Member Article

Ways of the Master Teacher

I would be willing to wager my next year’s salary that most of us can think of at least one or two undergraduate teachers who influenced us to pursue a career in psychology. I would also be willing to ante up the same sum in support of a more general claim: Most college graduates have had at least one professor who influenced their thinking in some important way. Whether such influence resides in shaping students’ career trajectories, inspiring intellectual engagement in the subject matter, or modeling critical thinking skills, some professors clearly are more effective teachers than are other professors (see, e.g., Greimel-Fuhrmann, & Geyer, 2003).

You may be tempted to respond to this observation with a single utterance, “Duh!” When you think about it, the observation prompts several interesting questions: What makes one teacher more influential than another? What qualities do highly effective and influential teachers – so called “master teachers” – possess that you don’t? What can you do to engage your students so that they learn more? How can you become a more effective teacher?

Such questions came to me about 15 years ago when I had my first opportunity to teach a large section of introductory psychology. Although I had taught several courses as a graduate student and had about 10 years of full-time teaching under my belt, I had never before considered the possibility that I might become a truly effective teacher – I was satisfied with being good enough, but no better than that if I didn’t have to be. After all, my raison d’être was to become an effective researcher, and at the time, the thought that effective teaching and effective research could coexist peacefully was well beyond my intellectual horizon.

When those questions appeared, they quickly captured my attention. I began to read the literature on teaching (e.g., Eble, 1983; Fuhrmann & Grasha, 1983), and discovered, of course, that plenty of people had been enticed by similar questions. Some of these people were master teachers who described the personal qualities they believed essential to effective teaching; others studied the adjectives found in letters of recommendation written for individuals nominated for teaching awards or in student teaching evaluations that seemed most descriptive of effective teachers.

Like any academic literature, the teaching literature raises as many questions as it answers, and these questions, of course, compel inquiry. Soon, I found myself collecting data on teaching practices of master teachers.

Among my first forays into this area was a sabbatical road trip: I jumped into my red Nissan pickup and for about six weeks drove through the eastern United States and into Canada, stopping along the way to interview master teachers who taught at different baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral institutions.

Armed with my trusty cassette recorder and about 20 questions, I interviewed 30 teachers from different disciplines for about one hour each. In advance of the trip, I had called or e-mailed department chairs, deans, and academic vice-presidents asking them to identify master teachers at their institutions. I then contacted these teachers semi-randomly to schedule interviews. When possible, I observed these individuals teaching in the classroom, laboratory, or studio.

Once back home, I transcribed the tapes, culling their contents for basic principles of effective teaching common to all or most of the interviewees. I found 10:

  1. Master teachers focus on thinking processes and problem-solving skills rather than merely facts and figures. These teachers rely less on lecturing than they do individual and group problem-solving activities and use facts and figures in the service of teaching critical thinking skills.
  2. Master teachers keep the content of their courses current. They continually update the content of their courses and infuse their class presentations with examples from recent laboratory or field studies. These teachers often share personal stories about their involvement in research or other relevant creative endeavors.
  3. Master teachers are enthusiastic about their subject matter, teaching, and students. They make their passion for teaching obvious to their students by taking an interest in the students themselves, for example, learning their names and taking time to chat with them before and after class. These teachers develop positive rapport with their students, which makes it more likely that students will attend class and participate in learning activities.
  4. Master teachers make learning fun, but not necessarily entertaining. They attempt to connect their subject matter to everyday life experiences of their students. They sprinkle their class presentations with interesting and practical examples, including appropriate personal stories and self-deprecating humor. Such examples and story telling help provide context for students as they attempt to understand what is being taught.
  5. Master teachers are high in self-monitoring. They are sensitive to the effects of their presentation style and classroom behavior on their students’ ability to learn. They make immediate and ongoing adjustments to the pace and content of their presentation by attending to how students are reacting to class materials, paying particular attention to students’ facial expressions throughout class. These teachers solicit feedback from their students several times each academic term rather than relying only on the more typical end-of-the-semester course evaluation.
  6. Master teachers show a genuine concern for their students’ academic welfare. These teachers monitor not only their classroom behavior; they track the behavior of their students as well. They pay attention to their students’ academic performances; they seek out struggling students and invite them to drop by during office hours for extra help and encouragement. They take extra time to explain particularly difficult concepts rather than to defer to the urgency to “get through” with a topic in a predetermined amount of time.
  7. Master teachers view teaching as an experimental endeavor that naturally entails risk. They tinker with specific elements of their courses, although not always in ways that mirror the controlled conditions of the laboratory. They continually ask themselves two questions: Is there a more effective way of covering the subject matter? and Are there other ways to make my presentation more interesting and relevant to my students?
  8. Master teachers use tests for both evaluative and instructional purposes. Tests focus less on regurgitation of factual information than they do on the analysis and integration of information. Thus, these teachers use tests as a tool for exercising students’ critical thinking abilities, which pushes students beyond what they know to thinking about what they don’t know. Such tests comprise a mixture of field and application questions as well as problems that reflect current theoretical and empirical problems in the discipline.
  9. Master teachers establish high academic standards. These teachers require their students to complete numerous and varied assignments at a high level of competency in order to earn a high course grade. They establish rigorous, but fair, grading criteria and they offer their students the support and encouragement needed to meet or exceed those criteria.
  10. Master teachers possess a deep sense of humanity and a seemingly boundless capacity for caring about others. They perceive themselves as partners with their students in the learning process; they experience deep pride in their students’ accomplishments and disappointment in their students’ failures. They realize full well that they cannot connect to, or reach all their students, but this awareness does not prevent them from trying.

