Techniques to improve classroom instruction

Teaching methods target all types of learners

When Vicky H. Becherer, MSN, RN, became a clinical educator at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in 2000, she was very knowledgeable of her subject matter. However, through diligent research, she subsequently learned a variety of teaching methods to help her reach the different type of learners in her classroom. Also, she learned how to establish an atmosphere for learning.

The techniques Becherer now uses make her teaching more effective and improve classroom instruction whether the students are health care providers or patients and community members.

Becherer says many factors impact learning, including the student’s first impression of the instructor. "If you are doing a presentation or teaching a class, you need to acknowledge your participants. You need to greet them when they are coming in," she says. Also, she advises teachers to dress professionally and to give a brief introduction of themselves before they get started with their lecture. Of course, starting on time is important as well.

A teacher’s attitude often transfers to the students. Therefore, it is important to be enthusiastic, energetic, and in a positive state of mind. Teachers not only communicate verbally to their audience but nonverbally as well, says Becherer. "You need enthusiasm as a teacher. If you don’t have it, don’t expect the people you are teaching to be enthusiastic about what they are learning," she explains.

Although the environment often is difficult for the teacher to control, there are several aspects of room selection and setup that should be considered. The room should be the right size for the number of participants, not too large or small. Also, it should have good lighting with the thermostat set at a comfortable temperature so the room is not too hot or cold.

The five senses play a role in a person’s ability to concentrate on what is being taught; therefore, the location of the room is important. For example, a room near a cafeteria can be distracting if the aroma of pizza cooking or cookies baking fills the air near mealtime when people attending the lecture might be hungry.

Once an atmosphere of learning has been established, it is up to the teacher to deliver the message in a way that will help the students learn what is being taught. Becherer often delivers the message in a lecture format using slides accompanied by written handouts. However, she uses various teaching techniques in her lecture to improve retention. They include the following:

• Feedback and role-playing

During a two-hour lecture, Becherer provides a break about midpoint. But before participants get up from their seats to stretch, she divides them into groups and gives each a question to consider when they return that covers material she presented during the lecture. This helps those attending the lecture refocus and reinforces what was taught.

Another technique is to have each group role-play using the information that was covered during the lecture. When using role-play, Becherer divides the class into groups and, before the midpoint break, selects one group to "teach back" the content covered during the first part of the class. "This is an excellent way to ensure participants are listening and they get involved. The first time this is done the participants may feel put on the spot, so you may want to help them out. They get better each time," says Becherer. These techniques get the learners involved, and you always want to get your learners involved, she adds.

• Discussion

To help participants focus on the topic at hand and keep their attention during the lecture, Becherer may throw out a question before covering the material and ask the audience to provide as many answers as they can. For example, she might ask for their definition of family. Once everyone has had a chance to provide input, she tells them to listen for the definitions or words they brainstormed to see if they are used in the lecture.

Discussion also can be used during class to help students refocus on the topic or, at the end of class for review. Sometimes, Becherer will split the students into groups and ask each a trivia question. It may be something that she plans to put on a test they will take during the next class session. "It’s a fun way to prepare them," she says.

• Group work

During group work, students have a chance to see if they remember what was taught and whether they know how to apply the information. It also is a good way to reinforce the teaching. This method of teaching incorporates many techniques, including the jigsaw. With this technique, students are asked to put information together in the correct order. It might be a care plan, procedure, guideline, or policy.

Becherer creates a jigsaw by cutting the care plan, guideline, or policy apart with scissors. For example, when creating a jigsaw of a care plan, she posts the general topics on a large piece of poster board or leaves the board blank. She gives the participants "plastitac," a puttylike substance used to stick things to the wall, poster boards, etc. but is easily removed. The participants are given envelopes that contain different steps in the care plan. Each participant must decide where his or her step belongs in the process. "This is a great team-building skill, and they are learning the steps to take in a process," says Becherer.

• Mind or concept mapping

This teaching technique allows students to express what was taught in picture form. It is a fun way to take notes.

1. Think in key words or symbols.
2. Write down the most important word or short phrase or symbol.
3. Draw a central circle, square, or whatever design you want.
4. Post other words, ideas, short phrases, etc. that are important around the outside of the design.
5. The key word, symbol, or phrase goes inside the design.
6. Edit this word or symbol or phrase. Think about the relationship of the outside items with the center word, symbol, and phrase.
7. Think "out of the box". . . anything that comes to mind, and write it down.
8. Set the map aside — do not finish it at one sitting. Stop and think about the words, phrases, symbols, you are using. This map is your personal learning document. There is no right or wrong way of doing it.
9. A mind map should combine what you know with what you are learning and what you need to give a complete picture.
10. The lines connecting the designs (circles, squares, etc.) should have words on them so you get a clear picture.
11. Be creative! Have fun!

• Review

It always is a good idea to select a teaching method that can be used at the end of the class for review, says Becherer. Several trivia questions worth points can be given to groups of students, and the group with the most points can be awarded a prize.

Another good review technique is the minute paper. Students are given a minute at the end of the class to write their answer to a question on a piece of paper. The question might be: "What are two things you learned in class today?" or "What question or questions do you have that you would like answered or explained in more detail?"

"With this method, I know what kind of questions students still have and I can attempt to answer during the next class session," Becherer explains.

The crumble-and-toss review technique allows students to write an answer to a question upon a sheet of paper and then wad up the paper and toss it on the floor. The assignment might be to write the most important points covered in the lecture or to write down a few questions they think they may find on the next test.

Becherer says students like the crumble and toss review — a teaching technique she picked up from Michele Deck, a national speaker and nursing educator. "They enjoy this review [and often ask], When do you get to crumble up a paper you need to turn in and toss it on the ground?’ It is a fun way to end your class. Participants have fun and you, as the teacher, learn what is still needed," says Becherer.

Incorporating a short activity midway through the lecture to refocus the students or at the end of the class to help reinforce the lesson improves learning. However, there are other reasons for using these teaching techniques.

Some people are visual learners, some auditory, some are kinesthetic learners, and others learn best by reading and writing. An instructor who uses a mix of teaching methods is more likely to reach all the different types of learners, says Becherer.

For example, the lecture suits the auditory learner best with the PowerPoint supporting visual learners. However the hands-on learner might find that they remember the lesson best when given a chance to run to the board to answer a trivia question. The reading/writing learner gets his or her needs met by receiving the handout for further review.


For more information about methods to improve teaching, contact:

Vicky H. Becherer, MSN, RN, Health Education Nurse, St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Family Resource Center, One Children’s Place, St. Louis, MO 63110. Telephone: (314) 454-2757. E-mail: