February 20th, 2013

Improving Teaching One Class at a Time


Can we reform teaching and learning throughout higher education one class at a time? I used to think so, but the pace of change has made me less optimistic. I just finished preparing an article for The Teaching Professor newsletter that reports the results of a survey of 744 full- and part-time faculty teaching at eight two-year technical colleges across Georgia. The researchers presented the respondents with a list of 18 instructional strategies and asked them to identify how often they used each one in their last 10 class sessions. Over 90% of the respondents said they lectured for four or more class sessions with more than 50% of those saying they lectured during all 10 class sessions.

That’s not a big surprise. It confirms findings consistently reported. The surprise in the survey was that respondents also were asked to rate the effectiveness of each of these 18 instructional methods in terms of how they helped students acquire information, develop a skill, or apply knowledge. The faculty consistently rated hands-on activities and practical exercises as the two most effective strategies in accomplishing these objectives. Interesting.

Readers of this blog likely use a full range of teaching strategies and activities to engage students. I’m guessing most of us are instructional innovators. It’s faculty like us who are reforming teaching and learning and we’re doing it one class at a time. A large international study of reform in engineering education concluded, “The dominant approach [to curricular change] places the onus for change on individual faculty champions—to date, it has been these innovators who have driven educational reform.” (p. 596)

How closely does this conclusion describe your situation? “Innovations are typically developed within single, isolated courses. Often informed by evidence that alternative pedagogies can improve student learning, such reforms typically have little or no support from their institution. Most funding and support mechanisms in engineering education are built on the assumption that harnessing these local examples of innovation and best practice holds the key to fundamental, long-term change across the discipline.” (p. 596)

Should it be the responsibility of instructional innovators to advance the improvement agenda? Most of us don’t operate from a position of power and our sphere of influence is rather small. We can recommend changes to other teachers, but not much beyond that. Sometimes advocacy for different ways of teaching puts us at risk—if we’re in a department where everyone pretty much teaches the same way, if we’re up for tenure and making waves doesn’t count positively, or if we don’t have a continuing contract.

It doesn’t seem that instructional innovators should be expected to carry the weight of efforts to improve teaching and learning, but does that absolve us of any responsibility for the quality of teaching and learning on our campuses? Although we don’t operate from positions of power, we do have some influence when we advocate for instructional change as research consistently documents that the primary source of new instructional ideas are colleagues.

Nonetheless as the opening survey results so clearly show: getting faculty to make changes, even changes that they know help students learn more effectively, isn’t easy. The engineering study contains even more disturbing results. It looked at examples of successful changes and found that most often they are driven by a threat—possible termination of a degree program or accreditation issues. In other words, it took a risk of losing one’s job to get the most change-averse faculty to finally try a new approach.

No one is saying that lectures should to be abolished. They just shouldn’t be the default instructional strategy. Many of us have changed what happens in our classroom but many more still need to change. Unfortunately, if the motivation to change only comes from a colleague or an external threat, then teaching and learning will continue to improve at a very slow pace — and at the expense of more effective learning experiences for many students. It seems to me there has to be a better way.

References: Smith, D. J. and Valentine, T. (2012). The use and perceived effectiveness of instructional practices in two-year technical colleges. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 23 (1), 133-161.

Graham, R. (2012). The one less traveled by: The road to lasting systemic change in engineering education. Journal of Engineering Education, 101 (4), 596-600.

  • Tom L

    Thank you for writing this! I keep hearing that lecture is the most "efficient" way to teach, but in reality it's only the most efficient way to convey large amounts of information in a given time. The problem with that definition of "efficiency" is that it assumes that information that's conveyed is learned, and obviously it isn't.

    Even more frightening is the fact that many young faculty members who want to use more active techniques are often criticized by their tenure committees for "wasting time" with active learning approaches. "Is that really an effective use of class time?" Actually, the research says it is.

    To me, however, the most important point of that article is that TEACHERS can drive the change. So what are we waiting for?

  • Dr. Asit K. Saha

    In appropriate teaching: we should focus this synergetic formula.
    Information sent —> Information Received —-> assessment (generates feedback loop) that creates the process again as
    Information sent —> Information Received —-> assessment, one can continue this process until the difference between
    |Information sent – Information Receive| has minimum differences.

    To stop the the feedback loop quickly we need to identify appropriate stretegies based on individual student intelligence. A Smart teachers get it very quickly. In my teaching I try to develop my learning tree based on individual students strongest skills (it could be any thing) – I empowered students to come out maximum outcomes using minimum inputs. If you use this technique you may find that students immediately identify what inputs required for what outcomes.

    Your judgement to understand students strongest area (intelligence) and/or skills is very important. It varies.

    Dr. Asit K. Saha, Associate Professor, Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, United States

  • RobertVM

    I am in the agree camp with this overall and think also that the "lecture" format is still a fallback one for sure (especially in the large lecture hall environment), but also do wonder a bit about this finding:

    "Over 90% of the respondents said they lectured for four or more class sessions with more than 50% of those saying they lectured during all 10 class sessions."

    And my gut-reaction guess is that yes this means most of the session is devoted to the lecture format, but as I stood back from that reaction I wonder if since they also replied that felt hands-on application was the best way to learn if maybe there is a bigger story here of mixed methods going on? I mean I need to "present"/"lecture" content to some extent for a lot of the meeting times, so I would if asked how many sessions do I have some lecture component I would be above 50%, but also this is a smaller component of an overall session where I also incorporate large group discussions, small group discussions and projects, individual journal work (both written and drawn work), and so on (scaled to the size of the class of course). I try nowadays not to "present" more than 25 minutes in a block but do present at various times throughout the entire session.

