Putting the WHY First In Your Teaching

By: G. Scott Weston, BSPharm, MBA, PhD, RPh

It Starts With You

As the author Simon Sinek pointed out in his TED talk and book, it is important for us to always “start with why”. This principle applies to teaching and learning, as well. First, as you prepare to teach, begin by asking yourself why the material that you are teaching in this lecture, course, or learning module is important for your students. For pharmacy educators teaching in core didactic and experiential courses, everything should be filtered through the lens of the skills and knowledge base needed by a typical practicing pharmacist. This lens will help you identify the key points on which to focus your efforts and avoid spending time on extraneous material or activities. For example, as a medicinal chemist who also received a pharmacy degree, I had to learn the chemical structures of pharmaceutical agents in great detail. However, in over three decades of practicing pharmacy, I have yet to encounter a situation in which a patient or prescriber asked me to draw a chemical structure. Yet on many occasions, I have been asked whether certain drugs have particular chemical groups that might trigger drug hypersensitivities, whether an agent is stable if stored at room temperature, and how quickly a drug breaks down in the body. As a result, I focus my teaching on helping pharmacy students understand the impact of chemical structures on key aspects of biological activity and ADMET, but I don’t require them to memorize or draw drug structures, because doing so fails the “why” test. The same principle can be applied to your course, rotation, or learning activity by asking why this is important for the student.

Connecting With Your Students

In addition to the use of the “why” principle in developing teaching materials, it is also helpful to use this concept in communicating with your students. As the content expert, while it may seem obvious to you why students need to learn this material, don’t overlook the importance of explicitly stating this. For example, several years ago, I was assigned to teach a foundational biochemistry course for a group of P1 students in a new school of pharmacy. As I designed the course, I assumed (incorrectly) that the students would naturally understand the importance of biochemistry in terms of drug targets, key pathways, and drug action. As we started the course, I was surprised that I routinely fielded questions asking why we were wasting time covering this topic instead of learning about drugs. From that point forward, the first slides of any new course I taught started with a discussion of why this topic was important and how the course linked to both their prior knowledge and future learning. Explaining why: 

  • helps build trust with your students, a factor that Brookfield1 notes that is essential to learning and serves as the foundation for all significant learning experiences. 
  • makes it easier for students to place the new information being learned into the proper context. In addition, as Marzano2 noted, this approach also helps activate a student’s prior knowledge, another factor critical in learning. 
  • directly connects the course material to student interests and concerns. This is a key practice highlighted in Bain’s research3 of what the most successful teachers do. It is also noted as a top priority for student learning by Marzano4, who emphasized that students must see the value and purpose of learning the material. 

Application To Course Activities and Testing

The same explaining “why” principle also applies to course activities, including active learning exercises and the format of exam questions. For example, while students may not like short answer or essay exam questions, a brief explanation about the value of these questions provides the critical context of how these types of assessments are helpful. One suggestion is to note that these types of questions help students avoid the trap of simple memorization and give them the opportunity to display the ability to critically think through a problem. An even better option, if possible, would be to have a more advanced student or alumnus give the same message to your current students. The latter technique leverages the power of social proof5 by using someone who is a peer to your students to help influence their response. So, as we design our courses and teach our students, don’t forget to start with why. 

How can you use this principle in your approach to course design and teaching?


  1. Brookfield, S. Building trust with students. In: The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. Wiley; 2015:163-176.
  2. Marzano, R. J. Using strategies that appear in all types of lessons. In: The New Art and Science of Teaching. Solution Tree; 2018:53-64.
  3. Bain, K. What do they know about how we learn? In: What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press; 2004:22-47.
  4. Petty, G. Marzano’s theory-based meta-analysis. In: Evidence-Based Teaching: A Practical Approach. Nelson Thornes; 2009:71-81.
  5. Cialdini, R. B. Social proof: Truths are us. In: Influence, New and Expanded: The Psychology of Persuasion. HarperCollins; 2021:97-140.

Author Bio

Scott is currently serving as the Dean of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Charleston. His educational scholarship interests include the scholarship of teaching and learning and finding new ways to communicate pharmaceutical sciences concepts to students. In his free time, he enjoys traveling to new places, reading, and spending time with family.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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