforming. If you see yourself in those are doing well, it may well be that they also learn best the way you learn best, particularly if you primarily teach the way you learned best.

Expanding Your Teaching Toolbox

There is another common phrase that we must continually build our teaching toolbox. I think of my teaching toolbox as being similar to a standard toolbox with tools found at any hardware store. Your primary tool, the one you use most, might be a hammer, a screwdriver, or a pair of plyers. It is the tool that you keep closest to you and can adapt to so many uses. If that tool is a pair of plyers, and you need to hang a photo from a small nail, you might use the plyers to pound in the nail. It is not the best tool for the job, and likely results in poor outcomes at times. It is beneficial to learn to keep other tools at hand and to use them at appropriate times, just as it is with your preferred teaching strategy. If you teach like a hammer, classroom learning will always look like a nail. To build our teaching toolbox is to add additional tools, not giving up completely our favorite tool, but to add others.

I should not always “teach the way I best learned.” To do so will disadvantage students who are least like me, and those students deserve an opportunity to be successful. If I primarily use the lecture method of teaching, I should add a "think-pair-share" at times. Perhaps even a jigsaw and problem-based learning sprinkled throughout the semester. If I get bold, I might also try a role-play in class. That is something I am very uncomfortable with and did not care for as a student, but then again, those who learn very different from myself might benefit from role plays through a reacting to the past role-play approach. It will take work on my part to learn to teach with a larger toolbox, but it is an effort well worth expending.

Those who best learn differently than I did as a student deserve a legitimate chance to be educated as well.

So, although it is comfortable and feels right to "teach the way I best learned," that is not an equitable way to teach. I now strive to use a variety of teaching strategies to increase the educational opportunities for as many students as possible, even if it is a bit uncomfortable from time to time.

Discussion Questions:

What was the teaching strategy that worked best for you when you were a student? What teaching strategy was the most challenging for you? Explain why for each.

How varied is your current approach to teaching? List the different strategies you tend to use and the proportion of time you feel you use each strategy.

Who was your favorite faculty member when you were a student? What approaches to teaching did that faculty member use, and what proportion of the time would you estimate that person spent on each strategy.

References Cited

Johnson, D. W. & Johnson, R. J. (1975). Learning together and alone. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Major, C. H., Harris, M.S., & Zakrajsek, T.D. (2016). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed activities to put students on the path to success. New York, NY: Routledge.

Michaelsen, L.K., Watson, W.E., Cragin, J.P., and Fink, L.D. (1982) Team-based learning: A potential solution to the problems of large classes. Exchange: The Organizational Behavior Teaching Journal 7(4): 18-33.

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David Betancourt
David Betancourt
Feb 27, 2020

What a timely blog, I had several conversations with colleagues this week who talked about using teaching practices that they saw when they where students (and worked for them). Student-centered practices (flipped classroom, experiential models, collaborative learning, etc.) are so impactful when planning and implementing learning experiences for the students. Embracing growth and change through modeling not only empowers the faculty, but the students. Love the win-wins! Thanks for this blog post!

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