    So I guess my takeaway from this question of mine above is I hope maybe that there is a large choir out there to preach to and that more than we realize are at the least mixing methods, and those who aren't are hopefully looking for strong models of practical application of all the theories about mixing proper levels of lecture with student focused activities on which we write a lot about.

  • Martha

    For the last 2 semester, I have stopped lecturing. Instead students are given a set of pre-class assignments to be completed before our next class meeting. In class students are given a chance to ask questions about the assignment, and I clarify and provide additional information. Next, we do some more work in class and additional homework is assigned. Every class meeting is designed this way. Challenges: students do not come prepared, or they are still waiting for me to lecture. I think that students are the ones that need to be trained differently not just the professor. Students are programmed to be lectured from a young age and sometimes is difficult for them to change just like teachers.

    • cognitioneducation

      I agree! Students also play a role in making a transition work. Last year my Intro students just wouldn't get on board, so I threw in the towel halfway through the term and went back to lecturing. This year, I completely revamped the presentation of my expectations and the way I introduced their in-class work though, and it is working much better. I do still lecture some, but only part of each class period, where students engage in application, extension, and review activities for the remainder. With the fresh start (and an agreeable group) it is going well this term. Another recent experience of mine that occurred this year, to your point above, took place in a class where I had all levels present – frosh to senior – and I did no lecturing at all. The upper-classmen are the students who had a hard time at first, since their habits were already set. But with the enthusiasm of the less advanced students, they eventually came around and the class was a roaring success.

  • LLappin

    It takes time to develop engaging group work that accomplishes learning objectives. It takes some trial and error in setting up the groups so they participate equally. Even though the content of my classes is all the same, the morning class is more likely to engage and the afternoon students seem zapped of energy. I have composition classes–really challenging to make the work exciting. Grammar, sentence structure, citation, I mean riveting stuff! What I mean to say here is that there are no simple teaching tricks to make every class hour a mindstorm. When I got into this I thought my love of reading and writing would carry the day. It helps, but there are so many variables, so many off days for both the students and the faculty. Percentages don't begin to get at the scope of this challenge.

  • An Educator

    Nothing wrong with a lecture, as long as it is presented dynamically and it engages students to think. How else does one present their expertise and personal experiences in their field? All too often I see instructors touting student activities as a 'better form of teaching/learning,' because they personally have nothing to contribute and/or are unable to deliver a dynamic lecture session. The instructor was hired for their expertise — the students have the right to benefit from such and the institution has the right to expect them to provide such in the classroom. Learning from student activities is for 'after the classroom.' Sure, questions, student presentations and discussions are also part of a well rounded classroom session, but an instructor who simply facilitates student learning without sharing their knowledge, calling it innovative better methodology, is just that — a facilitator, not an instructor. Students have the right to have an expert in their lass room sharing their knowledge — not just organizing student activities.

    • Tom L

      You're suggesting that when students are active, the instructor isn't sharing his/her expertise. That's a false dichotomy. I share my expertise with students as they are working on the activities, but it's done in a "just-in-time" format. I'm still conveying the information that they need, just in smaller chunks and in the context of a real world situation.

  • Mira

    I'm interested in the "list of 18 instructional strategies". What were they?

  • cognitioneducation

    Another hindrance to changing format is time. It takes significant time to provide students with the kind of feedback they need to keep working actively when less lecture and more engagement is happening. I have implemented what I am calling a partial-flip in my Intro class this semester, where I do lecture some, but students also do a variety of engagement activities each class period (I vary the kinds of activities with where we are at in the chapters and with the nature of the material). I couldn't keep up with the evaluations if I didn't have an amazing support-person working with me (a highly motivated graduate student). Without her, I would have to do less active engagement. To echo another commenter too though, I think it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater in such considerations – lecture need not be equated with passivity, nor with bad teaching. A good lecture CAN engage and can help students understand finer points of information. I find that students often do not read their texts correctly, or perhaps do not always connect all the dots when preparing. So lecture is necessary for more complex material. Case in point – the method I've implemented in my Intro class is working like gangbusters, but I am doing something similar in my upper-div cognitive psych class and it isn't going as smoothly. Not only are the students not accustomed to the process of active engagement, bu the material is more difficult and that makes the discussion/application more tricky.

  • Daniela

    This is a great topic. In a few words, a combination of teaching methods or tools used is key to maintain interest and engagement. The learning will follow once it is absorbed through active learning.

  • Anthony

    "No one is saying that lectures should to be abolished. They just shouldn’t be the default instructional strategy."

    Says who? Most of the progressive education "active learning" instructional practices are, in fact, a waste of time (and most of the "research" that promotes such practices is bunk). A more valuable discussion would focus on the differences between engaging and interactive lectures versus the stereotype of endless monotone lecture (a la Ben Stein's performance in Ferris Buehler's Day Off).

    An engaging and interactive lecture can be exceptionally effective. Often times when instructors succumb to the pressure to incorporating more active learning activities, they gut educational value to glut engagement. Instructional method should be determined by the content. If the objective is to help students build a knowledge base, lecture is not only efficient but also quite effective.

    Using active learning techniques for their own sake is a poor method of determining the appropriate instructional method.

  • IronLaw

    "… if the motivation to change only comes from a colleague or an external threat, then teaching and learning will continue to improve at a very slow pace…"
    Who's measuring the "improvement?" And how?