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assessing online student learning

Being a good teacher is important to me. How do I know whether I am one? What can I do to become  (a better) one? To help answer this question I drew on my expertise as a health psychologist. Being healthy is important to me. I know whether I am healthy as I know what to look at (e.g., endurance, body weight, eating habits). I also know that to be in good physical shape, I need to strengthen my core. How do we strengthen our core as educators? Get ready for some pedagogical powerlifting!

Unlike health, pedagogy does not have a commonly agreed-on set of practices, but there are qualitative (generate terms that should count) and quantitative (analyze research on teaching to see what is related to student success) ways to derive a pragmatic working set. As with playing any sport or musical instrument, there will be fundamental practices and specialized moves. Many faculty have never taken a course on teaching. Others have either trained in education or, over years of motivated trial and error, honed skilled. As with the language of assessment, there are foundational indicators of a skill or learning outcome, and there are advanced or developed levels. So too it is with teaching. Core practices are teaching fundamentals. What are they?

Attempts to answer this question range from leaning on the wisdom of experience, personal opinion, hearsay, and recollections from faculty handbooks to detailing quasi-meta-analyses of data (see Gurung et al., 2020, for a review). Before I share one comprehensive set of answers, it is important for each of us to ask ourselves what we want to accomplish as teachers en route to embarking on the path to effective teaching. Here are two important questions.

What do I want for my students?

I want my students to learn well, and I want them to enjoy doing it. Students will often tell you if they were motivated to learn with you. You will also easily learn if they were not, via evaluations, word on the street, or buzz on the wires (think online rating sites). For all the complexities involved in assessment, the problems associated with assigning a grade, and the difficulty in knowing whether we have ever really measured learning well, students have a sense of whether they have learned or not. These perceptions are often inaccurate and may be biased by superficial factors, such as whether the instructor is entertaining or the class was easy. This all notwithstanding, scores on assignments in my classes and my student evaluations of teaching are two basic ways to gauge whether my students are learning and their experiences in doing so. But of course, that is not enough even if both measures are as valid and reliable as possible (a feat difficult to pull off).

Am I proficient in the art and science of teaching?

Being able to answer this question hinges on knowing something of what that art and science is and provides other potential core areas. I have coauthored a book on model teaching and teach a course on the science of teaching, so I am no novice. But as the Bard said, it is easier to teach 20 than to be one of 20 and follow one’s own teaching. Cognitive dissonance does help. If I am sharing evidence-informed practices and reading research testing the efficacy and efficiency of different techniques and practices, it is considerably harder to not use those same practices. The problem is that there are so many different practices. Books on teaching abound. Social media is packed with educators giving advice on what good teaching is. It is inconceivable to know it all. How does one carve nature at its joints? How can we set ourselves a manageable set of areas of expertise to aspire toward? The answer lies in committing to a set of core areas of pedagogy.

Core areas for successful teaching

With these caveats in mind, my goal is to advance a core set of pedagogical practices that we can wrap our minds around. Like good health behaviors, we can learn how to do them and then practice to do them well. This list builds on prior work and incorporates two contemporary needs. One size will not fit all, but I aimed for a set that encompasses a broad swatch of agreed-on principles and yet is manageable.

Playing off my home institution’s mascot the beaver, an animal celebrated for being a hard worker just like educators have to be, and gently signifying an urgency and passion, my five core areas are course design, assessment, instructional methods, inclusive teaching, and technology (D.A.M.I.T.). Course design is an umbrella that nicely covers some of the most commonly used terms in faculty development, such as student learning outcomes, backward design, and assignment alignment. Assessment is the major benchmark for our students and universities. Instructional methods encompass a wide array of techniques that aid active learning and include ways we can enhance student engagement.

Poster from Oregon State University's Center for Teaching and Learning. At the top, an image of a beaver on a dam. Text at the top reads "We Care about Teaching D.A.M.I.T." Below, the acronym is spelled out : Course Design, Assessment, Instructional Methods, Inclusive Teaching, Technology. (The acronym is formed from the first letters of the words Design, Assessment, Methods, Inclusive, and Technology.)

Given that a useful set of core principles needs to also factor in contemporary issues that may not have received as much research attention in the past, this list of core areas also included inclusive teaching and technology. In the post–George Floyd world, higher education has redoubled its efforts to be more inclusive, and a range of practices to do so are now available. Featured as part of university quality teaching frameworks (e.g., Oregon State University) and with accompanying guides in the Chronicle of Higher Education and related publications (Hogan & Sathy, 2022; Sathy & Hogan, 2019), inclusive teaching is clearly a core factor. Similarly, technology now plays a major role in education (Bruff, 2019). Even before the pandemic forced educators to master new technologies such as Zoom, the explosion of online learning catalyzed the use of learning management systems. Today, a variety of applications and plug-ins promise to aid engagement, retention, and assessment. Being technologically savvy is an important part of the modern academic’s skill set.

