The Overteaching Trap

Teaching is a series of balancing acts. Here’s a great way to think about them.

Posted Feb 18, 2019

There I was, walking down the street, minding my own business, when I saw it:

Mitch Handelsman
Source: Mitch Handelsman

“Really?” I thought.  “Bringing the gym to the customer?  Doesn’t that kinda defeat the purpose?  Have we gotten so lazy that we can’t even expend some effort to expend some effort?”  But then I started thinking about how a mobile gym might have some advantages.

My little internal conversation made me think of a presentation I attended years ago by Robert Noyd, a biology professor and faculty developer at the United States Air Force Academy.  Bob (an amazing presenter and one of the nicest people on the planet) introduced us to the importance of balancing overteaching and underteaching.

Noyd started by talking to his audience about his own experience early in his career:  “I felt that I was more invested in my students’ achievement than they were” (Noyd, 2005, p. 4).  We all knew the feeling:  We had spent countless hours holding review sessions (often poorly attended), preparing review sheets for exams, answering student emails (and before that, phone calls) within five minutes, etc.  Sometimes these things are wonderful, but sometimes they constitute overteaching.

Here’s the question Noyd asks himself to achieve the right balance—or, using Aristotelian terms as Bob does, the “Golden Mean”:  “Am I giving the right student the right amount of assistance, at the right time, for the right reason, in the right manner?”  (Noyd, p. 4) The answers to this question can help us think more carefully about many aspects of our teaching.

The first part of this question reminds us that we need to know our students.  We may be seeing a much wider variety of students than we did at the beginning of our careers. We might be teaching freshman one hour and graduate students the next. To use the same techniques for all students may be an example of underteaching.  (Some patrons may really need and benefit from a mobile gym.)

Noyd makes the point that many teachers are generous, and really want to help students.  But making it easy for students may not be helping them optimally:  “It is important to teach and value persistence because not all learning comes easily; a lot required working hard” (Noyd, p. 5).  Finding the right balance between supporting and challenging our students is a constant task.

Timing, as they say, is everything.  We’ve all had the experience of students who contact us the night before a big paper is due:  “What should I write about?”  That may be an indication of underteaching by not helping students manage their time or plan.  Assigning some preliminary papers might have helped.

Our gym entrepreneurs clearly plan to make money with their van.  During the workshop, Noyd encouraged us to explore our own motivations for what we do.  For example, are we overteaching to be liked, to show off some technology, to help students memorize content, or to develop their skills?  Many times these motivations are not mutually exclusive, but thinking about the question “makes teaching decisions purposeful and intentional” (Noyd, p. 5).  It’s good to know the reasons for what we do.

Finally, Noyd encourages us to teach “in the right manner.”  Simply put, our techniques need to match our students and goals.  For example, a brilliant lecture that demonstrates our amazing critical thinking may not help students develop that skill.  During his workshop, Noyd demonstrated this by letting us struggle to apply his concepts to our teaching.  Overteaching would have been simply to give us the “answers” Bob has found in his own teaching.

Thanks, Bob, for this wonderful approach.  For now, I gotta go to the gym.  Or make a phone call…

© 2019 Mitchell M. Handelsman


Noyd, R. K. (2005, September).  Applying Aristotle’s golden mean to the classroom: Balancing underteaching and overteaching. Teaching Matters, 9(1), pp. 406. (Originally published in the National Teaching and Learning Forum.)  Retrieved from