No faculty member sets out to be a bad teacher—at least I hope not—but there are bad (or ineffective) teachers. I’m sure some of these faculty see teaching as an obligatory chore or are indifferent to whether students learn. Then there are those who want students to learn but have not yet figured out how to teach effectively. One root cause of ineffective teaching for all these groups may be faulty beliefs about teaching and learning. Normally, we focus on what the most effective teachers think and do, but it is equally important to identify and avoid harmful beliefs that undermine teaching success.
Hativa (2001) documented some common beliefs among ineffective teachers. These are teachers who regularly get poor student evaluations. Hativa compiled this set of detrimental beliefs from both a literature review and her own experience working with faculty. I list and discuss them below. I’ve quoted the beliefs from Hativa (2001, pp. 67–70), but the discussion is my own.
- There’s nothing to be learned about teaching. Many college faculty hold a narrow view of teaching—specifically, that teaching is limited to presenting information for students to learn. They are unaware of or ignore the vast literature on factors that affect student learning (e.g., Chew & Cerbin, 2021). They have no interest in refining their course presentations or learning about innovative approaches to teaching. They don’t see the point of professional development or campus teaching and learning centers. This belief is convenient for faculty who see teaching as a chore and want to spend minimal effort doing it.
- I do the teaching, but it’s not my responsibility whether or not students understand and learn. The idea here is that teachers and students have separate, independent responsibilities. The teacher’s responsibility is to present accurate information in a clear and organized way; the students’ is to learn regardless of how the class is taught. Presumably, students learn according to their ability and motivation. There is nothing the teacher can or should do to promote learning. The research, however, indicates that the characteristics and actions of teachers have a major influence on student motivation and learning (e.g., Jansen et al., 2022). Students will use deeper learning strategies if they believe the material is relevant to their personal goals. Their motivation to learn varies according to how much they trust the instructor and how meaningful and important they perceive the content to be.
- I maintain my integrity and would not lower/sell myself by decreasing the level of teaching, as some of my colleagues do, to gain popularity or high students’ ratings. Virtually everyone exhibits what is known as self-serving bias. They take credit for successes but explain away failures. The belief stated above is self-serving bias applied to teaching. If students learn, it is because I’m a good teacher. If students don’t learn, it’s because they are lazy or ill prepared. It’s the fault of the admissions office for not recruiting strong enough students, high school teachers for not adequately preparing students for college, or parents who are too indulgent and overprotective. If my colleagues get higher ratings, it is because they have lower standards than me or prioritize being popular with students. These teachers fail to distinguish between making it easier to make high grades, which is grade inflation, with making it easier for students to learn, which is skilled, effective teaching. Self-serving bias allows people to maintain a strong ego in the face of failure, but it also blinds them to steps they could take to improve.
- Students do not have the tools to fully appreciate my teaching at present. However, in future years, when they become professionals and look back, they will realize how much knowledge and understanding they gained from my course. Think back to a teacher in college or high school that you really didn’t like. Has your opinion of them improved over the years? The research says that’s unlikely. Several studies have found that student evaluations are stable over time (Marsh and Roche, 1997). Even for classes where you may have learned a lot but found the class unpleasant, the negative emotional response is enduring (Haught et al., 2016). This belief is another form of rationalization. It excuses faculty from taking responsibility for improving their teaching. Furthermore, students who have a bad experience in a class may project that negative emotion onto the whole field. For example, students who have a poor experience in an introductory psychology course may conclude that they dislike all of psychology and the field has no merit.
- My teaching is good enough; there’s no need for me to improve. Weak students tend to show poor metacognitive awareness of their actual level of content mastery. They are grossly overconfident; they believe they have a deep comprehensive understanding of the material when their actual level is shallow and full of gaps. Poor metacognition and overconfidence occur in struggling teachers as well. They may feel they are giving clear, engaging, and accessible presentations, but the students do not find them so. The well-known Dunning-Kruger effect states that for any skill, part of being incompetent is not realizing how incompetent you are. Surveys of teachers find that an incredibly high percentage rate themselves as above average in ability or higher. Once again, this belief is a rationalization for avoiding taking steps to improve teaching.
- Teaching cannot be improved—good teachers are born, not made. Much has been made about the importance of a growth mindset for student perseverance and success. Growth mindset is the belief that one’s abilities can improve through one’s own efforts. By contrast, a fixed mindset is the belief that one’s ability, such as the ability to write well or do math, is inborn and unchangeable. A growth mindset is just as important for teachers as it is for students. Obviously, teachers with a fixed mindset about teaching skill will not work to improve. The research is clear that teacher training and professional development can improve teaching effectiveness.
- To teach well, all that is needed is good knowledge of the material. According to this belief, a Nobel laureate should be a better physics teacher than a community college faculty member with 20 years of experience working with first-generation students. In my view, this common misconception is among the most harmful beliefs undermining the improvement of teaching. It is a rationalization that excuses faculty from exploring the complex factors that influence student learning. In graduate schools, this belief justifies not training students how to teach, leaving them unprepared to teach well. Graduate schools pass this misconception on to the next generation of faculty, reinforcing a norm of teaching uninformed by pedagogical research.
- I need to cover most of the course curriculum in class. Hativa notes that this belief is pervasive among faculty. It prioritizes what the teacher presents over what students actually learn in a class. It doesn’t matter how effectively teachers cover a topic as long as they cover it in some way. This belief is often reinforced by curricula that specify what a course must cover rather than what students should know and be able to do after the course is completed. Teachers who focus on content coverage over student learning often engage in what I call defensive teaching. If a faculty member teaching a more advanced course complains about students not being adequately prepared, the teacher can say, “Well, I covered it in my class.”
- I use strict lecturing and do not need to change it. Lecturing is still the dominant form of teaching, but within the lecture format there are many ways to introduce engaging learning activities even for large classes. This faulty belief refers to one-way lecturing where the teacher declaims, and the students listen and take notes. It assumes that the teacher is the ultimate authority and students should absorb and adopt the teacher’s views. Once the teacher has stated something, their responsibility ends, and the students bear the burden of figuring out how to learn from the lecture, regardless of how clearly or comprehensively the teacher presented the information.
I give many faculty workshops on how to improve teaching. Because of the faulty beliefs listed above, I know that many of the faculty who most need to hear what I say aren’t present because they don’t feel like it is important or applies to them. For teachers who hold these beliefs, teaching is often an unpleasant slog. There is a win-win situation that they are probably not aware of because they have never experienced it. When teachers support student learning effectively, both students and teachers have a much happier experience in class.
Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W. J. (2021). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education, 52(1), 17–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266
Hativa, N. (2001). Teaching for effective learning in higher education. Springer Science & Business Media.
Haught, P. A., Nardi, A. H., & Walls, R. T. (2016). Academic memories of school. American Journal of Educational Research, 4(11), 817-827. https://doi.org10.12691/education-4-11-7
Jansen, T., Meyer, J., Wigfield, A., & Möller, J. (2022). Which student and instructional variables are most strongly related to academic motivation in K–12 education? A systematic review of meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin, 148(1–2), 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000354
Marsh, H. W., & Roche, L. A. (1997). Making students' evaluations of teaching effectiveness effective: The critical issues of validity, bias, and utility. American Psychologist, 52(11), 1187–1197. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.52.11.1187
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.