I like to read vintage books on college teaching, ones written before the current profusion of pedagogical research that has occurred since 2000. The classic work (at least for me) is McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, first published in 1953 and now in its 14th edition (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2013). Although it now has many competitors, for decades it was the go-to book on the theory and practice of teaching, and it remains an excellent reference. Lately, I’ve been reading the work of Kenneth Eble, a professor of English at the University of Utah. Eble published prolifically on teaching until his death in 1988. He excelled at weaving together the research at the time with his own reflections into an accessible, useful narrative for new and veteran teachers. As an English professor, he took a more humanistic approach to teaching, but his ideas are quite consistent with current research coming out of my own area of cognitive science. His book, The Aims of Teaching (Eble, 1983), discusses personal characteristics of teachers that affect student learning and motivation and that have nothing to do with the content or organization of the course. For example, he states that teachers “must provide assistance both to overcome the students’ own internal impediments to learning and to increase the willingness of the student to work at this particular kind of learning” (p. 140). Today we talk about those impediments as poor metacognition, ineffective learning strategies, insufficient prior knowledge, and so on. For teachers who believe they need worry only about the accuracy and organization of their presentations, it is a jarring wake-up call.
Eble focuses on the importance of teaching style and teacher character for student learning: “Only a very foolish person would deny that we are all powerfully influenced by the personalities of those we listen to and learn from” (p. 5). By character, Eble is referring to teachers’ moral and ethical values as embodied in how they teach and administer the course. He explicitly rejects the idea that teachers should preach values and indoctrinate students to their way of thinking. He is saying that the values the teacher exemplifies influence what students learn. Teaching style refers to the way teachers present themselves and the impressions they make on their students. Teaching style follows directly from character, so good character is the foundation of an effective teaching style.
With regard to character, Eble lists what he calls “The Seven Deadly Sins of Teaching,” which he states are as “deadly to the students’ chances of learning as the traditional deadly sins were to chances of salvation” (p. 103). I have listed them below with my definitions.
- Arrogance: displaying an attitude of overall superiority to students
- Dullness: being unrelentingly boring, tedious, and passionless
- Rigidity: maintaining that your way is the best way and the only way and summarily dismissing possible alternatives
- Insensitivity: being unaware or uncaring about students’ experiences, values, and concerns
- Vanity: exhibiting self-importance, engaging in self-promotion, and seeking admiration
- Self-indulgence: putting your own convenience and preferences ahead of what is best for the students
- Hypocrisy: displaying a lack of motivation and diligence in teaching well while expecting students to be highly motivated and diligent
I can see how these qualities in a teacher would be deadly to student learning in all but the most motivated and curious of students. At minimum, they would make learning much more difficult, over and above the challenge of learning the course concepts. I think back to my least-liked professor and see these qualities. That instructor was doctrinaire; the only way a student could get a good grade was by parroting back the instructor’s views. I see that as a combination of arrogance, rigidity, and insensitivity. The concepts in the course were not hard, but the course was a struggle.
Where I see these characteristics most at play is in faculty who are struggling in their teaching. They are well qualified to teach in terms of training in their discipline, yet the students are unhappy and perform poorly. I’ve seen arrogance, where a teacher has a condescending attitude toward students, thinking they should be grateful for whatever efforts the teacher makes. That attitude leads to dullness, rigidity, and insensitivity. In terms of vanity, I’ve worked with teachers who seek student admiration more than student learning. Their teaching is more about recruiting followers than improving understanding. Vanity leads to self-indulgence, arranging a class for the convenience of the teacher at the expense of student learning. The hypocrisy I’ve seen is when faculty seek the easiest possible teaching schedule and recycle the same course materials without any effort to adapt or improve them yet expect students to give their best effort.
Although Eble describes these sins, he never specifies the mechanism of why they are so deadly to student learning. I think we can understand these sins in terms of student trust in the teacher, which I’ve written about here. All these factors undermine student trust in the teacher. Student trust consists of three factors: teacher competence, integrity, and beneficence. For a student to have trust in the teacher, all three factors have to be present. Competence refers to teaching skill and expertise. Dullness, rigidity, insensitivity, self-indulgence, and hypocrisy all undermine competence. Integrity has to do with being a conscientious teacher and treating students with respect. Arrogance, rigidity, insensitivity, vanity, and self-indulgence all undermine integrity. Finally, beneficence refers to the teacher’s commitment to helping students learn. Rigidity, insensitivity, vanity, self-indulgence, and hypocrisy all undermine beneficence. Without student trust, students are less willing to engage in the course and give their best effort. They are less likely to persevere in the face of challenges, and instead of learning, they seek the easiest route to a passing grade (Cox, 2011).
Eble points out that the teachers who commit these deadly sins are often unaware of it. As a result, both faculty and students are frustrated and dissatisfied with a class. It is the teacher’s responsibility, however, to develop the character and teaching style to become more effective. As for students, their disappointment is not limited to the course but may affect their attitudes toward the whole discipline, especially in required general education courses. And this negative attitude may be long lasting. As Eble states, “The impression that a teacher makes lasts longer than the information that may be conveyed, endures beyond the skills that may be inculcated” (p. 3).
Cox, R. D. (2011). The college fear factor: How students and professors misunderstand one another. Harvard University Press.
Eble, K. E. (1983). The aims of college teaching. Jossey-Bass.
McKeachie, W., & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: email@example.com.