By Jeffrey D. Holmes, Ph.D., Ithaca College
Since you are reading this blog, it is likely that you aspire to become the most effective teacher you can be. Perhaps you are already teaching or are working as a teaching assistant for college classes. Perhaps you attend teaching conferences or read empirical research about teaching. If you are particularly lucky, you may have had the opportunity to take a course designed specifically to teach you how to teach. You may even consider yourself to be passionate about teaching. Although “follow your passion” is a common mantra that does not always represent sound or realistic advice, it is quite relevant to your career as a teacher because such intangible teacher variables likely have a substantial impact on student outcomes.
There is extensive scientific literature on the relative effectiveness of various pedagogical strategies. For at least a century, researchers have been on a perpetual search for the techniques likely to yield the greatest benefit in terms of student learning. These researchers have provided us with expansive ideas about how to approach our roles and responsibilities as educators. To be sure, such research is sometimes used to advocate for exclusive implementation of certain strategies and the denigration of others. Findings often are discussed—perhaps unintentionally—in falsely dichotomous terms as if even a single study, at a single institution, often in a single academic subject, revealing modest effects without controlling for a host of relevant variables justifies sweeping, generalized conclusions such as “lectures don’t work.” It is certainly true that some studies show certain methods to be superior to others in certain contexts and for certain objectives, but virtually none of these studies control for the interests, motives, engagement, or other characteristics of the teachers who implement the strategies. Moreover, most studies comparing teaching methods are conducted by instructors who are invested in the efficacy of a specific method; therefore, conclusions warrant particular caution especially since blinded studies of teaching strategies seldom are feasible (see Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1999).
Even in light of such methodological limitations, the difference in student learning outcomes associated with differing teaching strategies tends to be small. This is not to malign the critical efforts of those who conduct pedagogical research, as it is extraordinarily challenging to conduct studies that are both methodologically rigorous and ecologically valid in terms of actual classroom implementation. Nor is it to say that what we do in the classroom does not matter or that we should not carefully scrutinize our strategies and objectives. However, mountains of research data have not helped educators to identify methods that are unambiguously superior across instructors, students, and contexts. Moreover, meta-analyses sometimes indicate that as study quality improves, effect sizes indicating differential effectiveness of various strategies declines (e.g., Kavale & Forness, 1987).
The disappointing reality is that differential teaching strategies are associated with less variance in student outcomes than we might like to think (Detterman, 2016; Jacob, Lefgren, & Sims, 2009). The more palatable interpretation is that as long as instructors are motivated in their work and passionate about student learning and inspiring students to think, there is little evidence that varying teaching strategies will have a dramatic separate effect. Aspiring teachers, as well as those with years or decades of experience, would be wise to maintain their familiarity with the scientific research on teaching. Such familiarity helps us to continue moving incrementally forward in our endeavors to help students learn, and it also helps us to avoid unproductive paths such as attempting to teach students according to their presumed learning styles (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2009). Most people who take the time to conduct or consume pedagogical research are probably already among the most passionate instructors. Research comparing the effectiveness of teaching methods is a critical tool for those wishing to maximize their teaching efficacy, but lesser-studied factors such as teacher enthusiasm, engagement, and rapport with students may be just as important. There is little reason to hope that any teaching method will counteract the detrimental effects of a disengaged instructor; however, there is likewise little reason to fear that any method will substantially disadvantage students when implemented by a passionate, reflective, inspiring instructor.
Detterman, D. K. (2016). Education and intelligence: Pity the poor teacher because student characteristics are more significant than teachers or schools. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 19, 1-11.
Jacob, B. A., Lefgren, L., & Sims, D. P. (2009). The persistence of teacher-induced learning. The Journal of Human Resources, 45, 915-943.
Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54, 228-239.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.
Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69, 21-51.
Jeffrey D. Holmes, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Ithaca College where he teaches courses on psychological testing and assessment, abnormal psychology, controversies in psychology, and introductory psychology. He is the author of Great Myths in Education and Learning, and has published research in journals such as Teaching of Psychology, The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, and the Social Science Journal. He is currently Treasurer of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, and he is a licensed psychologist specializing in psychological testing.