There is comfort in things that are black or white, isn’t there? It feels good to have clarity and to be able to predict an outcome with certainty. I’m a scientist and therefore well-schooled and admittedly comfortable with predictability. Because, at least in my world, when the predictable does not happen, we usually find dysfunction. Disciplinary background aside, the question of whether good teaching is caught or taught draws many of us in because we gravitate toward having a definitive answer—black or white, caught or taught. Further, most of us really do want to be good teachers and we’d love to have a recipe or formula that predicts— or even better, guarantees—good teaching. If neither one of those are possible, then we’d at least be grateful for something that affirms that we are on the right path.
Unfortunately, I think most of us know that type of either/or clarity is elusive. With most complex issues we encounter, the “correct” answer hides somewhere in the mud of the murky middle and if anything qualifies as complex, it’s teaching. As one begins to pile on the factors and variables present in every classroom, regardless of size, discipline or location, it quickly becomes apparent why some concrete advice on how to navigate those variables would be welcome salve to any teacher.
As someone in charge of faculty development activities on campus but also because I want to become a better teacher, I think a lot about how we nurture good teaching. We could address the issue by asking what works. What are the attitudes, behaviors, or practices of teachers who consistently demonstrate good teaching? We might be able to emulate them or at least pick up a new approach or insight to improve our teaching. However, there are inevitable challenges with this approach. For example, the advice offered by someone who teaches physics may not be applicable or translatable to someone who teaches in a skill-based, professional program. Are we to assume that what any good teacher does can be integrated by another teacher, regardless of discipline?
Alternatively, we could look at the literature to gain insight on what characteristics of good teaching have been studied and proven effective. There are multitudes of articles that address the “what works?” question— how is faculty teaching encouraged, or measured or taught? Often, the best of these papers not only look at how faculty perceptions of teaching change; they also look at how courses change and student learning is affected. With those approaches in mind, I offer two cairns I have taken from the literature and my own self-reflection in hopes that they provide some direction in the continuing pursuit of good teaching.
First, prepare and train for a long journey. In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer reflects on the dramatic swings experienced by those who teach. One day, you feel like a master teacher facilitating conversation and guiding students to profound insights. The next day (or even in the next section of the same course), the silence is stifling and attempts at facilitation seem to cause students to withdraw further (Palmer, 1998). In the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve discovered that if I arrive at a point where I begin to feel confident and think that just maybe I might have some good teaching in me, a miserable classroom experience inevitably follows and I recalibrate my teaching skills and abilities.
There is good and bad news here. While there are certainly skills and experiences that veteran teachers accumulate and novice teachers lack (A. J. Auerbach et al., 2018), there isn’t an end point that marks arrival at excellent teacher status. Teaching and learning are simply too complex for that. However, there’s encouragement in that effort seems to correlate with gains in abilities. Several studies show that involvement in faculty development programming correlates with an improvement in teaching and, in some cases, gains in student learning (Condon et al., 2016; Gibbs & Coffey, 2004). The caveat here is that, as might be expected, one-day workshops or short conferences don’t seem to produce much in the way of noticeable change in teaching or learning (Stes, Min-Leliveld, Gijbels, & Van Petegem, 2010). Even with this caveat though, given the right conditions, certain aspects of teaching—class discussion approaches, Socratic questioning methods, and many other techniques—can be learned. Additionally, how faculty receive information and learn about teaching is diverse. Some faculty do learn by attending conferences and webinars or participating in learning communities or workshops. Others prefer to read books, apply the primary literature, intentionally reflect on teaching experiences, and invite peers to provide feedback on teaching. Those are all valid and effective ways to obtain information with the potential to improve teaching (Gormally, Evans, & Brickman, 2014).
Second, bring a friend along for the journey. Although there is a wealth of information to learn about teaching, we should not underestimate the power of colleagues. Good teaching can be caught from others. There was an interesting study done a couple of years ago that asked how and why STEM faculty adopt active learning approaches. They assumed that since STEM faculty value data and evidence, that would be the prevailing impetus for change in their teaching behaviors. However, it turned out that for most faculty, the change to active learning approaches were driven by comments from students or colleagues whom they knew and trusted (Andrews & Lemons, 2015). While not a very scientific approach, it reminds us that we are social creatures influenced by those we deem trustworthy, regardless of our professional training.
