What is good teaching?

While preparing a workshop about ways to do observations of teaching, my co-facilitator and I were thinking about how to adapt the traditional ways at our institution (i.e., sit in on a face-to-face class) for the many varied online and hybrid ways faculty are teaching during these pandemic days.

That got us thinking about the various benefits and limitations of any one way of evaluating a faculty member’s teaching (e.g., student ratings forms, observations, materials like syllabi and assignments, actual student work, communication and interactions in a learning management system, etc.).

We historians are used to thinking about the limitations of all types of sources, of course.

Just as we wouldn’t decide not to try to learn what we can about the past, we shouldn’t just throw up our hands and say, “It’s impossible to evaluate teaching” because it’s too subjective and the evidence is too problematic. Instead, we can try to triangulate what we can from closely analyzing all the sources available.

To get ideas for the types of evidence one might use in different modalities (especially online), check out the Peer Review Guide for Online Teaching at Penn State. In a clear table, it maps examples and places to look for them onto Chickering and Gamson’s classic work on seven practices for good practice in undergraduate education.

There’s been a lot written about a three-stage process that increases the likelihood that a peer observation (or chair observation) will be helpful and productive. (Check out the Elon CATL website for a summary). But what should a peer observer (or chair or dean) look for? Doesn’t everyone have different ideas of what constitutes good teaching?

The Penn State guide got me thinking about how I’d tweak Chickering and Gamson’s practices now that we’ve got three more decades of SOTL.

I decided to try to articulate what I think are reliable principles for effective teaching. Here goes:

  • Good instruction is rooted in learning goals that are intellectually challenging and appropriate for the discipline/field, specific course, and the students.
  • The methods chosen for class meetings or remote/online instruction should support those sensible learning goals. One’s methods should be intentional and aligned.
  • Materials and assessments should support those learning goals, and assessment should be done fairly and consistently.
  • Instructors should be transparent about their (daily and course) goals, major points, and the standards with which they will assess students’ work. 
  • Instructors should create an inviting and inclusive course environment. This can include matters like explaining and modeling positive class participation, fostering effective interactions between students, and showing respect for students as individuals and members of cultural/identity groups. 
  • Instructors should be attentive to student understanding and confusion and offer regular and welcoming opportunities for students to seek guidance/ask questions.  
  • Because student engagement matters, students should engage productively with their instructor, one another, and the materials.
  • Effectively facilitated active learning can help students deepen their understanding. Active learning strategies look different in different fields, but whatever the circumstances, they do need to be effectively facilitated.
  • All communication forms and materials should be clear and well-organized. (Note: we communicate in many ways, through our lectures and demonstrations, facilitating of active learning, announcements and emails, and learning management system.) 
  • The pace of instruction should be reasonable, and students should be given the opportunity to practice challenging concepts and skills. Everyone needs practice in order to deeply understand challenging content.
  • Students need clear and helpful feedback (both formative and summative) on their work.

What do you think? Are these a good basis for discussion with colleagues about “good teaching?” Is there anything controversial here? What’s missing?

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