Academic journal article Peer Review

Understanding Great Teaching

Academic journal article Peer Review

Understanding Great Teaching

Article excerpt

At Texas A&M University recendy, the chancellor created a firestorm of controversy over his plan to pay faculty members hefty bonuses for favorable comments and ratings from students. Some people feared the plan would become a corrupting influence, leading professors to buy high marks from their students with inflated grades or free beer. For student supporters of the idea, however, it was an opportunity to express legitimate assessments of their teachers. "I understand dieir concerns," one student leader said of the plan's critics, "but a student can distinguish between a good teacher and a popular teacher."

Behind that controversy lies a much older struggle over the very meaning of good teaching. If there is a difference between good instructors and popular ones, what is it? Every year hundreds of promotion and tenure committees struggle with that question, and for good reasons. Without some definitions, all attempts to improve teaching wander aimlessly in a sea of conflicting ambitions. In this essay, we offer a way across those troubled waters. With a definition of good teaching clearly in mind, we can then offer some insights into how the best teachers achieve them.


Our journey begins with a single experiment in 1976 that, at first glance, seems far distant from any questions about teaching quality and how to achieve it. In that experiment, researchers at a Swedish university gave a group of students a text and said, here, read this; when you finish, we're going to ask you some questions.

After the reading was done and the researchers began asking questions, they quickly realized that different students had taken fundamentally different approaches to the exercise. On one end of the scale of responses, students had simply attempted to remember as many details as possible, trying as best they could to replicate what they had read. On the opposite end of that same scale, other students had thought about arguments they encountered in the text, and had distinguished between evidence and conclusions in those arguments. They had identified key concepts, mulled over assumptions, and even considered implications and applications. The researcher called the first group "surface learners" and the second, "deep learners."

In subsequent investigations, researchers identified a third kind of approach, often called "strategic learners." The strategic student is primarily concerned with making good grades, and while that may seem like an acceptable alternative, it has some severe limitations. The strategic student isn't focused on understanding or application, only witìi making high marks. They generally are not risk takers. They will often choose the easiest way out rather than the one that will help them grow intellectually.

We should emphasize that diese three categories - deep, surface, and strategic learning - refer initially to the feelings that students have toward their studies and the strategies they employ in that learning. Generally, surface learners fear failure and simply try to survive academically. They try to replicate what they encounter. Because they understand little, they complain on the math exam, "You didn't show us a problem exacdy like that one before."

Strategic learners want high grades, and will typically spend time trying to find out what the teacher will ask them. For that math exam, they may memorize formulas and master algorithmic procedures, but, as we will discover later in more detail, they will often fail to understand conceptually, and their learning will have little sustained or substantial influence on the way they subsequendy think, act, or feel. Only deep learners are primarily concerned with understanding, witìi how to apply their ideas to consequential problems, with implications, and with ideas and concepts. Only they are likely to theorize and make connections with other ideas and problems. Only they are likely to become adaptive experts who both recognize and even relish the opportunity and necessity for breaking with traditional approaches and inventing new ones. …

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