February 11th, 2015

Our Ongoing Quest to Improve Student Learning: High Standards and Realistic Expectations


“Teaching is such a challenge! Just when one thinks improvements are happening, the goal post of perfection moves further away. A bit like getting better headlights on one’s car: now you can see as far as the next corner, but the final destination remains out of sight!” Thanks to Nigel Armstrong, whom I met during a professional development day at Niagara University, for this insight.

It touches on something that is often a barrier to instructional growth—trying to reach exceedingly high standards. No, it’s not a problem for all teachers. There are some among us who don’t set high instructional standards, but I’m pretty sure those aren’t teachers who read blogs devoted to the subjects covered in this one.

What’s an exceedingly high standard? Here are some examples: Wanting the instructional strategies we use to work with all kinds of content, in every course, and for all students. Anything less and we conclude that the strategy is inherently flawed, or some character defect prevents our successful implementation of it. Wanting every student to succeed and taking the failure of those who don’t personally. Believing that our already high student ratings should increase each semester—even a slight dip causes great concern.

It’s not so much the standards themselves that are the problem. They should be high. Teaching is important work—it matters. We need to do it well, and it’s good to want to improve. The problem is what we conclude about any failed attempts to reach our lofty standards. One negative student comment in a collection of 44 favorable ones launches a round of personal castigation that’s followed by consideration (sometimes implementation) of a large assortment of instructional alterations.

Our quest for strategies that better promote learning should be ongoing, but at the same time we need to recognize that a strategy can still be good even if it doesn’t garner the desired learning outcomes every time we use it. A strategy can be well implemented and still not be an effective learning experience for some students. And sometimes students sabotage strategies for reasons that have nothing to do with the teacher.

Besides making more of failure than we need to, we are often too comprehensive in our conclusions. A class session is not “good” or “bad” from the moment it starts until the period ends, nor is any teacher “good” all the time. Some of the time students are engaged and learning; other times they aren’t. Or maybe most of them are, but some of them aren’t. It’s always a matter of degree. Constructive thinking about teaching rests on tentative conclusions that are always in need of more evidence.

The solution is not to lower our standards, but to have more realistic expectations about meeting them. Nigel’s lovely quote points out why. Those exceptionally high standards, the ones right up there next to perfection, are forever beyond our grasp. But that doesn’t excuse us from exceptional effort. An important part of what makes us good teachers is that striving for perfection. We are right to care or at least be concerned about every student who fails. Did we play a role in that failure? What else could we have done to prevent it? Is it reasonable to expect us to do what might have prevented it? Accurate answers to those questions depends on clearly thinking about who’s responsible for what in the teaching and learning process.

This is self-examination not self-recrimination—even though sometimes we are at fault. We are, after all, human (if that’s in doubt, ask those at home). Sometimes fault can be attributed to others and sometimes it’s impossible to know where the blame belongs. But figuring out who or what’s to blame is where healthy self-examination begins. It then moves on to decisions about what, if anything, needs to change and it ends with affirmation. We deserve credit for setting high goals and doing our best to achieve them. When I wrote to thank Nigel for his insights, he responded with this affirmation. “As for the moving goal post, this is one of the best parts, knowing it is always possible to do better. And striving to do so!” Or, perhaps this: shoot for the stars, land on the moon, and be amazed at how far you’ve come.

  • To be able to teach someone something , it is essential that you develop certain skills that allow information to get in a manner conducive to the recipient. I can say that in general predetermined conclusions are not helping anyone in the educational field, so we can not start from the premise that a student is equipped intellectually weak, or poorly trained as a teacher.

    • Melissa Bruton

      The old saying here fits: You can lead a horse to water,but you cannot make him drink.

      But we still try…

      • Johnny

        You can lead a student to knowledge, but you cannot make them think.

  • Melissa Bruton

    This is a great article.

  • Pingback: Peofessors: Ongoing Quest to Improve Student Learning: High Standards and Realistic Expectations | My Educational Technology Blog: A Place of Resources and Tools for Educators()

  • Bob Johnson

    Good teachers always expect the best of their students and offer them the information and tools they need to succeed.

    • Cecilia Jimenez

      I agree with you Hana, we cannot assume things and we should strive to do our best to do what we can to meet the individual needs of each student. We do not get a set of students who will all learn in the same manner and whom are all at the same level of learning. It is difficult to be a teacher but it is our job to do as the article by Maryellen Weimer, we simply need to "self-examine but not self-recriminate". Doing this will help us focus on what it is we need to do to improve rather than just putting ourselves down for not performing well for a student or a set of students.

  • Dr. Phil

    Failing is not always bad! Many times the school of hard knocks is the best motivation. Learning from failure is what is truly important.

  • The goalpost of perfection keeps moving and probably faster than the time it takes for us to aim for it and reach. It is not enough for the teacher to be just acadmically knowledgeble. they need to be academic scientists always exploring new ways to reach the students heart and mind. Imparting method should be in sync with the student metacognition and behavior pattern. for this there has to be robust students behavior, and sentiment analysis process. The teaching process today is more or less abstract.

  • Adeosun, Olusegun

    Teaching is dynamic. Teachers should always appraise their methodology and plan adequately in setting achievable objectives for classroom experience and do the implementation in such that the learners comprehend the concept maximally. That should be teacher target

  • Mamoun

    very good discussion about teaching student