Back in 2008, I took part in a national task force whose goal was to plan for the future of the teaching of psychology. I led a group of faculty considering how teaching methods and approaches would change and evolve. As an opening activity, I asked the group members to make a list of all the teaching approaches they had heard of or used that seemed like good methods. Altogether, we generated a list of well over 100 different methods and technologies, most of which one or more of us had used at one time or another. Contemplating the list, I wondered how many of these methods could be effective if the circumstances were favorable. I concluded that all of them could be successful in the right conditions. Furthermore, I realized that all of them might fail if implemented improperly or used inappropriately. Thus, the idea of “best practices,” in which one or a select few methods is seen as better than all others regardless of circumstance, has never made sense to me. In this essay, I argue that the concept of best practices is not only wrong but also blocks progress in advancing teaching effectiveness.
The logic of best practices
The logic of the best practices approach is straightforward. If you want to be a good teacher, you should use best practices. If you use best practices, no matter how you implement them or whatever your academic context, you will be an effective teacher. The assumption is that they will always work in any situation. Therefore, we can judge a teacher’s effectiveness according to whether they are using best practices. If a class goes badly, but the teacher was using best practices, it must not be the teacher’s fault. I believe the best practices approach is wrong. Let me list the reasons why.
The best practices approach has dominated discussions of teaching for decades. For example, Chickering and Gamson (1987) outlined seven principles for good teaching practice:
- Encourages contacts between students and faculty.
- Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
- Uses active learning techniques.
- Gives prompt feedback.
- Emphasizes time on task.
- Communicates high expectations.
- Respects diverse talents and ways of learning. (p. 2)
Although Chickering and Gamson refer to them as principles, they are really practices. A principle is a rule, value, or idea that guides decisions and actions, whereas a practice refers to a set of behaviors or procedures. “Accessible, actionable, constructive feedback is critical for effective learning” is a principle; “Give prompt feedback” is a practice. The list of practices from Chickering and Gamson is a good set of practices when done well, but nothing in them tells teachers when to do them or how. Currently, the principles of instruction outlined by Rosenshine (2012) are getting a lot of attention. Once again, these are practices, such as “provide models” and “check for student understanding,” not principles. Kuh (2008; see also Kuh et al., 2017) described a set of “high-impact educational practices,” such as learning communities and undergraduate research, that have been highly influential in college teaching. The focus of best practices is on what teachers do, not on what they know about teaching and learning or the particular educational context in which they implement the practices.
The problems with best practices
First and foremost, learning is contextual, and therefore effective teaching is contextual (Chew, 2023; Chew & Cerbin, 2021; Koedinger et al., 2023). Whether students learn, what they learn, and their propensity to use what they learn depend on a complex interaction of factors such as the topic, the learning goal, the teacher, the learning activities used, what the students already know about a topic, their attitudes about the topic, and the learning strategies students employ. Thus, there is no single best method of teaching. What works at a selective liberal arts college may not work at a large public university or an open-enrollment community college. More specifically, an activity that worked well for a teacher in one section of a class may fall flat for a different section of the same class.
Second, all teachers adapt their teaching to suit their own preferences and to adapt to their teaching context. Nuthall (2007) found that teachers adapted their learning to such a degree that there was no relationship between the method they claimed they were using and what they actually did in the classroom. Two teachers may claim to be using the same method but in actuality are using markedly different methods.
Next, any method can be implemented poorly or well. For example, Offerdahl et al. (2018) discuss the various ways that faculty can implement formative assessments. If they omit or incorrectly implement certain critical elements, then the impact of the formative assessments will suffer. Wagner et al. (2007) present a detailed case study of the challenges that faculty face in implementing an unfamiliar pedagogy.
Finally, there are multiple ways to develop student understanding. Different teachers can teach the same subject using different teaching methods according to their own strengths and preferences and achieve the same learning goals. It doesn’t make sense to designate one way as a best practice. Good teachers understand that students vary greatly in their background knowledge, interests, and abilities. Some students are highly motivated learners who need minimal help. Others must be convinced that making the effort to learn is worthwhile. Different students require different methods to help them learn. A teacher’s job is not to specify one way to learn for all students to follow; it is to create a learning environment that supports the learning of all students.
What the best teachers know
Practice is not pedagogy. A teacher cannot simply go through the motions of, say, cooperative learning and expect it to work automatically. A teacher must understand the learning theory underlying the practice and use that knowledge to implement the key elements of a pedagogy to achieve a desired outcome. Without that knowledge, that mental model of how students learn, the teacher will not be able to identify the key elements of a teaching method or may implement it improperly. All teachers have a mental model of how students learn, and it informs their pedagogical choices and practices. The best practice approach is wrong because it focuses on what teachers do when the emphasis should be on what teachers know. If a teacher has an accurate mental model of learning, they can implement most any pedagogy successfully. If a teacher has an incorrect or incomplete model, they are likely to implement teaching methods suboptimally. Pedagogy is knowledge-driven practice to achieve a certain outcome.
If the best practices approach is wrong, then what would be a better way of thinking about teaching and learning that takes its contextual nature into account? My colleague Bill Cerbin and I have proposed a framework that looks at the nine cognitive challenges of teaching. These are challenges that teachers must successfully address for learning to occur (Chew & Cerbin). They include student use of ineffective learning strategies, constraints on working memory and mental effort, metacognition, misconceptions, and student fear and mistrust. How teachers can successfully resolve these challenges will vary depending on the teacher and their educational context. Teachers should know a range of robust methods so they can use the one best suited to the situation.
The best practices approach focuses on teaching procedures rather than teacher knowledge, which has led to teaching being fad driven. A new and promising teaching technique becomes touted as the new best practice. Then when research shows the method has limitations, it is discarded even though it might be useful in some situations. The former best practice is supplanted by a new candidate, and the cycle continues, causing teaching to change but not progress. Teachers end up carrying out practices without knowing why or how they are supposed to implement them. Understanding teaching through a framework of cognitive challenges is a more constructive way of moving the field forward.
Chew, S. L. (2023). The culture of teaching we have versus the culture of teaching we need. In C. E. Overson, C. M. Hakala, L. L. Kordonowy, & V. A. Benassi (Eds.). In their own words: What scholars want you to know about why and how to apply the science of learning in your academic setting (pp. 31–43). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/itow
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
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 2–6. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED282491.pdf
Koedinger, K. R., Rau, M. A., & McLaughlin, E. A. (2023). Different goals imply different methods: A guide to adapting instructional methods to your context. In C. E. Overson, C. M. Hakala, L. L. Kordonowy, & V. A. Benassi (Eds.), In their own words: What scholars and teachers want you to know about why and how to apply the science of learning in your academic setting (pp. 303–315). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/itow
Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Kuh, G., O'Donnell, K., & Schneider, C. G. (2017). HIPs at ten. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 49(5), 8–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2017.1366805
Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. New Zealand Council for Education Research Press.
Offerdahl, E. G., McConnell, M., & Boyer, J. (2018). Can I have your recipe? Using a fidelity of implementation (FOI) framework to identify the key ingredients of formative assessment for learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(4), es16. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.18-02-0029
Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–19, 39. https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/Rosenshine.pdf
Wagner, J. F., Speer, N. M., & Rossa, B. (2007). Beyond mathematical content knowledge: A mathematician's knowledge needed for teaching an inquiry-oriented differential equations course. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 26(3), 247–266. https://doi.org.10.1016/j.jmathb.2007.09.002
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: email@example.com.