Effective teaching is not standardized teaching


There was a comment on a recent post that I’ve been chewing over for the past week, that gets at the heart of what’s (I think is) ailing effective STEM teaching.

This person was explaining why they had been tenured for a decade and now are choosing to leave the professoriate. Among other reasons, they were explaining how their university is expecting them “to deliver standardized experiences to a lot of students.”

I feel like this short statement is replete with experiences, assumptions, problems, and truth that deserve some exploration. (A younger me might have said that this statement needs to be “unpacked” and thank goodness I’m not that person now.)

I don’t have the energy to write a(nother) crafted essay about the educational-industrial complex, faculty development, administrative expectations for faculty performance, and what good teaching looks like. But I want to offload a bunch of thoughts, in an unordered set of observations related to the concept universities are trying to standardize our teaching.

-In general, I think that university administrators (deans, vice provosts, provosts, associate deans, et cetera) really do want students to learn and they want us to teach effectively. When universities are enacting programs and policies in which they’re claiming to support quality classroom teaching, I’m thinking that the motivation here is simply that these folks actually want to see effective classroom teaching. While there is no shortage of tuned out or malevolent folks in charge, most of them are often doing this because they really care that students are getting what they deserve out of college. I don’t think there’s an ulterior agenda, other than perhaps craven careerism, but there’s no motivation to make us teach badly.

-Most people who are teaching in STEM have little to no training in teaching. And even worse, a lot of us are aggressively disinterested in evidence-based decision making.

-(By the way that’s why I wrote a whole fricking book to try to convince scientists that we should be using peer-reviewed evidence of what works rather than our instincts and whatever stray practices we inherited from our prior experiences.)

-Let’s say that you’ve ended up in charge of making sure that university students are learning effectively, and then a pandemic hits and everything goes to hell. And you realize that you are working with a bunch of professors who have never taught online before, are not trained in pedagogy in general, and you also have a lot of your teaching being done by graduate students who are woefully under compensated and are in grad school primarily to do research rather than teach your courses. That’s a really sticky situation for you, isn’t it?

-I’ve had so many conversations with scientists who are supremely curious about teaching well, and many who put in the work to learn about evidence-based teaching practices. Just like university administrators want us to teach well, we want to teach well too.

-There are as many teaching styles as there are effective teachers. There’s no single path to teaching effectiveness. And a teaching style that works well for some people might not work well for others.

-Just because you like teaching a particular way or you anecdotally suspect your students are learning because you’re teaching well, this isn’t evidence that you are using effective teaching practices. Just because there are many ways to be a great teacher, this doesn’t mean that you’ve found one of those ways.

-I’ve also had lots of conversations with science faculty who are convinced that they’re teaching in a highly effective way even though there are mountains of research showing that what they’re doing can be vastly improved. Also they’re using approaches that amplify inequities and disparities making it harder for folks who have identities different than themselves.

-When you have a lot of STEM professors who aren’t willing to stay fresh and respond positively to professional development about effective teaching, what the heck are you supposed to do?

-When you have been presented with evaluations and assessments showing that students of color are receiving a lower quality of education that your white students, and you know that the faculty are not using approaches designed to reduce this disparity, what’s the best way to work with faculty to repair this institutional failure?

-I firmly believe that to be effective, teachers need to teach using approaches that they think are effective. If there’s some set of teaching practices that are “best” and “most effective,” the implementation relies on an instructor who is invested into the process. You can’t just require us to teach a particular way and expect it to be good unless we are invested and think that it will be good. (I’ve been lightly dragged about this point, but I stand by it.)

-It’s quite clear that wholly lecturing isn’t as effective as a variety of active learning approaches. There’s so much evidence on this. Considering how lecturing amplifies educational disparities and active learning reduces them, folks have made the argument that teaching principally with lecturing is downright unethical.

-So how do we engage fellow scientists with being inquisitive about pedagogy and choosing to adopt practices that are effective? This question has been so critical to me that I wrote a whole (short and highly approachable) book to put into their hands, as folks who are not yet engaged in the evidence-based pedagogy are very much the intended audience. But for reals, how do we promote institutional change and speed up the rate of implementation of effective teaching practices without generating the perception that we are advocating the standardization of teaching?

-There is a massive toolkit of effective teaching practices that instructors can draw from, that suits the needs of their students, the institutional context, the content of the course, and their own style and preferences. But considering that most STEM instructors in universities aren’t trained in pedagogy and a lot of them are reluctant to get substantial professional development, how can one engage in the details of effective teaching when there’s little opportunity to have a conversation about the fundamentals?

-What’s up with universities where teaching performance is valued by everybody on campus except the people who give you tenure, raises, and promotion? Perverse incentives abound.

-If The Man is actually trying to make us teach in a standardized way, my inclination is that this is because this is the simplest or most likely way to make sure that effective practices are being used and that ineffective practices are being minimized. If there are lot of people who aren’t engaged in the process, then the attempts at standardization might be perceived as the only way to ensure base level compliance with minimum expectations? If an instructor demonstrates that they’re clearly invested in using evidence-based practices and are doing some level of work to show that they are working (you know, “assessment,” but you don’t have to call it that), what administrator in their right mind would try to standardize what this instructor is doing?

-The bottom line is that we all want to make sure that students have positive experiences while learning what we want them to learn in the course. There are a bunch of ways to get to that destination, and I think everybody knows this. But unless we start hiring all of our instructors on the basis of their preparation for and commitment to teaching (which frankly, that’s not happening in higher ed outside 2-year institutions and some fraction of SLACs), is it fair or realistic to expect instructors to craft a bespoke classroom experience for their students using detailed knowledge of state-of-the-art pedagogy? Wouldn’t it be better to say, “do these few things, we know they work,” and take it from there?

-I don’t know the exact quote or who said it, but it goes along the lines of, “If you want someone to do something, make them think that it was their own idea.” In the context of STEM teaching in universities, it’s clear that most of us don’t respond well when being told how to teach. But a lot of us do quite well when we get the idea that teaching a particular way is our own idea. I’m not sure that faculty development people really have picked up how to finesse this vibe among scientists, but that’s key to success. And for improving student learning.

2 thoughts on “Effective teaching is not standardized teaching

  1. I was being reviewed for tenure a number of years ago and had to have the dean of my college come and view my teaching. The day he came, I was implementing a jigsaw looking at food webs. This method mainly requires adequate preparation before the class and effective time management during class. I proceeded to implement the jigsaw, spent the period walking around checking on students and asking and answering questions. Students got to the end and were capable of producing the food web and discovering the one aspect of the food web that was not included in the exercise (it was a food web that looked at the relationship between oak masting events and Lyme disease). The first sentence of the Dean’s account read, “Dr. Klawinski began class promptly at 9:00 and proceeded to not teach for the next 65 minutes.” I think that, at least in some cases, people making decisions about whether or not we are good teachers actually don’t have the first clue about what good teaching is.

    • Oh my gosh, Paul. This sounds exactly like when my chair was observing my teaching right before my tenure review and I was doing a bunch of active learning stuff in class, and she flat out told me, “Drop the Socratic stuff and lecture more.” Sigh.

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