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Preparing Faculty for Pedagogical Change: Helping Faculty Deal With Fear

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In unguarded moments with close friends, we who teach will acknowledge a variety of fears: having our work unappreciated, being inadequately rewarded, discovering one fine morning that we chose the wrong profession, spending our lives on trivia, ending up feeling like frauds. But many of us have another fear that we rarely name: out fear of the judgment of the young.


The posting below looks at how to help faculty deal with fears about making changes in their teaching. It is from Chapter 9, Preparing Faculty for Pedagogical Change: Helping Faculty Deal With Fear, by Linda C. Hodges, Princeton University, in To Improve the Academy, Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, Volume 24, Sandra Chadwick-Blossey, Editor. ISBN 1-882982-89-4. Copyright ? 2006 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 563 Main Street, P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA.


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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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How receptive faculty are to changing their pedagogical approach is a complex issue, but one factor that impedes change is the fear of taking a risk. Underlying this fear may be the fear of loss, fear of embarrassment, or fear of failure. Addressing these issues can empower faculty to be more innovative in their teaching. Drawing on research literature, personal teaching narratives, and my own work in faculty development, I discuss some of these underlying fears. I then offer concrete strategies for working with faculty to enable them to overcome these emotional barriers and embrace change.


One way to ensure a lively, even heated, debate among college and university faculty is to turn the conversation to the newest pedagogical strategies. Teaching approaches such as collaborative learning and problem-based learning have been extolled by some as ways to develop students' critical thinking and problem-solving abilities and to increase students' engagement in their learning. But these techniques have also been seen by some as trendy, resulting in little more than an increase in the students' "feeling good" factor and a decrease in content covered and knowledge retained by students. These concerns may be countered by those who adopt the constructivist's view that knowledge cannot be transferred intact from lecturer to listener but must be actively created in part through interactions with others. Other educators point out challenges in some of these student-centered approaches, however, such as the danger of misconceptions promoted by group work and the difficulties in transferring content learned in highly contextualized formats such as problem-based learning. Often the difficulty of assessing the effectiveness of various teaching methods punctuates these discussions.

If we start probing in these conversations, we may find that skepticism is expressed not only about those strategies that my be considered most nontraditional, such as problem-based learning, but also for more conventional teaching formats such as class discussions or student-led problem sessions. And, conversely, proponents of highly interactive formats may devalue any form of lecturing. How receptive faculty are to the perceived value of pedagogical strategies is a complex issue that depends less on hoe compelling the data are in support of these approaches and more on what teachers believe about teaching. Teachers' beliefs in an important topic in educational research, as are studies on how these beliefs may affect practice (Hativa & Goodyear, 2002). These beliefs need not be static but evolve over a teacher's career depending on experiences and the ability of the teacher to reflect on those experiences. Even then, the impetus to change one's teaching practices based on experience and reflection is affected by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. For example, an intrinsic motivation may be how much teaching generates a personal sense of satisfaction and an extrinsic motivation may be how teaching is rewarded in our professional career.

Although certain critical impediments to faculty undertaking new pedagogical approaches are institutional and thus extrinsic, those that are most readily addressed are personal. A prerequisite step to the willingness to teach differently is the reflection on practice. Yet reflective teachers may not change the approach they take in the classroom, even though they themselves perceive a need for change based on student feedback, student performance, or their own sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. As we work with these faculty to improve their teaching, we may face resistance that is hard to decipher. We cannot begin to uncover the range of experiences that faculty have that shape their beliefs about teaching, nor to understand each teacher's psychological, philosophical, and emotional underpinnings for their practice. Yet one factor that has been shown to stand in the way of teachers changing their practice is the fear of taking a risk (McAlpine &Weston, 2002). Addressing this fear can help faculty become more receptive to introducing innovation and flexibility in their teaching. In this chapter I outline some possible reasons for this fear, and I offer suggestions that can help them push past this emotional barrier.

