Lessons Learned in 60 Years of Teaching, Research, and Learning: Wilbert McKeachie’s APS Award Address


For his James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award Address at the 2009 APS Convention, Bill McKeachie chose to be interviewed rather than to deliver a traditional lecture. In preparing for the interview, I gathered questions from 47 well-known teachers of psychology. Together, these colleagues generated 101 unique questions. Obviously though, with only an hour for the interview during the Convention we could discuss only a fraction of these questions. In selecting the final interview questions, I focused on the most common issues addressed by our question writers.

Buskist: How did you get started in your teaching career? Who influenced you? What kind of impact did they have?

McKeachie: Well, I think the most influential mentor that I had was Don Marquis. He was my doctoral advisor and the most brilliant person I ever knew. Don had been the chair of the top department in the country at Yale University. And somehow he went from the top department in the country to probably the hundredth ranked department in the country at Michigan. I don’t know how they talked him into it but he came out. I guess it was the challenge of trying to build a department — and he built it into what we thought at the time was the best department in the country.

Buskist: What did he do to inspire you in your career?

McKeachie: We were going to write a book on teaching together but he never got his chapter written. However, he encouraged me to write a book or at least to take my mimeographed notes and compile them into a book. So that was certainly an important thing to get me started on something that would eventually become my career.

Buskist: And what a famous career it was to become!

McKeachie: Well, I became famous without trying because I was the only person doing my kind of work, and it wasn’t a very wide circle of people with whom I was famous — I became well known for being the person in teaching.

Buskist: What is the single most important value about teaching and learning that you discovered early in your career that has stood the test of time?

McKeachie: I think probably the most important principle is that students will be motivated if they feel that you really want them, as individuals, to learn — the most important thing is for students to feel that you know them as individuals and that you are really committed to their learning.

Buskist: So it’s kind of like the encouragement you received from your mentor: Someone who showed a genuine interest in you as an individual and in what you wished to accomplish.

McKeachie: Yes. For example, at the end of my lectures, I would often say “I’m going to Espresso Royale,” or some other local coffee shop, “and if six or eight of you would like to go along I’d love to have a cup of coffee with you.” So, I gave students a chance to get more direct contact with me than they would have had otherwise.

Buskist: What kinds of things would you discuss?

McKeachie: They frequently would ask about the textbook or the lecture. One of the things I learned was they learned more when I wasn’t talking than when I was talking. They learned more talking to one another than from listening to me.

Buskist: These informal meetings really gave your students the opportunity to get to know you as an individual and see the personal side of who you are.

McKeachie: Yes, and I think that’s important. Students need to feel that the teacher is a human being. Sometimes I think lecturers distance themselves from the audience, but I think students learn more if they see that you are a person who is trying to reach them as human beings.

Buskist: Do you have any advice on how we can do that in the classroom?

McKeachie: I think it’s important to learn your students’ names. For example, I had one graduate student who got poor student ratings early in the term. One student commented that the teaching assistant “doesn’t even know our names!” I talked to this graduate student about the importance of knowing all of his students’ names and he said, “What difference does that make? It doesn’t have anything to do with learning.” I told him try learning their names and see if it makes any difference in the class. At the end of the term, he told me that “Yes, it did make a difference!”

Buskist: Are there any other principles that have stood the test of time?

McKeachie: One of the most important things in teaching well is to be expressive, to use gestures, and to move around. I moved around easily because I would walk to the blackboard to write things on it. The other thing about going to the blackboard is that when you walk to it, the students have a little time to catch up. Movement also attracts attention, so it brings them back to the next thing or whatever else I’m going to do. That’s more difficult to accomplish with PowerPoint, I think.

Buskist: What about enthusiasm — how important is this quality to master teaching?

McKeachie: Excellent teachers are enthusiastic teachers — if you don’t care about the material how can you expect the students to care about it? It is very important to convey to students that you are excited about the material and about them learning it.

Buskist: Over the course of your career, what changes have you seen in college students?

McKeachie: I think the students of the 1960s represented the biggest changes I noticed in students. The 1960s was the time of creative student activism and strikes. These students were full of idealism — they were very much against the Vietnam War and they had values to which they were firmly committed, although they were sometimes obnoxious.

Buskist: Were you able to use or incorporate that idealism in your teaching?

