How to Teach

These pages are complementary to the theory pages on Learning, which address various “why?” questions about learning. These address “how?” questions about teaching (teaching adults, that is). I suspect they will be consulted more than the others. (You can switch between the two parts of the site by clicking on the appropriate part of the logo in the top left-hand corner)

I feel a bit presumptuous writing all this, because although I have been teaching for almost 35 years, man and boy (literally, because in that distant past I had my own primary-school class, as a temporary unqualified teacher, in what is now called the “gap year” before I went to university — poor souls, I wonder what became of them), I have not cracked it yet. I still have lousy classes, without understanding quite why. Going by the results of my evaluation questionnaires, my students think I have even more of them than I do!

There are practical points about producing web pages on these topics.

I accept no liability for the consequences of using any of the stuff in these pages, but I would be pleased to get comments, corrections and suggestions, although I cannot undertake to act on all of them, or to sort out your teaching problems. If any of my students read this, I also offer no undertaking to be consistent or to abide by my own advice!

I am not especially proprietorial, but please ask if you would like to reproduce this material in any form.

I have no problem with the reproduction of pages to support teaching in not-for-profit contexts, although I should like to be acknowledged, in the standard format at the bottom of the page. If you would like to use any of the diagrams, email me and I may be able to supply vector images which project better than web bitmaps.

Linking is welcome. Note to punctilious university copyright clearance units—it is not necessary to ask permission; the site is on open access. I am however, not open to link exchanges with commercial enterprises; all the external links on this site are driven purely by considerations of content and relevance.

Some definitions

Teaching is, in my book, "helping people to learn". Everything else is a gloss. But since that needs a little unpacking, it is about

  • setting up a purposeful exchange with a learner about a pre-determined topic, including 
  • telling them something new, and  
  • carrying through that exchange while monitoring its success and modifying it as necessary, so that  
  • the learner ends up knowing and being able to do more as a result.

The significance of the terms used should become apparent as you go through the site, as well as the ideas and techniques they embrace.

These pages are about the nitty-gritty of the practice of teaching. They are not apologetic about the fact that the teacher knows more about the subject than the students, although they respect the students’ knowledge and experience. They assume that the teacher’s job is to get students to change their level of knowledge, understanding and/or practice. Beyond that, they outline the “craft skills” of the teacher. It remains up to you to decide when to use what.


This means people over the age of 16, in the arbitrary world of education policy — people over the (UK) school-leaving age. There is a world of difference between “adult” learners, and it goes almost without saying that you tune your approach to your students. I long ago learned not to generalise about “student needs”. However, most of what follows is about competence in doing whatever it is you do: it is up to you decide whether a particular technique is appropriate or patronising or whatever for a particular class. Even andragogic practice — perhaps especially andragogic practice — requires that practice be competent.

    My thanks to all the teachers I have observed and worked with, some of whom may recognise some of their practice in these pages, and to students and colleagues (especially Peter Hadfield) who have contributed so much to my continuing learning in this area. Needless to say, the responsibility for errors, misunderstandings and mis-guidance is all mine.

Hope you find it useful.

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To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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