Some caveats

Two big challenges with deriving a core set of pedagogical practices are finding parsimony and taking personal preferences into account. Let’s dispatch with the second one quickly; it will be hard to find two educators who will agree completely on what core areas for teaching competencies are. A large reason for this (other than it’s a higher education trait) is that there is no definitive empirical data (Gelber, 2020). There is no perfect way to account for how students, disciplines, class levels, universities, and educators vary. There are many different levels of specificity ranging from the micro (e.g., just-in-time teaching) to the macro (e.g., instructional methods).

It is also easy to quickly develop a long list of core set if you are willing to ignore some redundancy. A cursory glance at teaching guides’ tables of contents provides many candidates for core areas, though most books have chapter titles that overlap with each other or feature minor variations on a theme. For example, Richmond et al. (2022) combined volumes of research in working toward a core. Their Model Teaching Criteria have six factors— training, syllabus, content, instructional methods, assessment, and student evaluations—and provide one good alternative, but it is easy to merge their content and syllabus criteria into one course design core area. Barkley and Major’s (2022) demarcation of what engaged teaching entails has similar dimensions.

One need also acknowledge that one core area may encompass many different topics or, conversely, that one category may inhabit many core areas. A good example is teaching behaviors, a topic that not surprisingly is heavily represented in empirical research on teaching and underlies commonly used teaching measures. Two such measures are the IDEA Student Rating of Instruction (SRI) and the Teaching Behaviors Inventory (TBC). The SRI came out of Kansas State University (Hoyt & Cashin, 1977). The team boiled down 174 items characterizing effective teaching behaviors derived from different existing questionnaires. The items were vetted by award-winning teachers and subjected to statistical analyses to derive key factors. Many iterations and validity tests yielded a list of 19 teaching methods that can be divided into two main factors: instructor centered and learner centered (Benton & Li, 2017). The TBC (Keeley et al., 2016) has 22 items and can be used to capture two main factors (caring and supportive; professional competency and communications skills). These behaviors can underlie many core areas.

Finally, we have to recognize that while core areas can provide common principles of teaching that can apply across disciplines, class levels, and individuals, generic principles cannot be applied willy-nilly without a consideration of specific contexts.

An agenda for faculty development

If you are looking for a set of pedagogical practices to develop in your quest to serve your students and be an effective, efficient educator, you cannot go wrong with course design, assessment, instructional methods, inclusive teaching, and technology. Note that even being aware of and knowledgeable in the core areas may not be enough. There is a difference between being a good teacher who knows and uses pedagogical standards and being a successful teacher whose students accomplish learning goals (Berliner, 2001). Success will undoubtedly entail contextualizing and diving into one or more of these areas. Alternatively, you can simplify your short-term goals and focus in on only some of these areas. In either case, the more you strengthen your core, the healthier will your teaching be.

References

Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2022). Engaged teaching: A handbook for college faculty. K. Patricia Cross Academy Press.

Benton, S. L., & Li, D. (2017). IDEA student ratings of instruction and RSVP. IDEA paper #66.

Berliner, D. C. (2001). Learning about and learning from expert teachers. International Journal of Education Research, 35(5), 463–482. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0883-0355(02)00004-6

Bruff, D. (2019). Intentional tech: Principles to guide the use of educational technology in college teaching. West Virginia Press.

Gelber, S. M. (2020).Grading the college: A history of evaluating teaching and learning. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gurung, R. A. R., Soicher, R., Richmond, A. S., & Boysen, G. A. (2020). Start strong, stay strong: Aspiring to model teaching across the career span. In T. M. Ober, E. S. Che, J. E. Brodsky, C. Raffaele, & P. J. Brooks (Eds.), How we teach now: The GSTA guide to transformative teaching (pp. 42–53). Society for Teaching of Psychology eBook. https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/howweteachnow-transformative

Hogan, K. A., & Sathy, V. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.

Hoyt, D. P., & Cashin, W. E. (1977). IDEA technical report no. 1: Development of the IDEA system. Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development in Higher Education, Kansas State University.

Keeley, J., Smith, D., & Buskist, W. (2006). The teacher behaviors checklist: Factor analysis of its utility for evaluating teaching. Teaching of Psychology, 33(2), 84–91. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top3302_1

Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2022). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching: Developing the model teaching criteria. Routledge.

Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2019, July 22). How to make your teaching more inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-make-your-teaching-more-inclusive


Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.