February 6th, 2013

Defining Teaching Effectiveness


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.