Northern College Good Practice Guide in Teaching and Learning
Lifelong learning and the Northern College
The nature and range of the students
Outreach and student recruitment
Student motivation and needs
The curriculum offer
Course design and planning
Session planning
Teaching methods
Adult learning
Key skills
Learning aids and resources
Student guidance and support

Printable version (PDF)


Teaching Methods

10.1 It is not uncommon for tutors at the Northern College to consider a range of teaching methods that they might use, experiment with them, assess their usefulness, and thus build up experience, expertise and confidence in teaching. Being as it were 'on the job' does help them to find out that what works well with one group of students in one situation does not work at all with another group in a similar situation, and that what works well with one group of students in one situation does not work at all with the same group in every situation. In general, tutors critically reflect on student feedback regarding what works well or what does not in order to respond with a different approach. Doing this time and again helps them to develop some notion of effective teaching.

Case study

Here a tutor outlines an approach for enabling students to make active use of concepts to make sense of experience and apply it to different scenarios….

Students are asked to handle a realistic problem that they themselves may well face. For example, they are asked to formulate a strategy to tackle the under-representation of women in particular university departments. Information on the availability of childcare etc. is included in the case study to make for a more detailed scenario. The students tackle this problem in groups of three or four, providing an opportunity for co-operative learning. Each group has to formulate a strategy that they then share with the other groups who are given the opportunity to critique the strategy. The role of the tutor is to help each group probe how it understands the problem and how it might solve it rather than providing the 'right answer'.


10.2 In practice, effective teaching involves a range of practices vis-à-vis students:

  • showing concern and respect for students and their learning

  • appreciating where students are starting from

  • taking account of students with different abilities

  • motivating students and developing in them a commitment to learning

  • helping students to learn about something that they know little or nothing about

  • engaging students at their level of understanding

  • promoting students' understanding

  • extending and modifying the students' approach to learning

  • helping students to value curiosity, integrity and accountability

  • helping students to communicate with each other and to develop their interpersonal skills

  • helping students to think for themselves

  • listening to and learning from students' criticisms

  • conducting one-to-one or group tutorials with students to provide constructive feedback on any completed assignments

  • developing critical, creative thinking in students

  • helping students to become independent or autonomous learners
Case study

The account here incorporates some of the more important principles of effective teaching….

"I always start a course by establishing a relaxed and friendly atmosphere amongst the students and by putting them at ease. I emphasise that there is no pressure on them and that they are free to work at their own pace.

I establish the level of ability of all the students by asking general questions rather than singling people out. I then make it clear that to begin with I will ensure that everyone has the basic skills necessary to do the work, and that once this has happened everyone can work at his or her own pace. I find that this gives confidence to the less experienced in actually trying out the skills and makes those with existing skills feel more confident in their own knowledge.

Once I am sure that everyone has reached a certain level of ability, I let the students work at their own pace. I find this puts less pressure on those less able to keep up with the more advanced students, who in turn do not feel held back. As the students progress, I give less and less direct instruction and let the students explore for themselves, although I am always available for guidance.

I consider special needs at all times; for example if a student has sight difficulties with the computer screen, I help to enlarge it for him or her. I try not to make any big issue of this, and try to help in any way to make learning easier.

I keep the general atmosphere light-hearted. This helps the students to learn more effectively if they are enjoying themselves, and to alleviate pressure on those who are finding particular tasks more difficult. I also constantly check on the progress of students and give them helpful tips to improve their work, without necessarily telling them that what they are doing is wrong.

My first few exercises allow the students to achieve the skills necessary for the credit level. This allows the slower students to manage to cover all their skills while the faster students are able to carry on with more exercises to improve their skills. I emphasise to all students that they are all there to learn for themselves and that there is no competitive side to the course. If any student does feel intimidated by another's ability, I tend to emphasise that they are all attending the course for different reasons and that anything that any of them get out of it is a positive thing.

My preferred method of teaching is to be attentive and constantly available to guide the students, to let them practise their skills and to help them remember. I feel that simply giving them written instructions is not as effective, as when the instructions are not available, the students often cannot remember how to do some tasks.

