Medical Education

The Do's and Dont's of Docere: How to Be an Effective Teacher

Physicians take on many roles and responsibilities — including that of a teacher. In fact, the word “doctor” itself derives from the Latin “docere,” meaning to teach.1

Residents may be asked to deliver teaching sessions to various groups of learners in the hospital. We should jump at these character-building opportunities, which can be both rewarding and enjoyable. To many, however, it can be a daunting prospect. Following clear principles and careful planning can increase the effectiveness of your session and even improve satisfaction for you as the teacher. In this article, we will explain the essential components of an effective teaching session. Try these tips for success in the classroom, at the bedside, or while working informally with peers.

Planning Your Teaching Session

Identify Your Learners
Knowing your audience is vital, because it allows you to plan your content accordingly and present it at the appropriate level.2 Some key points are:

  • Why you are teaching the session?

  • What do learners already know about the topic?

  • What do they need to know about the topic?

One of the easiest ways to find this information is to look at your audience's curriculum, if available. This can provide formal and detailed guidance on what learners will need to know and what they may already know.

It is always useful to list your expected audience at the top of the lesson plan so that you can plan the session with them in mind. A session that is centered on your learners and their specific needs is bound to be successful.

Pick a Topic
The topic may be predetermined, or you may have free reign. Either way, it is important to ensure that the subject matter is clear from the beginning. If given the opportunity to choose a topic, pick something that will be important and relevant to your target audience.

Set Aims and Objectives
Aims and objectives are at the heart of lesson preparation. Without them, the session could easily lose its direction and vision. You will commonly encounter the use of aims and objectives in education, but they are not always used correctly. By establishing them early on in the planning process, you are able to clearly outline the content and learning outcomes that will be achieved during the session.

The aim is an overarching statement of intent; it provides learners with a flavor of what they can expect from the session. Generally, a short session will have one aim while a longer session may have two or more. When writing aims, use broad, general words such as introduce, encourage, improve, develop, and allow. For example, if you are teaching intravenous catheter (IV) insertion to 3rd year medical students, your aim might read, “to introduce the procedure of IV insertion.”

Objectives provide more specific guidance than the aim. They are statements of what the learner should be able to do by the end of the session. This is reflected in the terminology used when writing them, which might include action words such as list, name, describe, and recognize. With reference to the previous example of IV insertion, one of the objectives may read, “learners should be able to list the essential equipment needed.” Sessions will generally have about three objectives. Depending on the length of the session, this can vary. The important thing is to make sure that they are SMART (Figure 2).

Make a Lesson Plan
The key to teaching is preparation. A prepared teacher is someone who will be able to provide direction and focus for their students while remaining flexible to deal with unexpected changes in direction. The secret to being prepared is a lesson plan. It is simple to construct and well worth the extra preparation time. Using a template is an easy way to begin (Figure 1).

Choose the Right Teaching Methods
Once you have a clear outline of what you would like to accomplish, it is time to think about how you are going to achieve this task. It is important to incorporate a range of teaching methods that stimulate different learning styles. For example, when teaching a practical procedure such as IV insertion, you could explain it with clear written steps, show a video, and demonstrate the technique in person. It is important to plan this in advance. Contrary to current practice in many medical schools, traditional didactic lectures may not always be the best method.

Identify Resources
It is useful to have a column in your lesson plan that specifies what you need for each specific task. Be as detailed as possible, even down to number of pens that might be necessary for an activity. By breaking your teaching session down into its specific parts, you can form a list of the resources required.

Create a Schedule
You will often have an allocated amount of time to accomplish your objectives, and it is important that you keep this in mind when developing your lesson plan. Be detailed with time markers in the lesson plan; you can use these during the session to ensure that you stay on track. Remember to incorporate short breaks and to have a fixed time for the learners to ask questions at the end. Building in a modest amount of buffer time can also be extremely useful, as this builds flexibility into the session — one of the major keys for success.