McKeachie: Yes, I think so. It’s important to recognize that students have values and in fact we as a society share certain values. Some teachers think they have to keep their courses value free. I decided very early you can’t really do that because your values will be there regardless. I told my students, “I’m a Baptist. I believe God is love. I have certain values that are like that and that may influence the way I teach. I grew up as a Presbyterian in a small rural area and on a farm. Those things are probably going to affect some of the things I say. So, if they are getting in your way, raise your hand, ask a question or challenge me.” And that’s what some of them did.

Buskist: So you openly invited students to challenge you?

McKeachie: Yes, I think that’s very important. It’s pretty dull just to listen to someone talk for an hour, although I did get student evaluations saying, “Dr. McKeachie doesn’t ‘teach’ us as much as he should because he spends more time letting us talk to one another and he’s not giving us the information we came here to get.”

Buskist: That’s a very interesting point. Some students and administrators think that if a teacher is not lecturing, then teaching is not occurring. How did you convince students that their involvement in the course is beneficial to their learning?

McKeachie: In whatever we do, even when we are lecturing, it’s very important to get across to the students why we are doing it and to give them the theory behind it. If they understand the theory behind your teaching, then they can then apply it themselves in their own learning later on, and they will be more likely to accept what you are doing as a teacher.

Buskist: It sounds like you are saying that it is important that teachers get students to buy into their education.

McKeachie: Yes. Students will come to learn that teachers want them to become lifelong learners, and they can’t do that if they don’t understand what learning is all about and if they aren’t motivated.

Buskist: Was this realization a foundation for developing the  “Learning to Learn”  course at Michigan?

McKeachie: Yes, that was part of it. I first taught a course in Learning to Learn when cognitive psychology came in vogue because I thought, “Here, we’re learning more about how people learn and we should teach students something about that so they can be learners the rest of their lives.” I think that is more important than the content in introductory psychology.

Buskist: What kind of success can we expect if we take the time to work with our students in teaching them better learning strategies?

McKeachie: I think students will be more likely to go on to another course in psychology or even to major in it. In fact, research shows that students who have been taught effective learning strategies do better in more advanced classes, not just psychology, but in general (e.g., McKeachie, Pintrich, & Lin, 1985).

Buskist: Let’s shift gears here just a bit and talk about the other side of the lectern — the teacher. Over the course of a career, how does one maintain one’s enthusiasm and passion for the work? How have you done it?

McKeachie: There needs to be continual challenge. I think that one of the big motivational things in our lives is that we like challenges if we can do something about them. The fact that something that works in one class might not work in another is a good reason for why teachers should keep trying to understand their students: What they are interested in, what is relevant to their lives, and so on. These are the kinds of challenges that motivated me in my teaching.

Buskist: The central idea behind this challenge is that teaching is live, it occurs in real time, and no matter how well prepared you are you never know what’s going to happen. Is that correct?

McKeachie: That’s right.

Buskist: What would you have to say to those teachers who lack motivation to become good teachers? What can we do to help those teachers who are, for lack of a better term, burned out?

McKeachie: When I was a department chair, I would ask my unmotivated faculty why they felt burned out. We would try to find things they still liked to do. One of the things I did if they didn’t like what they were teaching would be to ask them if there was a different course they would like to teach. I wanted to give them a chance to do something that at least they would see as rewarding and try and revive their motivation.

Buskist: So you provided them opportunities to seek a challenge?

McKeachie: Yes, certainly.

Buskist: What role has your life as a researcher played in your ability to maintain your enthusiasm as a teacher?

McKeachie: That’s an easy question for me because my research is on learning and teaching, so there was always something more I wanted to understand. I kept getting offers to go into administration and I kept saying to myself , “Maybe once my research gets into shape.” But my research never got in shape — there was always something more I needed to do and that’s what kept me going.

Buskist: What about those faculty whose research specialty does not involve teaching and learning?

McKeachie: I think that even if you are doing research in other areas, the combination of teaching and research is better than doing either 100 percent. Interestingly, when I chaired the department, I found that faculty who were 100 percent research didn’t produce any more research than the ones who were both teaching and doing research.

Buskist: Could you have been happy doing only teaching or only research or did you need the synergy from doing both to help maintain your level of excitement for the work?

McKeachie: I think it helped, but I think I could have been happy just teaching. I love to teach.

Buskist: How long have you been retired?

McKeachie: Well, officially, I quit taking a salary when I was 70, or 18 years ago. However, up until recently, I taught one class each term. I pitched softball for 50 years so my hips wore out and my shoulders wore out and I had to have them all replaced, so I haven’t taught the last 3 years.

