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Massage Today
February, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 02

How to be a Better Teacher

By Rita Woods, LMT

Teaching is an art and a science. It's an art in that, as a teacher, you must be spontaneous and creative as the circumstances require; and it's a science in that there is a best way to teach involving methodology and planning.

There's an old adage that says, "Not to prepare is to prepare to fail." That is so true when it comes to teaching. Failure to prepare is apparent when students don't learn or are unable to grasp concepts, are a discipline problem or become indifferent. If you are a student and show any of these signs, first, shame on you. Second, see them as signals that you might be unaware of how you learn. To be successful, it's up to us as individuals to find our strengths and use them to our own advantage.

Instructors, on the other hand, have a double challenge. First, you have your own unique learning style and you will tend to teach in the same way you learn. Second, you must find and implement teaching methods that will reach the majority of your students. In short, you must be willing to present learning opportunities that would be uncomfortable for you as a learner.

Learning and teaching styles comprise a large segment of traditional academic instructor training. Variety is important. Thanks to technological advances in multimedia, we have more presentation methods readily available to us. However, that only helps with the delivery. We must professionally prepare the material to be delivered in the most effective way possible.

Adult learners are ready to get right to the core of the material. They tend to prefer a single concept that focuses heavily on the application of that concept. This tendency increases with age. Adults need to be able to integrate new ideas with what they already know. Adults have sought out their new learning experience as a means to change something about their life. And we all know what a life-changing experience massage therapy school can be! Making the best use of time and material is very important to the adult learner.

Each person is wired differently and what may seem comfortable to one person is not for another. Finding out what works for you can make your life more seamless. Let's say you're a global learner. You want the big picture first - the concept and the idea - then you fill in the details. You will have students who are linear learners with a strong need for order. You can address that need by presenting the material in an orderly and systemized fashion.

We can take in and assimilate more information if it comes to us in chunks. A chunk is one piece of the presentation that includes material that is alike or that fits together. It's the most common method of organization but often is ignored. For instance, if you are going to discuss the upper body, then "chunk" it into the arm, the shoulder, anterior neck, posterior neck, etc. For the instructor, this makes your planning and delivery a system that is easy to follow. For the student, this allows you to see the big picture, plus the details.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make as teachers is to present a lot of material in an unorganized fashion. Not only do you run the risk of the student not hearing you, if the brain is overcome by the information it is unable to assimilate and retain even simple concepts. It's not about how much material you present but how you present it.

A Helpful Rule of Thumb is the 5 +/- 2 Rule
(That's Five Plus-or-Minus Two Rule)

The brain can take in an average of five new concepts per hour. If it's difficult material, then the "minus two" factor comes into play. So you can grasp about three new concepts. If the material is easy with no new ground-breaking concepts, then "add two" more concepts to the mix. So you could feasibly present seven new concepts in that hour. And by the way, remember the group advances at the rate of the slowest learner. This is especially important if you are working in a group dynamic. This rule helps the facilitator by providing a guide to make outlines, lesson plans and allot the appropriate time to each segment. For the student, this will allow you to organize your notes and study for exams.

There is no substitute for good principles. Here is a list I have found helpful and I refer to it periodically. I'd love to give the author credit for the list, but alas, I have no idea who wrote it.

12 Teaching Principles

  1. The more planning, the better.
  2. The more frequent the feedback, the better.
  3. There is a best way to organize a lesson.
  4. Eye contact is not just good, it's critical.
  5. A picture is worth a thousand words.
  6. Concepts must be clear, or relationships won't.
  7. Students can hear or think, but not both.
  8. Always use the student's language to explain.
  9. The first lesson is a pilot test. It always needs improvement.
  10. It's hard to teach thoroughly and quickly, too.
  11. At the end of a lesson, find out if they learned.
  12. Evaluate your presentation and implement changes.

You might want to keep this list handy as we will discuss these principles in future articles.

As you prepare to teach or to learn, the concepts we discussed today can serve as a foundation. Remember to vary your presentation methods to accommodate different learning styles. Preparation is your greatest ally for success. Organize your material in chunks. Plan to present according to the 5 +/- 2 Rule, and following good principles will always support your efforts.

Next month, the focus will be on writing learning objectives. Objectives make up the core of all education including writing programs for continuing education approval. I'll demystify them and show you how to write them with ease.

Click here for previous articles by Rita Woods, LMT.


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