May 1st, 2014

Teaching Effectiveness: The Definitions of Teachers and Students


When we talk about teaching effectiveness, it’s usually in the context of evaluation. Student ratings are frequently described as measures of teaching effectiveness, and that makes our understanding of the term important. Researcher Leslie Layne wondered whether students and teachers define the term similarly. If they don’t, Layne writes that understanding the differences “is crucial to faculty and administrators when interpreting student survey results.” (p. 43)

To discover how both faculty and students define the term, Layne first used faculty and student responses to generate a list of 30 possible definitions for effective teaching. After several rounds of pretesting and revision, she asked faculty and student cohorts to identify the four best definitions for teaching effectiveness.

Here’s the list of the top definitions identified by faculty members and the percentage of respondents who selected the item as one of their four best definitions:

  • Loves the subject; knows the subject material well (50 percent)
  • Is organized, well-prepared for class (44 percent)
  • Uses a variety of teaching methods and formats (41 percent)
  • Cares about the success of students (31 percent)
  • Motivates students to do well in the course (25 percent)
  • Outlines course expectations clearly and accurately (22 percent)
  • Encourages questions and feedback from students (22 percent)

Here’s the list of the top definitions identified by students and the percentage who selected the item as one of their four best definitions:

  • Keeps students interested for the whole class period; makes the class enjoyable (45 percent)
  • Loves the subject; knows the subject material well (34 percent)
  • Interacts with students; takes a hands-on approach to the subject (29 percent)
  • Uses a variety of teaching methods or formats (24 percent)
  • Is accessible to students (23 percent)
  • Is patient and flexible when dealing with students’ problems (21 percent)

There are differences in these definitions, and some of them are sizable. Only 6 percent of the faculty respondents listed the “keeps students interested for the whole period” in their collection of best definitions. Only 13 percent of students listed the “is organized, well-prepared for class” definition. In general the student list focuses much more on how teachers relate to them, and the faculty list focuses more on what they think teachers need to do in relation to course content. Layne describes these overall differences this way: “When considering the connotation of ‘approval’ that is connected to the word ‘effective,’ students evidently base their approval much more on social and emotional factors, such as professors’ interactions with students, than on the professors’ skill with presenting the subject materials. … In contrast to social factors … the notion of ‘approval’ for faculty members is more cultural, associated with job performance: Am I teaching the materials I am expected to teach efficiently? Am I creating an atmosphere of learning in the classroom? Am I inspiring and motivating students to learn?” (pp. 64-65)

The cohorts in this study are relatively small, and both faculty and students are from the same institution, although they are distributed across a range of disciplines. As the researcher notes, it would be beneficial to replicate this study with larger cohorts. And the implications of these differences, if they transcend institutions and faculty and student cohorts, are important when evaluations of faculty include student rating results. When faculty implement changes to increase their effectiveness, they may be opting to improve in ways that are not as important to students as are other ways. Beyond that is the issue of how these definitions of effective teaching relate to learning. Are students saying that teachers who connect with students motivate and help them to learn better? Are teachers saying that concern with preparation and presentation of content motivates and aids learning? Could both be correct?


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

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.3 (2013): 7-8. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Ellen Smyth

    I agree more with the student list than the faculty one. How much a professor – already qualified to teach college – loves and knows her chosen subject area does not necessarily translate to how well students will learn from her, which is the teaching effectiveness part. This #1 faculty description perfectly fits Professor Snape, who is the ultimate guru of potions but has a penchant for torturing students. And it would perfectly describe a professor who was too caught up in the importance of her research to bother preparing anything for class – or even coming to class. If I were to picture Hitler as a teacher, faculty's #2 definition might be apt. And yet I would never want Hitler or Snape as my teacher.

    A true definition must exclude all counterexamples of the term, and so I would not think that any of these descriptions qualify as a true definition. The closest one to a definition, IMO, is the #1 from students, which I would tweak to say: keeps students interested in and thinking deeply about the subject for the whole class period while making class content enjoyable. I hesitate to call even this description a definition of effective teaching because I do not think it would guarantee effective learning in every example.

  • cognitioneducation

    I recently read a paper by Boyer on assessment and evaluation of teaching and scholarship, wherein he also addresses the problem of mismatched interpretations. His suggestion was that we educate students on what good teaching is before asking them to evaluate it. A project like the one described here seems like a step in that direction. We do not do that where I work though (educate students on what good teaching is), rather there's a general sense that if we discuss the evaluation process with students we are stacking the deck and invalidating the process (a perspective I wholeheartedly disagree with). Do any of you out there work at an institution that takes the time to ensure students and faculty think alike regarding course / teaching evaluation?