Tips for Teaching Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy

[These tips are adapted from the online instructor’s manual for

Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice by

John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan, John Wiley & Sons, 2012]

            At the University of Montana,  we teach theories in both large lecture sections and in smaller graduate seminars. Regardless of class size and venue, we find the following teaching strategies useful.

  1. Open the class with an engaging story about whichever theory, theorist, or approach you’ll be covering.
  2. Alternatively, open class with a quick reflection on what students recall from the previous class period.
  3. Then transition to a brief description or outline of what you intend to cover (generally we follow the outline of the chapter, but regularly make planned or spontaneous detours).
  4. Focus on historical context and biographical information linked to the theory/theorist. We use some of the powerful quotations available in the text and elsewhere for this and have the quotations on the powerpoint slides.
  5. Transition to theoretical principles.
  6. Approximately every 15-20 minutes we weave in one of the following teaching strategies
    1. A personal or professional anecdote about the theory or theorist (e.g., When I met William Glasser in the ACA Exhibition Hall)
    2. A short “turn to your table or neighbor” discussion question; we generally allow 3-5 minutes for these activities
    3. A short answer question posed to the entire class
    4. A video clip (this may include a youtube video or a more professional video clip demonstrating a therapy technique)
    5. A short interactive activity where students turn to each other and “try out” specific counseling or psychotherapy techniques (e.g., we have students do a 90 second “free association” with each other – see Section Two of the Instructor’s Manual for more interactive, in-class activities)
    6. A brief in-class demonstration of a technique with a class volunteer, followed by classroom debriefing and discussion
    7. A story about a specific therapy case that illustrates how the theoretical perspective is applied
    8. After reviewing the key theoretical principles, it’s time to focus on specific therapy process and specific therapy techniques associated with the theory. This is one place where we’re likely to do an in-class demonstration or a therapy video clip. However, our policy is to keep things moving by never going over 10 minutes of a demonstration or video without stopping the action and discussing student observations.
    9. After reviewing specific therapy process and techniques (including demonstrations), we move to briefly exploring the evidence-base or empirical support for the approach. We recognize that this is not a class that emphasizes research, but featuring a particular research study or reviewing meta-analytic data can help keep students oriented to the value and limits of research.
    10. Although we try to integrate ethics and diversity issues into as many parts of our lecture and class presentation as possible, at the very least we take time to focus on these issues toward the end of class. For example, we pose questions to the class like: (a) How do you think you could apply this approach with an Native American client, or (b) What are some of the common ethical issues that might arise when doing Gestalt therapy?
    11. At the end of each class we make a practice of asking students to do an informal homework assignment. For example, after the class on psychoanalytic theory and therapy we ask students to pay attention to the internal thoughts (or voice) in their head and think about whether this inner voice is speaking nicely to them (e.g., supportive ego type inner speech) or harshly (e.g., more like a negative internalized object or harsh superego/conscience). The purpose of these informal assignments is to help students not just gain intellectual knowledge, but to have them experience how the theoretical concepts might play out in their lives.

Perhaps the most important principle to teaching theories is to never let too much time pass without student-student or student-instructor interaction. The purpose of these interactions is to not simply keep the class moving and students engaged (although that’s important as well), but to consistently make counseling and psychotherapy theory and technique something that students are able to talk about and connect with their daily experiences.


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