Assessment is a flexible element that can be incorporated many ways. Traditionally, assessment is most formal when presented in the way of a scored, individual examination. Alternatively, assessment can be left as an informal element evoked through active questioning. To meet in the middle, it could be useful to include a small quiz or group task to help reinforce and embed understanding. If you are conducting a series of lectures, it may be helpful to conduct a small test of the previous material to help learners recall and consolidate their knowledge then build upon it.

Keys for Presentation Day

Do: Get there early.
There is nothing worse than arriving at the teaching venue to find out that there is a problem and you have little time to resolve it. Arriving early will take the pressure off, allow you to relax before you teach, and allow troubleshooting of any unexpected issues with time to spare. Learners are more likely to respond to a teacher that appears calm, in control, and rehearsed.

Do: Execute a trial run.
Arriving early also allows you to execute a trial run. It is always useful to practice a small section of your material in a safe environment. Depending on the setting and content of the session, this may involve timing yourself as you present slides or practicing with the equipment you may use if teaching practical skills.

Do: Make introductions and use icebreakers.
The first few moments will set the tone for the entire presentation. While a perfect start is rarely necessary to achieve an effective teaching session, a bad start can be disastrous and effectively ruin the rest of the presentation. In any session, it is always important to introduce yourself and your relationship with the topic.

Despite running the risk of feeling contrived, asking for a short introduction (e.g. name and one line of interest) from each learner is often a great way to start small group work. It literally ”˜breaks the ice' and is often the first step toward encouraging more meaningful group interaction and teamwork.

For larger groups or full lecture halls, you may need to be somewhat more creative in generating group interaction.

Don't: Be too hard on yourself.
No matter how well you prepare, there will be parts of your session that you feel could have gone better. This is the same for both novice and experienced teachers alike. Similar to clinical medicine, honest and constructive self-reflection is an essential part of the process of lifelong learning and development as a teacher. Return to your aims and objectives to assess if the presentation was successful. If it fell short, what could be done differently? Feedback from an external observer may be useful to assist in identifying areas of improvement while also highlighting strengths.

Don't: Have only a ”˜Plan A.'
Some sessions take off flawlessly and with no hiccups. However, sometimes no matter how well you prepare, it may not be possible to deliver a session as you intended. Technology failure, illness, and traffic are sometimes to blame for a sub-par performance. Part of your lesson planning should be ensuring that you have a ”˜plan B', such as handouts if your computer presentation does not work. Make sure to save your presentation in multiple formats, such as on a portable drive as well as on a cloud based system accessible via internet.

Don't: Be intimidated by questions you cannot answer.
We have all been stumped by a question in front of an audience. Even the most experienced lecturers have difficulty answering questions on the fly from time to time. It can be helpful to ask the group to assist in providing a complete answer. Alternatively, look up the question as a group and initiate a discussion that can help facilitate a learning objective. The most important thing is to be honest and provide support in finding the right answer. Never lie or give a vague answer — this will detract from your credibility and do significant harm. Offering to look up an answer and notify the learners at a later date will be beneficial to your learning and maintain a mutual level of respect.

Figure 1. Lesson Plan Template







Audience: Number of students and level




Figure 2. SMART Objectives

Specific. Well defined, ensures the session is focused
Measurable. Allows assessment of whether the objectives are met
Achievable. Within the allocated time frame and given available resources
Relevant. With the AIM and wider curriculum of the learner in mind
Time-orientated. Every objective needs a time frame



Teaching is a key responsibility. Residency is a great place to develop
these skills, as they will carry you through your entire career. The key to a successful presentation is preparation in the form of a structured lesson plan that contains aims and objectives, a mixture of teaching methods, a list of resources, and a ”˜Plan B'.


  • Rahman A. Teaching students ”“ whose job is it anyway? BMJ. 2005; 330:153

  • Vygotsky, L.S. Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press;1986.