I find that encouraging the students to communicate with each other and to get to know each other also helps with their confidence-building. This also reduces nervousness amongst the students and produces a more relaxed environment for learning to take place."


10.3 Tutors are effective when they make their classroom sessions interesting. Any session that they teach can appear interesting if it contains elements of performance. Tutors as performers can be vibrant and engaging in the classroom. This implies that a tutor should think of developing an appropriate teaching or classroom persona - one that students would like, listen to, be inspired by, learn for, and even emulate.

Learner Comments

"Tutors are really interested in their subjects and that rubs off on students."

"I came to the course uninformed and unmotivated and went home inspired."

"Tutors enthuse. You get your enthusiasm from them."

"Tutors make the subject interesting, and you want to know more.

"My tutor made the learning easy and very interesting."

"Tutors catch your imagination. They go out of their way to make the sessions interesting."


10.4 Tutors are effective when they possess a good enough or even a high level of knowledge and understanding of their own disciplines or areas of teaching. They as scholars can contribute to the development of their disciplines. They should, at the very least, keep abreast with current research and scholarship in their disciplines and integrate this into their teaching.

10.5 Tutors are effective when they become adept at using as many teaching methods as they can and choosing the most appropriate ones for the groups that they teach. The choice of teaching methods is often related to the individual tutor's character or personality. However, there are some overall guidelines that the tutor needs to take into account.

  • The learning outcomes of a session, course, module, unit or programme should be linked to teaching methods. Thus, a lecture might achieve low-level objectives (such as the acquisition of knowledge) while a seminar might be more appropriate to achieve higher level objectives (such as analysis and evaluation).

  • In making a choice about the appropriateness of various teaching methods it is necessary to consider such factors as the size of the group, the motivation and needs of students, and the ability and learning styles of students.

In the rest of this section of the Guide three teaching methods will be explored in some depth: small group or 'classroom' teaching, the modified lecture and the tutorial.

10.6 Small group teaching encompasses all the various forms of teaching in which two or more (but usually not more than twenty) students are brought together to engage, as collaborators, in their own learning. This is a useful format for promoting students' learning, because it allows them to improve self-confidence, develop interpersonal skills, promote team building, articulate views, show critical thinking, and so on.

10.7 In small group teaching the learning contract can be used to jointly agree on the ground rules of behaviour amongst participants, the learning aims and outcomes of a session or course, the assessment procedures and criteria of a course, the timetable for the completion of tasks and activities, and so on. (A learning contract is a framework of learning that is agreed between students and tutors, each agreeing to undertake certain roles and responsibilities. For example, the students agree to submit assignments on time, and the tutors agree to return marked assignments within a specified timeframe.)

10.8 Whilst small group teaching may appear a loose and unstructured activity, it can be effective if proper planning and preparation is undertaken for it.

  • Tutors should give careful thought to the learning needs and prior knowledge of students, to the intended learning outcomes, and to the appropriateness of certain types of teaching methods.

  • Tutors have to prepare not just themselves but also students to participate effectively in a small group. They need, for example, to reflect on the ground rules of behaviour and other aspects of the learning contract, on the arrangement of furniture within a physical environment (e.g. a classroom), and the involvement of all students in discussion, paying special attention to those who might remain silent (because of nervousness or some other factor) and those who might dominate.

10.9 Tutors employ many different methods of small group teaching: the brainstorming exercise, the role play, the seminar, the group tutorial, collaborative learning, and so on. They remain open-minded and flexible about using as wide a range of methods as possible. They avoid relying on one method only or too frequently; this could have a negative effect on students' learning. The criteria for choosing one or more of the various teaching methods depends on how a tutor sees their suitability for a certain session or group, their potential for student participation, and their practicality for the physical environment in which the session is conducted.

10.10 Tutors need to develop a range of skills for ensuring that small group teaching is really effective. Two important skills are listening and responding.

