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Why It’s So Hard to Change the Way We Teach

For Those Who Teach

Why It’s So Hard to Change the Way We Teach

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We start new courses with a raft of good intentions, especially when they begin during this season of resolutions. We aspire to have assignments graded promptly, learn students’ names quickly, wait patiently for answers, try that new group activity, and practice patience when students are difficult. The first few sessions go well, and we’re pleased. Then it’s the second and third week and we feel ourselves getting discouraged. We give up a little here and there, and pretty soon we fall back into our old ways of doing things.

 For Those Who TeachWhy is behavioral change so hard to sustain, and not just in teaching? Perhaps there’s comfort in the fact that most teachers struggle with change. And perhaps there’s cause for concern because the evidence that supports an inability to sustain change is strong. Take this huge study (Henderson, Dancy, and Niewiadomska-Bugaj, 2012) of 722 physics faculty who were asked about their knowledge and use of 24 research-based instructional strategies: did they know about them, had they tried them, did they continue to use them, and did they use them a lot. One-third of the faculty reported discontinuing use of all the strategies after trying one or more of them. And these were mostly strategies that fall under the active-learning umbrella.

Or, consider this analysis (Ebert-May, et. al., 2011) of more than 200 biology faculty who spent 6-12 days in professional development workshops over three years. They learned about course design, assessment, and active and learner-centered teaching strategies. They provided self-reports of their teaching behaviors and were videotaped at different intervals after the completion of the program. A whopping 89 percent of them reported they had made changes in their courses, including the use of more active-learning and learner-centered approaches. However, an analysis of the videotapes revealed that 75 percent of the faculty were using lecture-based instruction. Old habits die hard. Those familiar teaching strategies—they’re comfortable, require less thinking, and we can do them confidently.

Is part of the problem that we try to change too much at once? We start with one or two new options about which we feel some excitement. Thinking about them generates energy and that leads to a couple of other things we’d like to try and before long we’re implementing an impressive array of changes. For years I’ve wondered how many changes a teacher can successfully implement in one course or during a semester. I don’t think it’s been looked at empirically. Is there any conventional wisdom? What factors might it depend on? Years teaching? Number of courses being taught? Personality variables? Or does it depend entirely on the individual?

Failing to sustain change brings negative consequences. It’s not particularly empowering. It doesn’t make us feel like we’re at the top of our game. And when the transition is back to what we’ve always done, it’s easy to blame the new strategy. It didn’t work, meaning it had some inherent flaw. It couldn’t be used with that kind of content. And the really convincing reason: the students hated it. Changes can be flawed. Not everything teachers try works, but sometimes we offer excuses instead of facing our response to the change.

Is part of the problem that we hold new approaches to impossibly high standards? They have to work perfectly or very close to it. They have to promote learning equally well for all students. They have to work right from the start, even though we’ve never tried using them before. And if we fuss with them, trying to make them work better and things don’t improve, well, then we definitely have reasons to bail on that approach. It’s hard to fail or have things go poorly in front of students. But we need to be honest with them and ourselves. “This seems like a good idea. I haven’t tried it before. Let’s see how it works and if it doesn’t work, we’ll decide if it’s worth fixing.”

I wonder if we might be more successful with change if we made more realistic decisions about how much to change—if we were more targeted in our approach, picking one or two things to change and then giving those things careful, consistent attention. That may be a slower path to better teaching but doesn’t the tortoise cross the line before the hare, especially if the hare never finishes the race?

References: Henderson, C., Dancy, M., and Niewiadomska-Bugaj, M. (2012). Use of research-based instructional strategies in introductory physics: Where do faculty leave the innovation-decision process? Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research, 8, 15 pp.

Ebert-May, D., Derting, T. L., Hodder, J., Momsen, J. L., Long, T. M. and Jardeleza, S. E. (2011). What we say is not what we do: Effective evaluation of faculty professional development programs. Bioscience, 61 (7), 550-558.


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