Teaching theory

Theory is perceived by some teachers as difficult for students to comprehend. Equally, many students perceive theory as hard to follow and dull.

Make theory real through examples

Remember the emotional element. Make theory real, using examples that mean something to your students. The trick is to tap into students' prior knowledge. Find something that is relevant to them, that engages them. Theory is often presented before the examples, but try it the other way. Theory can be effectively built up, after the examples. Deconstruct theoretical concepts and ‘keep it simple’. Use repetition. Reinforce in different ways to ground the theory. Keep to three concepts per lecture if possible. Simplify complex ideas initially. You can build in complexity later, through empirical research.

“Students have that kind of bugbear that they don't like theory necessarily. But it's a misinformed concept, because I suspect they don't know what theory is. Theory, I think, is very often closely linked to practice. So I tell my students we use theory all the time, but don't necessarily realise it. Whenever we do something, we make conscious decisions that are guided by theory—we don't just act like robots.”—David Carter

Engage students in theoretical thinking

  • Surprise: grab students with something that is counterintuitive and show them a problem or topical example, on which they have a view of what should be done. Then take them through a framework or process and let them come up with ideas that are completely different to what they expected. Get that light bulb moment with students. That's the moment when the difficult becomes easy, the familiar takes on a new perspective and nonsense forms into patterns.
  • Reflective journal (or log) assignment: each lecture, students pick up concepts and theory and give brief explanations of these in the journal, explaining how they could apply them for themselves.
  • Self-reflection: students reflect on how their own viewpoints affect the way they conduct practice, becoming reflective practitioners who seek out assumptions and identify consequences.
  • Shared journal: each student is in a journal club where they share their reflections and make comments. Students learn about themselves and learn with and from others.
  • Case writing: connect theory with a real case, by asking questions about the case. Provide TV/video clips as a background to the case and as a link to the theory. A good case is open to lots of interpretations.
  • Contrasting case studies: the Harvard method of teaching, with a case a week. You might use McDonald's as a mechanistic organisation one week and a Danish company as an organic organisation the next, setting questions around the cases.
  • Newspaper clippings: select different newspaper clippings as an entry point and couple these with academic articles. Discuss how they are related.
  • Use of hypothetical examples: companies could be made up and followed through in the lectures. The hypothetical companies are constantly referred to and learned from.
  • Use of video recording/video clips: interviews with real people, from politicians to managers, to provide a personal element to the subject. It's about making the examples relevant and providing evidence that students can relate to.
  • Use of popular media/TV ads: practical examples that students are familiar with. It is about making the examples relevant and providing evidence that students can relate to.
  • Guest lecturers: presents unique perspectives on a topic—diverse stakeholder and cultural perspectives, provides a link to the practicality and relevance of theory.
  • Fieldtrips: link students and job situations with real-life problems. Connect theory with practice by visiting a particular site, like the Adam Art Gallery, YHA Wellington, or Matiu/Somes Island. Students can talk to staff and learn about successes and failures, with failures seen as important stepping stones to progress. Students see the reality of visitor management or arts marketing in action, with real people and real practicalities.
  • Public seminars on topical issues: students in a postgraduate course organised everything; location, fundraising, and speakers, with over 100 people attending. Shows that people will work with keen students. Remember, students need to be able to link what they are doing in the classroom (theory) with the real world.
  • Panel discussion: invite panel members who talk for 10 or 15 minutes about their experiences and then afterwards answer questions. This shows what theory means in practice and is another way of applying ideas.
  • Modular course with all day sessions for post-experience/MBA students: link the subjects, moving across topic areas. Use mixed media and mini cases, with time for discussion and debate. Can be more successful than two-hour slots at the end of a working day.