Being a better teacher

Dr Mahibur Rahman

This article was first published in 2005 and is reproduced with the kind permission of Hospital Doctor, who retain the copyright.

Teaching is an integral part of being a doctor regardless of the stage you have reached in your career or the specialty you are following. Whether you are a house officer teaching medical students basic skills or a consultant training specialist registrars on advanced surgical techniques, there are some universal techniques that can help make you a better teacher.

Set clear learning objectives

Setting out early on the educational objectives that you would like to achieve, makes it easier to plan what and how to teach. Objectives that are clear and specific are the best, especially if set within a realistic timeframe. This helps both learner and teacher monitor progress. Setting too many objectives, or using a very difficult to achieve timeframe can lead to feelings of failure, or make the learning experience feel like a series of boxes that need ticking. Vague objectives make it difficult to gauge if you are progressing well, or if you need to make extra efforts in one part of your training.

Timetable your teaching activities

When working in a busy clinical environment, you may often find that there aren’t enough hours in the day to fit in all the demands on your time. Teaching, and preparing to teach is time that can become easy to sacrifice – juniors may find it difficult to raise objections (unlike managers!). If your teaching time is written into your timetable, and protected, this is less likely to happen, and trainee and teacher will both benefit. Don’t forget that preparation time is as important as the teaching itself.

Give useful feedback

We all need feedback so we know how we are doing. This is an essential part of the learning process – if we are doing something well, it is good to know that we are on track, and when we could improve our knowledge or skills, or are making mistakes, we may never correct them unless we realise the error. For feedback to be useful, it must be constructive – the feedback should include suggestions for improvements rather than criticism alone. Some ways to provide useful feedback are to:

  • Ask the learner to reflect on what they have done well and what they feel could be improved.
  • Always start with the positive things first.
  • Give feedback as close to the event as possible – you will both remember what happened more clearly.
  • Give clear and specific feedback about why something was not up to standard, and ways to improve it in the future.

Giving feedback that is very subjective, that is vague, ambiguous or that relates to something that cannot be changed is of little benefit, and may cause the learner to become demotivated and affect your teacher / student relationship. Feedback should never be given in a way that demeans or undermines your trainee – this is unprofessional and will only reflect poorly on your abilities as a teacher.

Keep up to date

To be a good teacher you must know your subject well. This may seem like a very obvious statement, but in the fast paced world of medical knowledge, things are constantly changing. It is important that you are not teaching concepts and methods that are no longer considered best practice. This means keeping your own skills and knowledge up to date, and updating your teaching materials (slides, handouts, tutorials) regularly. Not only will this make you a better teacher, it will make you a better clinician.

Enjoy yourself

The best teachers are those that enjoy the teaching experience and learn from it themselves. If you find that you dread every teaching slot, you might consider the need to change some aspects of your teaching style, reduce the number of trainees you are responsible for, or check if you have given yourself enough time to prepare.

Finally, if you feel that teaching is something that you really enjoy and wish to improve your skills further, you may consider pursuing a postgraduate certificate or diploma in medical education.

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