How to Teach Something: 3 Tips

January 29, 2020

Categories: Teaching

When I was in graduate school, I was the teaching assistant for the graduate statistics course. I led a lab where I tried to help the students understand and make sense of what was taught in the lecture.

It was challenging. Part of the problem was that although the instructor was very intelligent and knew her stuff, she didn’t do a great job of explaining the material to the students. She had mastery of the material, but couldn’t effectively communicate that material to the students. It was a miss.

Expert = Good Teacher?

Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that if someone is an expert at a subject, they will also be good at teaching the subject to others. Sometimes this is true, but more often than not, it isn’t. Teaching requires a different skill set.

Mastery Can Be a Drawback

Sometimes having mastery of a subject can even be a drawback when trying to explain it. Here’s what I mean: When you master something, the activity begins to flow effortlessly. You can almost do it without thinking. If you do this long enough, you might forget how difficult it was at the beginning. You don’t think about all the individual steps; because you can solve the problem all at once.

Beginners Need the Steps

But beginners need the steps. When I was teaching statistics, the students couldn’t keep up with the instructor because she was going too fast for them. She was connecting the dots in her head, but she wasn’t holding the students’ hands step-by-step. Because of that, the students failed to learn the material.

3 Tips for Teaching Something

When you are explaining or teaching something, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Start at the very beginning. Don’t assume the learner has a certain baseline level of knowledge. If you misjudge where the person is starting from, everything you teach can be a miss. It’s better to start at the very beginning and work from there. If the person does have a higher level of knowledge, you can go quickly through the first few steps. A little review never hurt anyone.
  2. Go step by step. This point is key. Clearly think through and outline each step of the process. Then, explain things step-by-step. Don’t rush through or skip steps. Make sure the learner is tracking with you at each step, before moving on to the next one. Knowledge builds on itself.
  3. Go slowly. You can’t rush learning. Most people try to explain things quickly, especially for the “basics.” But true learning doesn’t happen very fast. You have to slow down, and give people space to process and ask questions. Go more slowly than you think you need to.


What has helped you when learning something new? What do you think of the 3 tips: (1) start at the beginning, (2) go step-by-step, and (3) go slowly? What is one step you could focus on when trying to teach something?


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