Analyzing teaching practices from a different perspective, another research team explored whether student evaluation feedback positively affected teaching over time. They found that after initial modest gains in teaching evaluation scores, the scores declined over time and eventually landed close to their starting point (Lang & Kersting, 2007). The authors suggest that without the opportunity to consult with someone and discuss the feedback, evaluations by themselves have only a marginal effect on improving teaching. These examples, in addition to a well-developed body of literature on the effect of mentoring and coaching on teaching, underscore that the best teachers engage with a community of colleagues to help them improve their craft of teaching (Nevins, Stanulis, & Floden, 2009; Troisi, Leder, Stiegler-Balfour, Fleck, & Good, 2015).
Although there is no easy answer to the question of whether good teaching is caught or taught, perhaps we all knew that going into this article. Teaching is complex and therefore we should be wary of anyone who has the answer and offers a silver bullet promising good teaching as the result. The messy answer is that we are invited to explore a bounty of options to learn about teaching and are tasked with the job of assembling an approach that meets our current individual needs and interests. As you begin (or continue) to navigate the plethora of options available to develop teaching acumen, here are two final recommendations to consider.
First, just because there are many choices doesn’t mean that they are all equal. Note the invitation to find an approach that meets individual needs. I wonder how many of us have done the critical reflection necessary to know what we currently need to learn about teaching. If we take a haphazard approach to our professional development (hey, that conference is in Florida, let’s go!) unpredictable, unrecognizable or absent growth should not be a surprise. Alternately, if we choose modes of delivery that do not align with our identified ways of learning (an external processer, social person choosing to hole up with books and articles), then we also set up a scenario where growth might be intermittent.
Second, don’t let fear drive decision-making. Either fear of making a wrong or rushed choice due to the dizzying array of choices available, or fear of appearing inept or ill-equipped in front of a colleague. All of us need to get out of our offices and begin (or continue) to travel the long sometimes arduous path to better teaching. It’s a challenging journey because it requires us to engage both our head and heart. In our heads, we need to be thoughtful, reflective, and strategic in creating a plan for growth. While in our hearts, we need to be brave -- moving outside of the comfortable patterns we have traveled in our teaching thus far and risk failure as we learn new approaches. As with most journeys, traveling with a trusted friend is always more enjoyable. Invite one of yours and start seeking that murky middle of good teaching.
J. Auerbach, M. Higgins, P. Brickman, T. C. Andrews D G D P B, U G, Athens, & GA 30602. (2018). Teacher knowledge for active-learning instruction: Expert–Novice comparison reveals differences American Society for Cell Biology. doi:10.1187/cbe.17-07-0149
Andrews, T. C., & Lemons, P. P. (2015). It's personal: Biology instructors prioritize personal evidence over empirical evidence in teaching decisions. CBE Life Sciences Education, 14(1), ar7.
Condon, W., Iverson, E. R., Manduca, C. A., Rutz, C., Willett, G., Huber, M. T., . . . Haswell, R. (2016). Faculty development and student learning: Assessing the connections Indiana University Press.
Gibbs, G., & Coffey, M. (2004). The impact of training of university teachers on their teaching skills, their approach to teaching and the approach to learning of their students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 5(1), 87-100. doi:10.1177/1469787404040463
Gormally, C., Evans, M., & Brickman, P. (2014). Feedback about teaching in higher ed: Neglected opportunities to promote change. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 187-199. doi:10.1187/cbe.13-12-0235
Lang, J., & Kersting, M. (2007). Regular feedback from student ratings of instruction: Do college teachers improve their ratings in the long run? Instructional Science, 35(3), 187-205. doi:10.1007/s11251-006-9006-1
Nevins Stanulis, R., & Floden, R. E. (2009). Intensive mentoring as a way to help beginning teachers develop balanced instruction. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(2), 112-122. doi:10.1177/0022487108330553
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
Stes, A., Min-Leliveld, M., Gijbels, D., & Van Petegem, P. (2010). The impact of instructional development in higher education: The state-of-the-art of the research. Educational Research Review, 5(1), 25-49. doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2009.07.001
Troisi, J. D., Leder, S., Stiegler-Balfour, J. J., Fleck, B. K. B., & Good, J. J. (2015). Effective teaching outcomes associated with the mentorship of early career psychologists. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 242-247.
Scott Gabriel is an associate professor of biochemistry and the faculty development director at Viterbo University. He also serves as an advisory board member for The Teaching Professor Conference.