Trevor Klee, Tutor

Online and Boston-based GMAT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT Prep.

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How I teach people

Most people teach the wrong way. Even though they spent a lot of high school and college being bored and unmotivated in class, when it comes time to teach, they simply imitate their high school and college teachers.

This is a problem. Teaching is a fundamental part of not just the education industry, but every industry. Every workplace needs to get new employees “up to speed”. That involves teaching, and it’d probably be best if that teaching actually worked.

I’ve worked in private education since graduating college. I’ve mostly taught test prep for graduate exams, although I’ve also taught a massive online course in philosophy and volunteer taught Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. 

I’ve had a lot of time to perfect my teaching, and a lot of incentive. When I bore or demotivate people, I get fired. I’ve gotten fired before. It’s not fun.

Here’s how I structure my teaching to keep my students engaged, as well as so that they retain information after I’ve taught it.

First, I always motivate their learning. In other words, I never teach my students anything without explaining why I’m teaching it.

So, instead of explaining a solution, and then introducing the problem, I go in reverse. I explain the problem, and have my students attempt to solve it. Once they fail to solve it, I then introduce the solution. 

You can imagine this working in a workplace environment. If you want to teach people how your organization’s sales process works, don’t just tell them what they have to do. Explain to them the problem with the old process (assuming that you can’t just let them try the old process and fail with it). Once they understand that, introduce the new process.

We used to cold call people, and ask them for a commitment on the phone. They would frequently hang up or get distracted. Now, we cold email people and ask them when they’d be free for a phone call. That way, we don’t catch them off guard.

Second, I use overarching strategies and metaphors whenever I explain a complex process. I never explain things by just outlining a step-by-step method to solve the issue. Instead, I explain the overall strategy, and then detail the steps it takes to get there.

In a workplace environment, this is especially important for really complicated step-by-step processes. Not only is it hard to remember steps if you don’t understand the goal of the steps, but simply memorizing steps results in a brittle understanding. Your employees or colleagues will be unable to modify the steps if the situation slightly changes.

Let’s go back to the sales example. Explain your sales process by telling them what you hope to accomplish. 

Our goal is to make a potential client believe that we are trustworthy people who care about their problems and can fix them. Our initial phone call is to identify their problems in detail. This helps not only our process, but also convinces the client we care about their problems specifically. Then our followup meeting is to explain how we’ll fix their problems, and a proposed timeline for how long it’ll take. This convinces the client of the second part, namely that we can actually fix their problems.

In the above example, if your employee or colleague is then faced with someone who insists on interrogating them during the initial phone call (rather than the reverse), they can keep in mind the overarching strategy. They don’t have to try to awkwardly deflect questions and stick to the script.

I also do this with technical issues. To take a really simple example, when I teach simple algebra, I explain that the overall goal is to get the variable on its own, no matter the setup of the problem. I then explain the steps necessary for that specific problem.

Third, I always repeat myself in my teaching. Repetition is a difficult part to get used to when teaching. As the teacher, it seems boring or annoying, because what you’re teaching is obvious to you. However, it’s important to remember that it’s non-obvious to the person you’re teaching (which is why they need to learn it). 

Repetition helps people orient themselves to what you’re teaching. If you’re teaching a sufficiently unfamiliar subject, most of what you teach will sound like a foreign language. When a person hear a foreign language, most of what they hear will be unfamiliar. So a person will latch onto the words they do know, and try to create sense out of them.

To take a workplace example, let’s say you’re teaching someone how to use VLOOKUP in Excel. If you’re teaching someone who’s uncomfortable with technology, that can be a really scary proposition. Just explaining it once won’t be enough. No matter how clearly you explain it, the unfamiliarity with the terms and actions means that they will be unable to repeat it themselves afterwards.

However, each time you explain it, especially if you have them do it themselves, it’ll become a little less foreign. Repetition literally breeds familiarity. They will become comfortable enough to teach the rest themselves, because they have the terms and actions that they’ve grown familiar enough with to latch onto and guide themselves.

This brings me to my fourth principle of teaching: varying levels of guidedness. Lectures are traditionally built around either complete guidedness (the lecturer does everything) or zero guidedness (the student has to do everything on their own for homework).

This is a rough transition for a student, and where a lot of students get lost. Complete guidedness is boring and isolates the student from the problem. Zero guidedness is intimidating and can leave the student doing the wrong thing.

Proper teaching should have intermediate levels of guidedness. In a lecture setting, this can involve asking the students questions at key points (not by raising hands, which results in only a few students participating, but by asking all the students to participate and giving them time to think). This can also involve the lecturer solving only part of the problem, and leaving the students to do the rest.

When you’re working one-on-one, it’s even easier. You can choose to provide only part of the solution to a problem, or only help someone solve their problem once they get stuck. You should never be walking them through the entire thing beginning to end except the absolute first time you show them it.

To go back to the VLOOKUP example, you only need to walk them through the entire process of using VLOOKUP the first time you introduce it. The very next repetition you can ask them to start it, and then prompt them on the next step. If they get frustrated, you can provide the next step to them, but you don’t need to do the entire thing.

If you do need to complete the next step for them, you can ask them to then do the next step by themselves. Your goal is to gradually get them to the point where they can do the entire thing by themselves. Gradually is a key word, here: nudge them out of their comfort zone, but don’t demotivate them by pushing them way beyond what they’re comfortable with.

These 4 principles of teaching (motivation, overarching strategy, repetition, and intermediate guidedness) have been a key part of how I’ve become an effective teacher. I hope they help you as well.

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