Of course, master teachers are also bright, knowledgeable, well-organized, highly prepared, well-spoken, and incredibly hardworking, but these are not the qualities that distinguish them from average or even very good teachers. Anyone who aspires to become a master teacher must realize that these qualities represent a starting point and not the destination for excellence in teaching.

This point raises another interesting question: How does an average or very good teacher become a better teacher, perhaps even a master teacher? Obviously, the most logical first step is to begin reading in the area. Fortunately, in addition to the journal Teaching of Psychology, a large number of excellent texts are currently available (e.g., Forsyth, 2003; McKeachie, 2002; Perlman, McCann, & McFadden, 1999; 2004). A second step would be to adopt any of the 10 practices outlined previously. Keep in mind, though, that you must develop a style of teaching that best suits your disposition and demeanor. Adopting any practice merely for the sake of the practice per se will reap little dividend over the long run.

A third and final suggestion is to assess your teaching effectiveness frequently and thoroughly based on teacher behaviors that have been linked to both student learning outcomes and student enjoyment of the subject matter. As almost every modern book on teaching stresses, acting on honest feedback – from peers as well as students – is essential to improving any teacher’s skill level (e.g., McKeachie, 2002). My recent research with the Teacher Behavior Checklist shows that although there is a large overlap in the extent to which teachers and students agree on those teacher qualities and behaviors key to effective teaching, important differences exist (e.g., Buskist, Sikorski, Buckley & Saville, 2002). Teachers tend to place more weight on particular techniques of teaching than students do; students tend to emphasize the importance of the student-teacher relationship more than teachers do. Aspiring master teachers should pay particular attention to the latter variable – as both Joseph Lowman’s (1995) and Parker Palmer’s (1998) work makes clear, we do not teach in aseptic environments.

In 1949, Joseph Justman posed a very basic but important question about teaching: “What makes for a good college teacher?” He concluded that the answer to this question “is still somewhat in the nature of a parlor game.” Fortunately, in the 65 years since Justman’s essay, we have learned so much about good teachers and good teaching that no one could possibly confuse research on teaching for a parlor game.

Even with all that we know, much remains to be learned about how we might perfect our craft, particularly regarding how we might train our graduate students to become effective teachers. In addition, we also need to encourage more teachers – new faculty and seasoned veterans alike – to adopt the ways of the master teacher in their classrooms. If we wish to enhance our undergraduates’ learning and critical thinking abilities, we must raise the standards for our classroom teaching. To be sure, promising graduate students and thus promising new faculty arise from the undergraduate ranks.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Randolph A. Smith and Jared Keeley for their insightful comments on this article.

Buskist, W., Sikorski, J., Buckley, T., & Saville, B. K. (2002). Elements of Master Teaching. In S. F. Davis & W. Buskist (Eds.), The Teaching of Psychology: Essays in Honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer (pp. 27-39). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Justman, J. (1949). What Makes for a Good College Teacher? School and Society, 70, 417-421.
Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the Techniques of Teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Greimel-Fuhrmann, B., & Geyer, A. (2003). Students’ Evaluation of Teachers and Instructional Quality: Analysis of Relevant Factors Based on Empirical Evaluation Research. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 283, 229-238.
McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (11th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Perlman, B., McCann, L. I., & McFadden, S. H. (1999). Lessons Learned: Practical Advice for the Teaching of Psychology (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.
Perlman, B., McCann, L. I., & McFadden, S. H. (2004). Lessons Learned: Practical Advice for the Teaching of Psychology (Vol. 2). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.