Why Professors Ignore the Science of Teaching

David Trend

A recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education explored the apparent reluctance of college and university professors to embrace the growing body of research about how students learn and what teaching methods work best. While many faculty simply cling to what has worked for them in the past, others feel overworked and unable the consider changing. In the meantime, an increasingly diverse student population experiences increasing inequity as a result.

Beth McMurtrie’s “Why the Science of Teaching is Often Ignored” opens with a discussion of a recent study by five Harvard University researchers who published some novel research. The group was trying to figure out why active learning, a form of teaching that has had measurable success, often dies a slow death in the classroom. They compared the effects of a traditional lecture with active learning, where students solve problems in small groups.

The results were not surprising; students who were taught in an active method performed better on standardized tests. The academic press praised the study for its clever design and its resonance with professors who had trouble with active learning. Yet despite being praised in some quarters, the study was criticized in others.

This mixed reaction reveals a central paradox of higher education, according to McMurtrie. Teaching and learning research has grown dramatically over the decades, encompassing thousands of experiments, journals, books, and programs to bring learning science  into classrooms. But a lot of faculty members haven’t read it, aren’t sure what to do with it, or are skeptical.

So how to explain this? “It’s partly a product of the structures and systems of higher education, where faculty are given few incentives to improve their teaching, if not actively discouraged from doing so. Students are important to them, but they don’t have the time, understanding, or motivation to make their classes better. Unless habits and preconceived notions about teaching are challenged, say teaching experts, there’s little reason to change,” McMurtrie wrote.

The issue is far more serious than learning alone. It may have sufficed when college campuses were “more ivory tower than lifeboat,” educating future generations of scholars and others instead of trying to prepare a diverse group of students for an increasingly complex world. With more students from different backgrounds enrolling in colleges, they are seeing the unintended consequences of high-stakes tests, rigid course structures, and lecture classes. Teachers who employ such traditional methods of teaching, reformers contend, disproportionately lead students from disadvantaged backgrounds to struggle or fail. It has been shown that active learning and other evidence-based practices, such as assigning more small assignments, or scaffolding, help eliminate barriers to success and help all students do well.

The problems go beyond ones of equity, according to McMurtrie. It has been shown that traditional teaching is ineffective in helping students understand complex concepts and develop problem-solving skills. It is not uncommon for struggling students to decide early on that science and engineering are not their strong suits. In large introductory courses,  McMurtrie explained, most STEM instructors still use traditional teaching methods, according to a 2019 study. Why? The reason for this is that they have difficulty imagining the need for new techniques in the first place.

The term “science of learning” has become more sophisticated, with controls, statistical analyses, and quantifiable measures of learning. Several disciplines now publish journals related to teaching, in which such studies are published. Furthermore, more colleges are offering grants and other types of incentives to faculty members to encourage the development of new teaching approaches in their fields.

The last few years have seen a new strand of research focused on analytics – mining the data found in learning-management systems and institutional research offices to ask very specific questions, McMurtrie added: “How does the amount of time students spend watching video lessons or reading online correlate with their grades? These kinds of studies have the potential to be scaled up, looking at a lot of courses within an institution, or longitudinally, seeing how students’ performance in a prerequisite affected their ability to do well in the more advanced course.”

The “science of learning” incorporates researchers in fields like neurobiology and cognitive psychology, to more carefully consider how the brain functions and how that affects learning. Motivation and memory are two of the earliest and most familiar studies in this area. Studies have shown, for example, that people remember things longer if they space out learning sessions and test themselves at regular intervals rather than cramming the night before a test. And people make stronger connections among concepts if they review earlier ideas as they learn new ones instead of learning in discrete segments.

Would there be anything that could persuade more faculty members to engage in the research on teaching and learning? Professors often act when they feel a gulf between what they’re doing and what they want to accomplish. Pandemics and social-justice movements have led many to re-examine their teaching, because students’ emotional states and living conditions have a huge impact on their ability to learn.

Additionally, studies have shown that faculty members are more likely to try evidence-based teaching practices if they feel their colleagues and departments are supportive. Teaching experts believe faculty learning communities can be particularly beneficial, since instructors can meet regularly over the course of months to tackle complex challenges, often by exploring research and experimenting with small modifications to their teaching.

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