Wilbert J. McKeachie, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan highly regarded for both his teaching and research on teaching, was born in 1921 in Clarkston, Michigan. He won a scholarship to Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), where he majored in mathematics and minored in English and history. He graduated with a BA in 1942, shortly after America's entry into World War II. Troubled by the moral justification for the war and undecided as to whether he should become a conscientious objector or be drafted, McKeachie took a job, offered him by a friend, as minister of two Methodist churches in the Upper Peninsula. When the draft board turned down his request for deferment as a minister, McKeachie enlisted in the Navy in the Fall of 1942 and served for the duration of the war as a radar and communications officer on a destroyer in the Pacific.
McKeachie's interest in psychology dated from the time he read an article on psychology as a vocation when he was fourteen. His interest continued to grow through the years and in 1945, after leaving the Navy, he enrolled at the University of Michigan in the MA program in clinical psychology. After completing the MA program, he pursued a PhD which he earned in 1949. McKeachie's interest in carrying out research on teaching and learning was sparked by his participation as a teaching fellow in the introductory psychology course taught by Harold Guetzkow. "In that role, he and a splendid cadre of teaching fellows thrashed out issues of teaching goals, methods, and pragmatics and were pressed by Guetzkow toward empirical answers to their questions about teaching effectiveness. His interest in research in teaching was heightened by his role as coordinator for the introductory course's research projects and extended into his doctoral research exploring social-psychological factors in college classrooms." (Box 4, Folder: Biographical #2, "Awards for Distinguished Education and Training Contributions: 1987").
McKeachie began his professional affiliation with the University of Michigan shortly after receiving his doctorate, when he was offered a position with the department and assumed responsibility for introductory psychology. In addition he redesigned both the undergraduate and graduate curriculums. He continued with his research and in the following years became internationally known for his work "exploring student motivation, the interaction of personality variables and teaching methods, cognitive and learning analyses of classroom teaching, students' perceptions of teachers and teaching, and evaluation of teaching effectiveness." (Ibid). Teaching Tips, one of his most important publications, grew out of his research and his experience in working with teaching assistants in the introductory psychology course. It has been used by thousands of beginning college teachers and according to McKeachie, "has given me the most satisfaction of anything I have written." (Box 4, Folder: Biographical #2, "Autobiography for Krawiec, T.S.")
McKeachie rapidly moved through the ranks at the university to become professor of psychology, and in 1961 began a ten-year tenure as chairman of the department. In recalling the most important aspects of his chairmanship, McKeachie explains, "We had already pioneered in social psychology, mathematical psychology, and clinical psychology. During my years as chairman we continued to produce outstanding students in these fields and built on the foundations laid by Marquis and Kelly in human information processing, brain and behavior, organizational psychology, and school psychology. We developed new programs in developmental psychology, community psychology, psychopharmacology and psycholinguistics....One of the most satisfying achievements of the Department during the years of my chairmanship was our leadership in training Black psychologists." (Box 4, Folder: Biographical #2, "Autobiography for Krawiec, T. S.")
While serving as department chairman, McKeachie helped establish the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), one of the first centers of its kind in the country. He later served as its director for eight years from 1975 to 1983. Thereafter his time spent on teaching and research was divided between the Department of Psychology and CRLT. Although he formally retired in 1992, McKeachie continues to teach various classes.
Throughout his forty-two years at the University of Michigan, McKeachie served on a variety of departmental, college, and university-wide committees, boards, and task forces. He chaired the Committee on Student Opinion of Courses and Teaching, served on the Committee on the Program in Religion, chaired the [LSA] College Committee on Curriculum, which recommended and helped plan the establishment of the Residential College, served on the Budget Priorities Committee, chaired the LSA Steering Committee on Admissions, and was elected chairman of the University Faculty Senate and president of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. His interest in athletics (he is famous around the university and in the profession for his softball pitching skills) is reflected in his membership on the Senate Committee on Athletic Policy and on the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics. In addition, he served on many search committees, including the one which led to the hiring of Robben Fleming as university president in 1967.
McKeachie has been quite active professionally, especially in the American Psychological Association (APA) for which he served as president in 1976. He has also been president of the American Association of Higher Education and has served in leadership roles in the American Council on Education, the American Education Research Association (AERA), the International Union of Psychological Science, the International Association of Applied Psychology, the Conference of State Psychological Associations, and the Michigan Psychological Association.
Because of his skills as a teacher and the quality of his research, McKeachie has been the recipient of a number of awards from professional organizations, including the AERA, APA, and American Psychological Foundation. He has also received the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching and the Distinguished Faculty Governance Award from the University of Michigan. Honorary degrees have been awarded him by the University of Cincinnati, Denison University, Eastern Michigan University, Hope College, and Northwestern University.
Religion has long played an important part in McKeachie's life and has influenced his career as a professor of psychology (one of the earliest classes he taught at the university was Psychology and Religion). He and his wife, Ginny (formerly Virginia Mack), have been active members of the First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor for over forty years. McKeachie met Ginny when he was a senior in college; they were married shortly before he enlisted in the Navy in the Fall of 1942. They have two children.