Underlying Fears

Several eloquent personal narratives of teaching exist that highlight a professor's fears and how they have shaped life and career. Elaine Showalter (2003) in her memoir-handbook, Teaching Literature, devotes an entire chapter to teaching anxiety and categorizes it into seven types depending on its source: lack of training, feelings of isolation, tension between teaching and research, coverage demands, performance issues, grading challenges, and student and peer evaluations. She highlights fears involved in teaching literature, pointing out that "we believe that what we say in the classroom reveals the deepest aspects of ourselves" (p.3). This fear of exposure may take many forms and may be more acute in the classroom than in other public arenas because instructors face this audience day after day. Perceptions of mistakes, inadequacies, even character flaws, reenter the classroom daily with one's students, to be compounded by each new infraction.

In his insightful and moving account, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer (1998) echoes what research and our own experiences tell us:

In unguarded moments with close friends, we who teach will acknowledge a variety of fears: having our work unappreciated, being inadequately rewarded, discovering one fine morning that we chose the wrong profession, spending our lives on trivia, ending up feeling like frauds. But many of us have another fear that we rarely name: out fear of the judgment of the young. (pp. 47- 48)

Palmer notes how these fears can lead eventually to stagnation and cynicism if faculty fail to interpret their experiences accurately or, we might say, fail to reflect productively on those experiences.

Unlike Palmer and Showalter and a few other narrators, to many faculty fear is indeed a four-letter word, one not to be spoken in polite society. As faculty talk to us about their teaching, it is up to us to recognize the various fears that underlie apparent resistance, frustration, or complacency. We may then respond more effectively with strategies that allow them to push past their fears and give them new hope to re-reinvigorate their teaching.

Fears of Loss

In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for applying insights from psychological research to economic science. Specifically, he and his colleagues studied how human judgment affects decision-making under uncertainty or risk. This work was based on an area of cognitive science that deals with the concept of cognitive bias. Cognitive bias arises when we are faced with complex problems that have no simple solution and our intuitive thinking resorts to heuristics (i.e., general guidelines) to tackle the issue quickly. Unfortunately, in some cases these simple procedures produce erroneous conclusions, especially when our decision depends on a good understanding of the probability of certain events. Kahneman and Tversky (1979) found that people would pass up the possibility of great financial gains in order to avoid a loss-the idea of loss aversion. When making a decision that involves risk, many of us do not base our choices on rational arguments. A person who is loss averse dislikes symmetric 50-50 bets, and the dislike increases with the absolute size of the stakes. This observation relates this work to behavioral concept dealing with preferences (p. 279). We humans do not consider gains and losses rationally--our first priority is not to lose. Even though this conclusion was drawn from work with people faced with financial decisions, we may speculate that other apparent high-stakes situations in which we stand to lose something of value might evoke similar responses. Reflecting on this idea, we can see that change of any kind is fraught with possibilities of loss. When applied to changing our teaching, these potential losses can seem to be monumental. What do we fear losing?

We fear losing content "coverage". This principle is usually citied first and foremost when faculty confront nontraditional pedagogical choices. The tyranny of content coverage is especially acute in certain disciplines that have a recognized body of information on which subsequent courses build, fro example, the sciences and engineering. Our illusion is that we tell students the information that we want them to know, students who are motivated will absorb it, and our obligation to the discipline has been met. Thus, the most readily recognized and accepted pedagogical choice is lecture. It's hard to argue with this premise head-on because most professors themselves learned very well by the lecture method, and it does have its place as one option in our set of pedagogical tools.

We fear losing control. What do the more student-centered strategies all have in common? They all represent shifts in the nature of authority in the classroom. They require us to move away from the idea that information may be transferred intact from expert to novice. Instead, they ask us to move toward the model of the student as self-teacher, recognizing that knowledge is of necessity constructed in the mind of the learners as they seek to reconcile new knowledge with mental models they've built based on former experience.

