Will Trying New Teaching Techniques Tank My Evaluations?

Many professors fear that students will punish them for classroom experimentation. A new study suggests otherwise.

September 12, 2018
 
An active learning classroom at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Ask a group of faculty members why they're wary of experimenting with new ways of teaching, and they're likely to assert that trying new things -- especially if they misfire -- can bring down their student evaluation numbers, and in turn hurt their chances for tenure or promotion.

Charles R. Henderson, a professor of physics education and co-founder of Western Michigan University's Center for Research on Instructional Change in Postsecondary Education, hears that worry frequently as he visits campuses encouraging the use of active learning techniques and other alternatives to lecturing.

"It's a huge thing that everybody cites and believes is true, even though I'm not aware of any data to support it," Henderson says. "Usually what happens is that a professor thinks that because there are one or two students who complain about" a change in how the professor teaches, "the rest of the class must feel that way, too."

That fear can be discouraging, Henderson concedes, given the prominent role that many colleges continue to give to student evaluations of teaching in assessing professors. While some institutions have begun to de-emphasize student evaluations in their tenure and promotion processes, citing research showing mounting evidence of bias, they remain a force. "We acknowledge that the majority of instructions must give great attention to their student evaluations, despite the problematic nature of doing so, due to the widespread use of such evaluations by institutions in evaluating instruction," Henderson (and his fellow authors, Raquib Khan of Western Michigan and Melissa Dancy of the University of Colorado at Boulder) wrote in a just-published paper, which has been accepted for publication in the American Journal of Physics.

So since this particular barrier to innovation isn't likely to be obliterated any time soon, Henderson and his fellow researchers sought to test the underlying assumption that instructional experimentation does drive down student ratings of professors.

They surveyed hundreds of early-career tenure-track instructors who participated in the Physics and Astronomy New Faculty Workshop staged each year by the American Association of Physics Teachers. Participants in the workshop study a range of topics, and "there is strong advocacy for decreasing the amount of lecturing and increasing the use of instruction that incorporates active learning and student-student interaction," the authors write.

The survey asked instructors to assess their teaching styles on a continuum from "highly alternative" to "highly traditional," and the vast majority called themselves "mostly traditional with some alternative features." Respondents said they lectured between 40 and 80 percent of the time, using a range of other techniques for the rest -- small-group and whole-class discussions, sometimes involving clickers, in-class online quizzes, etc.

Instructors were then asked whether the use of more interactive teaching techniques had affected their teaching evaluations, and the vast majority said they did -- mostly positively. Forty-eight percent believed their student evaluations had improved, about a third (32 percent) said there had been no effect and one in five (20 percent) felt that their evaluations had fallen.

Digging deeper into the data, the researchers found that the instructors most likely to report lower evaluations (and to generate direct student complaints) were those who lectured the least. Those who reported lecturing between 20 percent and 60 percent of the time were likeliest to report an increase in positive student evaluations, while those who lectured less than 20 percent of the time were likelier than others to see their evaluations worsen.

Asked why they thought that was the case, instructors who saw their evaluations worsen were mostly likely to say they believed students "do not feel like they are being 'taught' when lecturing decreases," while others said that they did not think students want to work actively during class time. "They want to be spoon-fed, not think," one respondent said.

Alternatively, when professors who saw their evaluations improve were asked why that happened, they said that students believe active learning helps them learn better, that class is more enjoyable, that they like to interact with other students and that they like to use technology, such as clickers and laboratory simulation software.

The results heartened Henderson and gave him and his colleagues more ammunition with which to proselytize for active learning.

"Our data suggest that for the majority of faculty, starting with moderate changes, the most likely result is that student satisfaction will increase," they wrote. "Our recommendation therefore, is that instructors should implement strategies they feel best benefit students, but when utilizing a very high engagement approach (less than 20 percent lecture), there should be extra care and attention to issues of student satisfaction."

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