February 20th, 2013

Improving Teaching One Class at a Time

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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.