February 3rd, 2016

Why Are We So Slow to Change the Way We Teach?


professor writing on board

Some thoughts about change—not so much what to change, as the process of change, offered in light of its slow occurrence.

Yes, lecture is a good example. In a recent survey, 275 econ faculty who teach principles courses reported they lectured 70 percent of the class time, led discussion 20 percent of the time, and had students doing activities for 10 percent of the time. The article cites studies in that field from the mid-’90s reporting similar percentages. Maybe some other fields have changed more, but evidence supports a continuing reliance on lecture in many fields.

Teaching Professor Blog However, lecture isn’t the only example of where we’re slow to change. Many aspects of teaching—course design, approaches to testing, assignments, and grading—have also changed little. Granted, some faculty do change, a lot and regularly, but not the majority. The question is, “Why?” Here are some possibilities I’ve been considering.

Change is harder than we think. We are so vested in our teaching, and, like our students, we are error averse. Try something new, and there’s a risk of failure. There’s risk with what we do every day, but it feels safer to go with the tried and true. And most of the time, what’s new has to be revised, tweaked, and further refined. First time through, it doesn’t go as smoothly as what we’re used to doing.

The work in cognitive psychology on the use of deliberate practice to develop expertise is relevant here. It’s practice with specific characteristics: it involves difficult tasks that require focus and effort to achieve. Developing expertise also involves work on specific components of the task. There is a need for feedback from a coach with the ability to analyze the performance and propose how it can be improved. And the learner must reflect on both the performance and the feedback. As the name implies, deliberate practice means planned, purposeful practice, a consistent and concerted effort to improve.

Faculty tend to underestimate the complexity involved in changing teaching. They approach it with a Nike “just do it” attitude. That can-do attitude is spot-on, but the approach to change is too often piecemeal and reactive. “Oh, that sounds like a good idea. I’ll try that.” Or “Gee, that might be a potential fix,” for whatever problem is occurring. The hodge-podge infusion of new techniques, interesting ideas, and promising strategies circles around effective teaching rather than moving toward it with a map and designated route.

The “just do it” approach implies implementation before consideration of goals—what the change will accomplish and how to figure out whether it does. A range of issues bear on the challenges of assessing change. Many of us have unrealistic expectations for success. We want the change to work perfectly right from the start and be a “top 10” learning experience for every student and in every course. We are noble in our aspirations but unrealistic about outcomes. Instructional changes don’t work perfectly, we discover. But then, how often do we assess the results beyond our view of how it went down? In private we question our ability; in public we pin problems on the approach and/or students.

We make change harder by going it alone. Do we discuss details with anyone beforehand? Do we contemplate the possibility of a coach or mentor? Do we solicit feedback from students? I’m thinking that more often we implement and assess changes in isolation.

Uncomfortable with the implementation and disappointed in the results, we give up on the change, which rounds back to how vulnerable failure makes us feel. Wieman and Gilbert describe a large grant-funded project that involved the implementation of changes in 160 courses. They report that “roughly 100 hours” of practice were needed to switch to using new teaching methods effectively. I’m not sure how that figure was derived, but it makes clear that trying something on the fly once or twice is not likely to have the enduring effects we envision.

How we make changes isn’t the only reason so much of what’s done in the classroom stays the same, but it’s a reason we can do something about.

References: Goffe, W. L., and Kauper, D., (2014). A survey of principles instructors: Why lecture prevails. Journal of Economic Education, 45 (4), 360-375.

Wieman, C. and Gilbert, S., (2015). Taking a scientific approach to science education, part II—changing teaching. Microbe Magazine, 10 (5), 203-207.

Add Comment

  • Joel Anderson

    Great article.

  • Russ Hunt

    There's another reason. I spent my career changing my teaching, and spent most of my effort overcoming student resistance, both explicit and tacit. Not their fault: the thing school teaches most effectively is that school is a delivery system for information. Explaining why you're doing something is, of course, utterly necessary — but it's also not, in general, very efficient. The vast majority of my students wanted me to lecture, assign papers, give tests, and mark them.

  • Perry Shaw

    Another area of resistance is the tacit messages delivered by the school administration. Faculty are often called "lecturers" – and in some countries this is a faculty promotion rank "tutor, senior tutor, lecturer, senior lecturer, assistant, associate, and finally full professor". The shape of classrooms with fixed or highly immobile seating, which places the instructor front and centre – all this bespeaks an understanding of education that focuses on teacher-talk, student-listen, and a banking understanding of knowledge. Effective change has systemic elements.