  • Listening has both cognitive and affective dimensions. It requires a comprehension, analysis, synthesis and evaluation of what students say (content) and an appreciation of what students feel (tone and significance).

  • Listening with interest and seriousness helps tutors to know how and when to respond and in what ways. Tutors respond appropriately when they take into account the learning outcomes of a session, course, module, unit or programme and the intellectual and interpersonal needs of students.

10.11 The lecture is an important means of promoting student learning. It remains the most widely used teaching method in higher education. Generally, it is seen as necessary for quickly providing the information that students require before they can learn independently and can effectively participate in classroom discussion. More specifically it is seen as a useful method to:

  • transmit information already documented in publications

  • provide information not usually found in published sources

  • enable students to find a framework in which to fit new facts and ideas

  • highlight similarities and differences between two or more phenomena

  • organise the subject matter in a way that suits particular student learning styles

  • share the tutor's/lecturer's personal experiences

  • communicate a passion for a particular subject

While the lecture may be effective in transmitting information, it is less effective than other methods for promoting thinking and changing student attitudes.

10.12 The College does not encourage tutors to use the traditional lecture as part of their teaching methodology. In this sort of lecture students take on a largely passive role and are afforded little or no opportunity for active learning or for actively engaging with the subject matter. Students do not engage in the deep processing of information, thus missing out on the opportunity of 'uncovering' it. As educational research demonstrates, students concentrate up to a certain point, say for the first ten minutes of a 50-minute lecture, and then their attention levels drop. They frequently forget, or never learn, much of the subject matter, especially those aspects presented after the first ten minutes. Given these limitations the important question to ask is: How can the lecture involve more active communication between the lecturer and the students? One way to do this is to use an interactive approach as a means to promote active learning. This can be done by regularly punctuating the lecture with questions to some or all students and by encouraging students themselves to ask questions during the lecture. It is important that the modified lecture has a clear enough structure to allow students to take a more active part in their learning. A lecture will thus be effective if it:

  • identifies the learning aims and outcomes

  • is not overloaded with content

  • has an easily recognisable structure or outline

  • is delivered at an appropriate pace

  • pitches the material at the right level

  • allows for student participation

  • maintains high levels of attention

  • provides students with a solid framework into which they can fit new knowledge

  • is supplemented with handouts

  • allows students to take notes in a range of appropriate formats (concept maps, spray diagrams, linear outlines, sequential notes, etc.)

  • provides a summary of the main points covered

10.13 To break the monotony of a tutor-dominated lecture, a variety of strategies can be used to keep students actively involved. For example:

  • video footage can be used to illustrate points

  • material from the internet can be presented to introduce new data

  • students can be asked to briefly work in small groups to clarify issues

  • questions can be raised to prompt students to think and provide answers

After the lecture it may be helpful to students if a PowerPoint presentation is mounted onto the Internet so that they can reinforce their learning at a time more suited to them.

10.14 Perhaps more than any other teaching method that is used in adult education it is the tutorial that promotes deep and intensive learning, often leading the individual student to reflect on and change a particular learning style and the level of academic performance. The College uses three types of tutorials.

  • The tutorial manifests as a meeting between a tutor and a student to identify the literature that can be used to complete an assignment (especially an essay) and to work out an approach to planning and structuring it. In this type of tutorial the tutor acts primarily as a guide to facilitate the development of skills in respect of research, reading and writing.

  • The tutorial manifests as a meeting between a tutor and a student to go through an assignment that the latter has completed and submitted for marking. In this type of tutorial the tutor goes through comments, shows ways in which the work can be improved, and explains the mark, grade or level awarded to the student.

  • The tutorial manifests as a meeting between a tutor and a student to help the latter identify his or her learning needs, assess his or her progress and consider progression routes. This type of tutorial is commonly called a personal tutorial.

If the tutorial is to prove to be effective, the tutor must show an understanding of and sensitivity to the processes of human relations.


Home   [Previous | Next]
Page Created: 18 March, 2004  
Author(s): S.Essop -- Contact: J.Drury
Editor: Tom Osman