Research in cognitive science may currently be interpreted as validating the view that knowledge is constructed, not simply absorbed, yet for many of us this theory is not necessarily readily accepted. We need to believe that we can control the development of students' ideas through our eloquent prose and detailed explanations; otherwise, it's hard to know our role in the classroom. Interestingly, research in cognitive science also shows us how important the fear of loss of control is to human thinking (LeDoux, 1996). Our students may struggle against learning in our disciplines because they perceive that we are imposing our control over them (Zull, 2002). How much more than may we as instructors resist handing over our hard-earned position of authority to students? And we may even perceive those who encourage the use of alternate pedagogies to be someone else seeking to tell us what to do.

Proposing that we change our preferred way of teaching seems to assault us on two levels. First, the classroom has usually been an arena in which faculty work in isolation and in absolute control. We do not typically engage in collegial discussion about teaching, so raising questions about our choice of techniques may seem to be an unexpected and inhospitable attack on our professional expertise. Add to this the fact that the pedagogical methods being touted often ask the teacher to relinquish authority in the classroom to novices, and we have added insult to injury.

Fear of Embarrassment

Necessary for academic success is the ability to pose intellectual questions and to generate recognizably valid arguments to answer them. In general, most of us didn't need to be highly adept in social situations to get where we are in academia. Yet many of the teaching modes other than lecture require us to navigate and direct human interactions, a somewhat daunting task. When working with students in groups or even facilitating a meaningful discussion, we are in danger not only of losing content coverage and control, but also of embarrassing ourselveswe fear being seen as incompetent, less smart, perhaps even just silly. As Palmer (1998) said, we fear students' judgment of us. We fear losing respect. Most of us have spent a great deal of time honing our lecture skills in order to avoid being embarrassed in public. Asking us to step into another area of perceived performance for which we have limited training is asking a lot.

Fear of Failure

Finally, and not least importantly, we fear failurefailure to transmit critical concepts in our discipline, failure to resonate with students, failure to be perceived as experts in our field. Whatever mode of teaching we have been using represents the known. Any failures we noted in the past using these strategies have been rationalized and dealt with. To change means to bring the effects of our teaching under close scrutiny again. We may need to find different explanations for student failures and put our own performance under review and judgment again.

How Prevalent Are These Fears?

A number of anecdotal accounts document a teacher's fears, but what does the research literature say about this phenomenon? Several studies exist on math anxiety, test anxiety, even computer anxiety, but very little on teaching anxiety-unless we lump it under the very broad category of performance or speech anxiety. Two studies dealing specifically with teaching anxiety, one among psychology professors (Gardner & Leak, 1994) and on among accounting professors (Ameen, Guffey, & Jackson, 2002), found that a large majority of faculty (78%-87%) had experienced some form of teaching anxiety, broadly defined as "distress that comes from either the anticipation of teaching, the preparation for teaching, or the experiences that occur while teaching" (Gardner & Leak, 1994, p. 29). In the majority of cases this anxiety was described by faculty as arising from external events, not existing as a part of the professor's self-describing personality, and presenting an ongoing challenge.

In these studies, teaching anxiety was associated with some activities that involve talking to any group, such as standing before the class before speaking, but other triggers were not so related: class preparation, students' questions, negative feedback or disruptions from students during class, and end-of-term evaluations. As one might expect, in both studies anxiety felt while teaching diminished in a statistically significant way in teachers with more experience and higher rank. The amount of teaching experience, however, did not correlate with reducing the other potential triggers of anxiety; that is, student questions and evaluations or class preparation activities, at least in the study of psychology professors (Gardner & Leak, 1994). Instructors did not significantly associate anxiety with a class format, such as discussion versus lecture, but more with lack of familiarity with course material as noted in the study of accounting professors (Ameen, Guffey, & Jackson, 2002).

Neither of these studies asked specific questions about anxiety when using alternate teaching strategies such as group work, but certainly we could speculate that the unfamiliarity with this style of teaching and the perceived loss of control could act as an anxiety trigger, perhaps in a similar way as does lack of familiarity with course material. The student-centered formats are more likely to expose professors to possible negative responses from students, an identical trigger in both studies. Both class preparation activities and student evaluations were noted sources of anxiety in these studies, and one can imagine that changing one's teaching to include flexibility in class format and more student interaction could elicit these fears as well.