    • Anthony

      it is interesting that many of the countries that consistently outperform the United States in academics have "lecturers" and the tacit idea of students listening. Maybe listening isn't such a bad thing.

      • Ron Abate

        This may be more a manifestation of the value placed on education by different societies rather than an endorsement for the efficacy of the lecture approach.

        • Anthony

          I have no doubt that the dismal performance of the US education system is more about societal attitudes than about instructional approaches. My previous comment was not intended as an endorsement of lecturing per se, but as an endorsement of active listening as a valuable learning skill. Unfortunately, a large proportion of students entering university have poorly developed or non-existent listening (and literacy and numeracy) skills. No wonder university education is rapidly regressing to what a high school education once offered.

  • Deb

    I am growing tired of hearing that we are not changing our teaching — we are. Please stop slamming teachers. I'm weary of this rhetoric already!

  • A quote by Richard Felder is appropriate here: "I’ve heard colleagues say that they tried a new teaching method (say, active learning) once and it didn’t work so they went back to traditional lecturing. That’s like saying you tried riding a bicycle once and fell down so you went back to walking. "?
    (Chemical Engineering Education, 47(4), 207-208, Fall 2013)
    Having said that, it is hard to pick yourself up after a hard fall when a teaching innovation does not work out. It does take some time to recover from that. Support would help, but often our colleagues and administrators are so busy with their own issues that support is not always there when needed. Hence, the slow pace of change.

  • Joseph Rodriguez

    Another reason is touched on in the final paragraph – making major changes in your teaching style requires large amounts of time (the number given here is 100 hours). Especially for faculty with heavy teaching loads, faculty who go unpaid during the summer, adjunct faculty, etc., these changes are only likely to happen by putting very substantial amounts of extra, unpaid time in – a sacrifice those faculty may or may not be willing to make, but which they shouldn't have to in the first place.

    • Jasmine

      well said.

    • Johnny

      The "100 hours" refers specifically to practice time, which I read to mean "time in the classroom applying your new teaching style," in which case it is not unpaid. On the other hand, assuming that 100 hours of preparation are needed, then surely that is paid time also. Unless you consider all lesson planning to be unpaid work.

  • Ron Abate

    The advent of technology in K-12 education can result in a monumental change in how we teach. 1:1 distribution of laptops, blended learning, flipped classrooms, and interactive online textbooks have the potential of changing the teacher's role to one of a moderator rather than an instructor. It will be interesting to see how this trend develops and how willing educators are in accepting these changes.

  • Al Beitz

    A recent survey performed by Educause of teachers in 9 countries indicates that a majority of faculty would adopt innovative teaching approaches if there was evidence that such approaches improved student learning outcomes. In my experience new technologies can complement traditional lecturing and make classes more engaging. One of the problems our university faces is access to educational technology assistance. Some colleges have their own IT person, some colleges share an IT person and some have no IT assistance.This creates a problem with individual faculty trying to utilize innovative technology. It is important when trying new approaches in the classroom, whether you are trying new technology or pedagogy, that you evaluate whether these new approaches have had a positive impact on student learning.

    • Bill Goffe

      Changing teaching is not the same as adopting technology to teach. I’m sure that this is what you have in mind, but I’d really like to stress this point as some can conflate the two. Here’s a quote from Carl Wieman, a co-author of the second paper mentioned here (I’m a co-author of the first paper): “While technology can support this learning process, current technology does not yet provide the extensive engagement, interactions, and timely targeted feedback provided in a well-run classroom.” See http://cwsei.ubc.ca/SEI_research/files/Wieman-Gil… . Note that Wieman is a Nobel Laureate who has long been a STEM education leader with numerous publications. He’s also a “U.S. Professor of the Year,” which is awarded for teaching.

      On evidence of not lecturing, see the meta study of 225 active learning papers: Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, Freeman et al., http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.abstract .

  • ian

    I am the guy on the college campus trying to convince faculty to try new teaching techniques and supporting them through the process. The idea of why some adopt and some dont always fascinated me. Even outside the classroom, why are some adults adopting smart phones and others cannot be bothered? I think some of it is fear and vulnerability. Some is lazyiness. Some schools have really crappy support systems where faculty feel they will be on their own. I try to convince my provost often that he needs to pony up stipends to encourage faculty to spend time learning and implementing something new, and while he wants changes to take place he does not want to spend that much money. I think there is a tipping point, when the culture where you work moves to a place where so many are trying new things that others fear getting left behind more than they fear failure.