How to Teach Theory

One of the most difficult things for students is learning about theory. Teaching and learning theory delights theory-headed people, but it can drain others, and it can cause students to shut down quickly if they don’t have the necessary skills. If we don’t teach students to read theory critically. Also, particularly for WGS and other experiential classes such as Interpersonal Communication, if we focus too heavily on processing students’ personal experiences and examples without relating back to the theory under discussion, then we risk deskilling our students’ as they learn critical thinking.

Here is a list of teaching tips for dealing with theory and some sample exercises to illustrate. Far too frequently, the students never received the critical thinking tools to read or process theory, so it’s best to start with small building blocks. I also find it helpful to work them through the various stages of Bloom’s taxonomy or other taxonomies at a conscious level until they get the hang of it. Some people call this transparency of method “metacognition.”

1. Start with collaborative workgroups doing worksheets that lead students explicitly through some course content. Help students make lower-order connections of knowledge, comprehension, and application. The worksheet serves multiple functions that enrich the discussion: A) Students review content; B) Underprepared and unprepared students review the material; C) Apprehensive or anxious students rehearse their observations and questions. Once students have processed content, class moves more quickly to higher order thinking skills in the debriefing and discussion. Debriefing is imperative, because students synthesize what they know with other groups’ discoveries. This sort of exercise works best early in the semester to build students’ confidence in talking about theory. Here is an example worksheet from a senior-level women’s studies class: Worksheet on Liberal Feminism.

2. Early in the semester facilitate a class discussion in which students offer each other advice for reading theory. A round robin encourages quieter, reflective students to participate. Compile the responses into handout with a list of tips. This exercise builds a supportive, communal class.

3. Teach students to read theory as a metaphor. Explain that metaphors help authors present information or positions in a condensed form. Unpacking metaphors is a good exercise in identifying a theorist’s position, assumptions, etc. Ask students to analyze a metaphor in a particular theory piece as if the theory were a poem. Assign the metaphor or passage, or ask students to find their own metaphor. Ex: The economic metaphor for relationships (found easily in many theories across disciplines). Students locate this quickly, and can jump to the implications relevant to the course (“meat markets,” “bread earners,” relationships as costs or gifts). Significantly, students learn to trace implications and inferences consciously.

4. Teach explication early through collaborative workgroups and then collective class debriefing. Use a common paragraph early in the semester to get the process going.

5. Teach students how to identify and interpret key passages by modeling and practicing with the following activity: Provide a list of key passages from an article and number them. Assign each workgroup a number, and assign one passage to each workgroup by that corresponding number. Ask the individual groups to find the passage in the article, and then determine as best they can what the passage means. Have groups debrief in the order of the numbered passages. By the time debriefing is ended and all the quotes are discussed, the entire article is processed. This format is called a jigsaw workgroup.

6. Teach students how to read for themselves by asking them to select a passage they like and tell the class why they found it particularly meaningful or striking. This works best as a think-pair-share or a freewriting exercise.

7. Prove to students that they are better readers of theory than they realize. With the most difficult article, ask everyone to write down the one thing they think they understand from the article. Process everyone’s answer in a round robin. By the time the round is over, students usually have covered everything significant that needed to be said about the article. This is called a one-minute paper.

8. Remind students that doing theory is like learning a foreign language. People can have a passive knowledge of a foreign language, which means they understand what they hear and read but they cannot speak or write it. The only way to have an active knowledge is to practice. So people have to practice doing theory by speaking it aloud and writing it down. They might talk with a funny accent at first, but that is part of the process.

Thoughts on group selection: Most often, ordering groups randomly by numbering off works best (ones together, twos together, etc.). In this way, cliques are divided and students receive the benefit of varying participation and skill levels. However, when it comes to difficult passages or tasks, it might prove more helpful to select groups or subtly assign a task to a group with the strongest reader.