Buskist: So you truly are the bionic man?

McKeachie: Yes, I set off the alarms when I go through security!

Buskist: What advice would you give to students who are interested in a career in teaching in higher education?

McKeachie: I would advise them to try to get some experience as a teaching assistant, so they can find out how much fun teaching can be. I always try to persuade new teachers that it’s good to teach introductory psychology because this course keeps one up-to-date on the whole field of psychology.

Buskist: Any other advice — say for graduate students who are on the verge of becoming assistant professors?

McKeachie: I would say two things to them. First, find a person in the department or on campus with whom you can talk about teaching. Sadly, many faculty never talk to one another about their teaching — I think they would find that they would be better teachers if they would just talk to each other about their teaching, what seems to be working, and what seems not to work, and so on. Second, avoid sarcasm. I think it can be devastating to some students.

Buskist: Very good. We have talked about motivation in teaching, but what about motivation for learning? For example, how might teachers approach students who seem not only disinterested in psychology, but disinterested in their own education?

McKeachie: One thing that I did that seemed to work quite well for some students was to ask them to write their life’s goals. I would ask them, “What would you like to be like 50 years from now or what would you like people to say about you when you die?” Then, I would say, “Now write down what you have to do while you are in college to achieve those goals.” Next, I would ask them to break the process down even further: “What do you need to do this year to reach these goals?” But I would not stop there; I also asked them “What do you need to do this month? This week? In this class?” and so forth. I think by breaking down long-term goals into short term goals that must be accomplished immediately, teachers can motivate their students to stay interested in their courses and to stay interested in what college has to offer.

Buskist: What in your mind stands out as the key characteristics of a good teacher or a master teacher?

McKeachie: Master teachers have many different characteristics, but I think enthusiasm is perhaps the most important one. You obviously also want to have some understanding of the subject matter, and another important quality is the willingness to admit that you don’t know some things.

Buskist: How does one go from being a mediocre teacher to being an excellent teacher?

McKeachie: In addition to talking to others — colleagues as well as students — pay attention to student evaluations of your teaching and try to collect them earlier rather than later in the term.  When I was teaching, I would collect ratings after the first month of classes. I would look them over and talk about them with my students. I would say “Here are some of the things you said in the ratings and here are some of the things I’ll try to do differently, but what are some of the ways you would like me to deal with these?”

Buskist: You openly discussed your student evaluations with your students?

McKeachie: Yes, and over the years I learned how to become a better teacher because of those discussions.

Buskist: Do you have any advice to those teachers who are anxious about getting negative evaluations?

McKeachie: There are always two or three students in every class who will be negative about your teaching and their comments are what will stick in your mind. I think it is important for all teachers to know that they should not expect to be universally liked by their students — outside of your life as a teacher, you will not make friends with everyone you meet, so you shouldn’t expect everyone to love you as a teacher. I never got perfect ratings, except one term when I was a teaching assistant.

Buskist: What about improving teaching in general? Are college professors better teachers today than they were several decades ago?

McKeachie: Yes, teaching is a lot better than it used to be. Around 1960, we founded the first teaching and learning center in the U.S. (the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching) to improve teaching at the University of Michigan. Now almost every university has some sort of center or a committee that is devoted to improving teaching. I think these sorts of efforts have helped elevate the overall quality of teaching and learning that goes on in higher education today.

I also think that having faculty create teaching dossiers or portfolios has improved teaching.  Creating these documents helps because it gets faculty to think about collecting evidence that they are, in fact, good teachers.  I also think these documents provide evidence that promotion committees take more seriously than simply a set of student evaluations.

Buskist: What is the fate of the university? Will it survive the tremendous shifts in world cultures that are being brought about by rapidly advancing technologies?

McKeachie: Boy, I probably won’t be around to find out, but yes, I think it will survive. Universities are very adaptive and will change to meet the needs of the times. Obviously, technology has made a difference, but what technology does is to provide useful tools for teaching and, over time, teachers learn to adapt these tools to achieve their goals.

Buskist: Do you think that distance education is a threat to university survival?

McKeachie: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s going to displace face-to-face classes. As human beings, we are motivated by other human beings. Being able to see facial expressions and other nonverbal cues is something you can’t duplicate as easily in distance education, even though you can put visual images on a computer monitor or projection screen. It does not provide a strong sense of having another human being deeply involved with you and trying to help you learn.

Buskist: So teaching truly is social psychological?

McKeachie: Yes, I think so.

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