Do We Know How to Judge Teaching?

Stephen L. Chew writes that current approaches -- for awards or tenure and promotion -- are based too much on passion or student enjoyment and not enough on actual learning.

July 27, 2015

Early in my career, there was an incident involving a senior professor in another department. He was a mild-mannered man but deeply embittered about his career. He began savagely berating students in feedback on assignments and writing vitriolic reviews of junior faculty members. To avoid an inevitable lawsuit, the college negotiated his early retirement. At commencement, the college always announced the recipient of its top teaching award. I happened to be standing near this professor before commencement began. I heard him tell one of his colleagues, “This is my last commencement, it would be really nice if I won the teaching award.” I was stunned. How could someone being forced into retirement for abusive practices believe he might be chosen as the outstanding teacher?

The experience raised a basic question in my mind: What do people think professors do to deserve teaching awards? The answer to this question is important. It defines the kind of teachers we strive to become. For institutions, the answer determines the kind of teaching that is rewarded with tenure and promotion (at least at places that don’t focus exclusively on research).

When someone wins an award for outstanding research or artistic expression, we understand that the person has made a critical discovery or created something unique and significant; but when a person wins a teaching award, what do we think he or she did to deserve it? Do we believe the recipient did something extraordinary and important, or do we attribute it to less admirable reasons, such as being popular among students? In my experience, the most positive reasons people give to explain why a colleague won a teaching award is that the person is especially passionate or dedicated to teaching. We applaud colleagues who win teaching awards who have sacrificed in some way for teaching, or who have worked to make their classes particularly fun and engaging, or who inspire students to excel.

What is notable about these reasons is that they have little to do with actual teaching skill. The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us. Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges. I propose that these traits, while certainly important, are not the critical reason why some faculty deserve to win teaching awards.

During my career I’ve seen faculty members who are deeply passionate about teaching and care greatly about their students who nonetheless are not particularly successful teachers. Passion, dedication and sacrifice are no guarantee of teaching effectiveness. They do not automatically translate into student achievement or satisfaction. Neither does disciplinary knowledge; faculty with distinguished research records are not necessarily better teachers than graduate students.

What, then, is the critical element for teaching success? I say the best teachers are learning driven; their teaching is wholly focused on developing a deep understanding of the subject matter in the minds of their students. This entails much more than presenting information. Learning-driven teachers don’t simply wish or hope their students learn -- they take actions to see that the desired kind of learning takes place. Consciously or not, learning-driven teachers are concerned with an array of factors that influence student learning. For example, they manage the class’s collective attention, monitor metacognitive awareness, respect the constraints of working memory and promote transfer-appropriate processing, even if these teachers are unaware of the formal names of such concepts.

These teachers create a classroom atmosphere that supports learning. They become trustworthy sources of knowledge for students. These teachers show students the shortcomings of their current thinking and understanding, and convince them of the value of developing a deeper, more accurate understanding. They create learning experiences that promote both long-term learning and appropriate recall and application beyond the classroom. These teachers are able to assess the level of understanding of students and recognize how to move that understanding toward a desired learning goal. The ability to accomplish all these tasks defines teaching skill.

The best teachers develop an accurate understanding of how people learn. They recognize the power they have to either help or hurt student understanding. They see learning as a shared responsibility between themselves and the students. Quality of teaching is judged by what students learn and how they can use the information. If students don’t learn, teaching is not successful, regardless of how brilliant and engaging the teacher might be.

A learning-driven approach can be contrasted with an information-driven approach to teaching. Faculty who adopt this approach see the goal of teaching as presenting information the students are responsible for learning. The teacher’s responsibility is to make sure the information is accurate, up-to-date and presented in as clear, organized and engaging way as possible. Quality of teaching is judged by informational content and quality of delivery. Little knowledge beyond up-to-date disciplinary expertise is needed. Cutting-edge faculty use the latest educational technology and the most current teaching methods, but their use and implementation is not guided by student learning. In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information.

The two approaches lead to different views of teaching awards. From the information-driven perspective, teaching is straightforward. Anyone with sufficient disciplinary knowledge has the ability to teach effectively. The challenging part of teaching is developing good presentations and grading assignments. From this perspective, most anyone is deserving of a teaching award if they make a sincere effort to be clear, current, engaging and organized, because that is about all a teacher can do. Some faculty have a special knack or talent for teaching, but it isn’t something that can be developed through training. For learning-driven faculty, teaching is a complex challenge requiring innovation, creativity and constant adaptation based on evidence of student learning. The challenge of teaching is creating conditions in which learning will occur. Teaching awards are for teachers who have mastered that challenge more successfully than others.

One belief that both perspectives share is that student evaluations alone are not a sufficient measure of teaching effectiveness, but the learning-driven approach points to the kinds of additional information that should be collected. A learning-driven perspective demands evidence that one pedagogical approach or activity is superior to another in a way that contributes to learning. The same evidence that can help improve student learning can be used to evaluate teaching effectiveness.

The consequences of these two different perspectives on teaching are far reaching. For example, consider grade inflation. For information-driven teachers, if a large percentage of students in a class earn high grades, it is a sign the class is too easy and cause for concern. Learning-driven teachers distinguish between making it easier for students to get good grades and making it easier for students to learn. Learning-driven teachers see the former as grade inflation, but the latter as skilled teaching. In addition, the information-driven perspective means that universities need not provide much training to graduate students or faculty on how to teach, while the learning-driven perspective means that universities should provide professional development opportunities to help faculty become award-winning teachers.

Finally, the information-driven approach allows faculty members to believe that they are doing all they can to promote learning when their teaching may actually be suboptimal and even detrimental. As a result, they may end up with a poor classroom experience for both themselves and their students. They may mistakenly blame the indifference of the current generation, the inadequacies of high schools, or mollycoddling by the students’ parents. Faculty members may become frustrated and deeply embittered, like my colleague in the opening story. No, he did not win the teaching award, but the tragedy is that his students didn’t learn and he didn’t have the satisfaction of helping them learn, which should be award enough for any teacher.


Stephen L. Chew is professor and chair of psychology at Samford University.


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