February 6, 2013

Defining Teaching Effectiveness

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

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The term “teaching effectiveness” had its heyday in the 80s and early 90s during that period when so much work on student ratings was being done. Its connection to evaluation activities remains and even end-of-course ratings are often thought of as measures of teaching effectiveness. Given its continuing importance, it is a term we should regularly revisit.

Definitions for teaching effectiveness abound, which makes it difficult to identify any one as definitive. We’ve defined it by asking those concerned (teachers, students, and administrators) what the term means to them. Here are some examples of how we’ve asked and what’s been answered. When asked to list in order of importance the three most important abilities, students, teachers, and administrators agreed on the same three — cultivate thinking skills, stimulate interest in the subject, and motivate students to learn — but not in the same order.

In another study, researchers compared the words and phrases students used to describe effective and ineffective teachers. The top three words used to characterize teachers with the highest ratings were: interesting, approachable, and clarity. The definition extracted from descriptions of teachers nominated for teaching awards used these words: approachable, presents material well, makes subject interesting, helpful, and knowledgeable. In 1988, Kenneth Feldman did a meta-analysis of 31 studies in which teachers and students identified characteristics they associated with good teaching and effective instruction. He found that students emphasized the importance of teachers being interesting, having good elocutionary skills, being available, and helpful. Faculty placed more importance on being intellectually challenging, motivating students, setting high standards, and encouraging self-initiated learning.

To examine this further, let’s start with two basic questions. (1) What do these various aspects and characteristics of teaching effectiveness have to do with learning? (2) Why don’t we just define effective teaching as teaching that results in learning? Too many intervening variables, the researchers tell us. Say you teach a course students do not want to take (developmental reading or remedial math might be examples), and you do all these things associated with effective teaching, your students still may not learn. They may not have the prerequisite background knowledge, they think they cannot learn the content, or it just may not be the time of their lives to be learning what you’re teaching. On the other hand, you may be an ineffective teacher but if your students are motivated to learn the content, they will do so in spite of you. Students are the ultimate “deciders” when it comes to whether or not they learn.

But do these teacher attributes and activities make it more likely that students will learn? Research (albeit most of it correlational) says that they do and if it’s fairer to evaluate teachers on their teaching than on their students’ learning, then these aspects of effective teaching merit our consideration. But here’s where the research lets us down. The quest for descriptors continues, even though we have already identified many different traits and characteristics.

I wish we knew which of these descriptors are the most important. How many do you have to display before students consider you effective? If you’re deficient in one area, can you compensate by excelling in another area? Does it matter that students and teachers define “teaching effectiveness” differently? How does one craft an improvement agenda when so many of the characteristics seem like personal attributes?

Finally, there are some who critique an emphasis on teaching effectiveness by saying that it takes the focus away from learning and students. Are they mutually exclusive? Can we only focus on one and not both? I would grant you that for a long time the focus was too much on teaching and not enough on learning, but we have redressed that imbalance. It seems to me that focusing on both cements the link between teaching and learning. We want to be teaching in such a way that learning results and if these aspects of teaching promote learning, then we should be working on the skills necessary to develop them.

Layne, L. (2012). Defining effective teaching. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 23 (1), 43-68.

Feldman, K. A. (1988). Effective college teaching from the students’ and faculty’s view: Matched or mismatched priorities? Research in Higher Education, 28 (4), 291-344.

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Elizabeth in VT | February 6, 2013

I would recommend to readers the book "How to Measure Anything: Finding the Intangibles in Business" by Douglas W. Hubbard. The author offers many ideas on how to look at intangibles, of which "effectiveness" is surely one.

Tom L | February 6, 2013

I'm not sure the descriptors are all that different. A teacher who is intellectually challenging is more likely to be interesting. A teacher can help motivate students by being clear, approachable, and helpful. To me the traits are the same, just seen from different perspectives.

@msimps01 | February 6, 2013

Thanks for this post, I shared it in the ASCD Forum group, where we are discussing how to define and measure teacher effectiveness: http://groups.ascd.org/groups/detail/141997/ascd-

Becky | February 6, 2013

I know of anecdotal data that says student opinions aren't reliable. E.g. they may really dislike a particular teaching/pedagogical strategy, but assessment shows that it is significantly effective in improving student skills. [I'm referring to some work done using ALEKS in undergraduate chemistry classes.] In addition, I've seen data showing undergrads rate 'lectures' as one of their preferred learning environments, but we know from tons of research that traditional lecture is not nearly as effective as active learning. How do we reconcile what the research says about interventions that yield strong learning outcomes versus student assessments of effective teaching.

