February 17th, 2011

Evidence-based Teaching: Staying Current on What Works


My former colleague Jim Fairweather has written a paper commissioned by the National Academies National Research Council Board of Science Education which makes some interesting points. But first a bit of background.

Most of us in the humanities are vaguely aware that over the past 20 years or so, the National Science Foundation and other science education entities have invested considerable money in the reform of undergraduate science education. Lots of reports advocated for reform, although I’ve never been convinced the need for reform was all that much greater in science, math and engineering than in the rest of our disciplines. A variety of large and comparatively well-funded projects were completed or are still ongoing in these disciplines and because they were externally funded, their effectiveness had to be documented. The various projects that make use of group work and other more learner-centered approaches, most involving those pedagogies that engage students early in their college experience, were shown to effectively impact a wide range of learning outcomes. All very good news. The problem has been that despite their effectiveness, few of these reforms have penetrated other classrooms. The question is why?

Those of us who work in faculty development have long assumed that faculty can be persuaded to change instructional practices if and when they are confronted with evidence. If a particular method can be shown to be more effective at promoting learning than what is done currently, teachers will be motivated to change. In his paper, Fairweather says that’s not the case. All sorts of evidence exists (and I agree, the evidence is there) and faculty are not changing the way they teach. He thinks the problem is the reward issue—that teaching is still not valued as much as research, and until that imbalance is addressed, teachers aren’t all that motivated to make changes.

I’m not so sure the reward issue explains why teachers aren’t opting for those pedagogies that more directly focus on learning. Maybe at research universities, it’s the reward issue, but elsewhere? The question for me is whether faculty know that there is evidence that supports the efficacy of these approaches. Do they read educational research? I don’t think so. Do they read the scholarship on teaching and learning in their disciplines? A few do, but not many based on the circulation of those periodicals.

The crux of matter is that we have yet to address what kind of resources practicing teachers need to keep them informed and growing as teachers. A busy teacher who’s teaching four courses, advising, providing service to the institution and trying to keep up with developments in his or her field cannot be expected to go to educational psychology journals, for example, to find out the latest research on student motivation. Those findings need to be brought to individual teachers in a readable and accessible format that concludes with recommendations based on the findings. And maybe that does get back to the reward issue because there certainly is no reward or recognition for scholarship that translates, integrates and explores implications of findings.

But here’s where I ended up in my thinking about this. I do believed that faculty value evidence—they may want to explore it for themselves, they may want to look for other findings, they may want to challenge assumptions or argue methodology, but after they’ve done all that if the research documents that student motivation increases when students are given some choice and control over how they learn, most faculty would not only be willing to explore how they could give students that discretion, I believe most would want to do so.

We get tired, some of us are old and cynical, but almost all of us are teachers for very idealistic reasons. The satisfaction that comes from helping students learn is worth more than any dollars and cents reward—which is not to say teachers are paid enough or are getting all they deserve. It’s just that not all rewards are equal—some buy groceries, others establish our place in world as valuable human beings.

To access the PDF of Fairweather’s report Linking Evidence and Promising Practices in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Undergraduate Education, go here »

  • Carl

    An excellent, thought provoking piece. But I think that Professor Weimer is much to optimistic. Time is an issue, but many non-education faculty think that teaching is a cinch, that anyone can do it, that students just need to put in more effort, and that lecture remains the best method for High Education. Everything else is just faddish tinkering, no matter what the evidence. Most humanities instructors (and many business instructors) in liberal arts institutions are in no position to evaluate the evidence from social science based research. Therefore we do what we do best – we decry and stick with what we know how to do – lecture.

    While I don't despair of improving the craft of teaching in Higher Education, I do think that many in the profession don't see effective teaching as part of their mission. Some at big research institutions see it as an annoying addition to their real work. Some of us at small institutions grew mightily (or think we did) under lecture based instruction and can't conceptualize, or don't want to conceptualize, anything different. Therefore, it will take a new generation of educators to make these methodologies common in Higher Education.

  • Cassi

    While I'm sure there are faculty who are simply not interested in change, in my own teaching experience at a 2-year college, part of the challenge is that students are not prepared to be active learners. Most of them come from public school systems that stress passive learning, some of which don't really care if learning takes place at all, as long as the body is in the chair for a certain number of days per year. I've been trying (am still trying) to do more and more active learning and less and less of the lecture I experienced as a student. But, as a commenter said on a previous blog entry, nothing works if the students don't work.

    There's nothing quite as depressing as working to find an engaging activity, crafting what you think could be a really fun learning experience, and then having the students look at you with that "you expect us to do something other than sit here?" look. It is harder than you might think to get students to reflect on what they are doing and really take the time to make connections between concepts.

  • Dan

    The other problem is that not-lecturing requires a lot more work than lecturing. Professors at schools that only give lip-service to teaching prowess (poor teaching and excellent research will earn tenure, but excellent teaching and run-of-the-mill research will not earn tenure) realize that there are only 24 hours in a day, and it's a zero-sum game: time spent preparing your courses is time not spent on research.

    An hour or two per class is plenty of time to prepare a decent lecture even for a new class as long as you know the subject well — and the lecture class can then be taught with slight modifications for enough years afterward to get you through the tenure decision. On the other hand, preparing good interactive materials is an ongoing, time-consuming process that has to be repeated year after year. Meanwhile, grant writing and research are also ongoing, time-consuming processes that have to be repeated year after year.

    Given the realities of tenure decisions, what's the rational decision?