The Seven Deadly Sins of Teaching

Gustave Dore engraving of the Fifth Circle of Hell (the Stygian Lake full of irate sinners) in Dante's inferno
The Stygian Lake, with the Ireful Sinners, Dante and Virgil enter the fifth circle of Hell and come to the Stygian marsh or Styx, in which they see the Wrathful and the Sullen smiting each other not just with their hands but also with their heads, bodies and feet; the sobs of those below the water make its surface bubble. Engraving from 1870. Engraving by Gustave Dore, Photo by D Walker.

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.

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