Raoul A. Arreola | February 6, 2013

In 40 years of teaching at the university level I developed a strategy that seemed to make me a more effective teacher. Before teaching a concept I tried to put myself in the same frame of mind I was in when I first heard it. This was, for me, quite difficult to do – but it enabled me to better connect with the learners (since this was the first time they were hearing about the concept). As a result I was better able to prepare my instructional delivery experiences ("lectures"), anticipate student concerns, and respond more appropriately to their questions. In retrospect I think this strategy, coupled with applying the principles of instructional systems design, enabled me to be a more effective teacher than I might have otherwise have been.

suchi | February 7, 2013

If a teacher is unable to transfer the knowledge to the students then all his efforts go in vain, or students are not able to absorb what the teacher is teaching.
Teaching can become effective when both the parties involved in it takes equal interest.
Ingredients required as a teacher are : makes subject interesting, knowledgeable, approachable.
Ingredients required as a student are: willingness to learn, self-motivated and focused.
The purpose of both parties should be clear.

cognitioneducation | February 7, 2013

Self determination theory, stemming from Psychology, suggests that to promote optimal performance in any aspect of life, but particularly in school, students' sense of competence, relatedness, and autonomy must be appropriately nurtured. These "basic needs" are reflected in the terms noted above (thinking, motivation, interest) but point to more operational, or specific, steps teachers can take to promote learning.

1. To foster competence, work in the class needs to be both challenging but also yoked with specific feedback on what was done well/correctly vs. poor/incorrectly. Specific feedback like this, over time, enables students to grow their knowledge/skills and develop important metacognitive skills that enable self regulation.

2. To foster relatedness, teachers need to be approachable and reasonable, and students need to get to know each other. The term "learning community" reflects this. If the classroom has a positive atmosphere, students have more "buy-in" are likely more willing to engage with the program.

3. To foster autonomy, students need to feel like they control outcomes. This can be done in a number of ways. Easy way: on assignments and exams give students some choice (easier in higher ed) — let them chose one of two essay prompts, let them choose 20 of 25 multiple choice questions, and so on. Another clear way to foster a sense of control are being transparent in your grading policies so students know where their "points" come from (this then is linked with competence too). Giving students multiple ways to succeed also foster control – so that they know that one "bombed" test won't make or break them.

Finally, if student learning is something deemed important, do pre-post assessments that reflect course goals and look at change scores. Easier said than done, depending on the discipline, but not impossible. In a humanities class have students create portfolios where they keep track of their progress, and perhaps have them write to a specific essay prompt at the beginning of the term, and again at the end of the term. In topical classes, give the final exam twice, and so on.

Effectiveness is a two-way street — both parties (teacher & student) bring something to the table. When all the elements "mesh" well then learning does indeed happen.

Nina | February 7, 2013

Thank you for this article! I certainly agree with the need of effective teaching and learning, but I still think we are focusing too much on teaching. Whether students have successful learning experiences and really (deep) learn the content depends on multiple factors in both instruction and curriculum. Getting teaching and learning productively intertwined in the classroom is a challenge all educators are facing, and correlations between the two should not be drawn in haste.

The concept of effectiveness is hard to define. Maybe we should pay more attention to the quality of interactions, and see how they contribute to successful learning experiences? And as the most effective teacher is the one who makes herself progressively unnecessary by empowering her students to become autonomous learners, should we also measure students’ independence or autonomy in learning?

@meduem | February 10, 2013

Thanks for the article. I shared it with faculties of my MedSchool and in the blog "Educação Médica / Medical Education" edumeduem.blogspot.com
Roberto Z. Esteves

Angela | February 20, 2013

Thanks for the article; I wish it was available in '05' to me and the division I taught in at a community college.
It was surprising to see how much emphasis is placed on student's evaluation of teachers. For example, you teach a Business class that has no prerequisites, so any and all students can enroll. However, when grading time comes, students’ that lack the prerequisites are not going to pass the course. As stated in the article, "On the other hand, you may be an ineffective teacher; sstudents’ are the ultimate “deciders” when it comes to whether or not they learn".

rodrick | March 12, 2015

thanks for the article; I hope i lean more of how to be effective teacher

icheeks | March 25, 2015

Serving as the principal and instructional leadership for a rural high school of 400 students, teacher effectiveness and the implications for student learning is a real challenge and concern with the goal of school improvement efforts since research states that the teacher is the number one factor for and to student learning. A higly effectively teacher will in my professional opinion will produce high achieving students. I don't believe in some school district we as leaders spend enough time on producing and supporting highly effective teachers.

Daniel Akinyele | March 25, 2015

I have been mightily blessed by this write up and l wish l will still have the opportunity to be receiving it in my email. Thanks.


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