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The High Risks of Improving Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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But the ugly truth this man experienced so sharply continues to haunt efforts to improve teaching: student resistance presents one of the biggest obstacles to improving teaching, followed closely by poor and certainly uneven support from administration for pedagogical reform.


The posting below examines the very important but little discussed issue of student resistance to faculty attempts to try new teaching approaches. It is by James Rhem, executive editor of the National Teaching and Learning forum. It is number 35 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 15, Number 6, ? Copyright 1996-2006. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Integrating Work and Life: A Vision for a Changing Academy

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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The High Risks of Improving Teaching

James Rhem, Executive Editor


Very early in the life of this publication, I learned of a pharmacy professor in an east coast school who'd wanted to improve his teaching and had revamped one of his courses taking an active learning approach. Students hated it. Some went to the dean and complained; the rest savaged the professor in their student evaluations. Administration counseled him to "rethink" what he was trying to do. The man gave up, demoralized. He sent me a paper he'd written on the experience (which no one wanted to publish), and when I interviewed him on the telephone, the scar tissue in his dry voice wore down my own spirit and left me not knowing what to do. And so I did nothing. I didn't write his story, preferring just not to think about it or to ascribe it to his particular situation. But the ugly truth this man experienced so sharply continues to haunt efforts to improve teaching: student resistance presents one of the biggest obstacles to improving teaching, followed closely by poor and certainly uneven support from administration for pedagogical reform.

It's understandable that those committed to improving teaching (and I include myself) feel reluctant to write about the problem, and yet confronting the reality of it yields a few insights that may reduce the risk to careers of faculty who undertake reforms, as well as increase the likelihood of success with these efforts.

Along Comes Some Data

Part of the problem in talking about the problem of student resistance lies in the fact that for the most part discussions have remained largely anecdotal, but solid data has begun to emerge. Patti Marie Thorn's Ph.D. research at the University of Texas at Austin sheds important light on the ferocity and variety of student resistance. For her dissertation, Bridging the Gap Between What Is Praised and What Is Practiced: Supporting the Work of Change as Anatomy &Physiology Instructors Introduce Active Learning into Their Undergraduate Classroom (2003), Thorn closely followed the work of seven faculty members who, as her thesis title indicates, sought to move from traditional teaching approaches to active learning classrooms.

"They were using [Chuck] Bonwell and [James] Eison stuff," says Thorn, "tested, proven approaches that have been around for years." Sadly, five of the seven faculty who embraced active learning approaches met with student resistance and even administrative hostility to their reform efforts "big time," Thorn reports.

Five Ugly Flavors

There were, she says, "five flavors" of student resistance:

* "In the first flavor I found, students don't know what's up. They are grumbly and withdrawn and this discontent spreads: they catch it from each other.

* "Flavor two moves right away into threats: 'Stop teaching this way or else . . .' Students play into faculty fear." Faculty do have fear, Thorn says. Some of it comes from trying something new, but some of it comes as well from knowing how vulnerable student ratings and student complaints make them.

* "The third flavor derives from the fact that faculty begin to feel they are revealing too much of themselves in teaching this way. Students can smell this fear and they jump on it. They make faculty feel dumb and uninformed." And it's not just the aggressive, highly grade-oriented students who join this "Lord of the Flies" type pack, Thorn says. Any variety of student joins in once the class senses any uncertainty in faculty. In them, that whiff of uncertainty bonds like a molecular compound with their own uncertainty about the new approach to precipitate a storm of aggressive rejection.

* "In the fourth flavor," Thorn continues, "students go to administration and complain. Sometimes they do this as individuals; at other times they go as a group.

* "And, of course, the final and fifth flavor of resistance comes in the end-of- semester evaluations. Resisting students just cut the faculty to nothing."

So is student resistance an important consideration in undertaking pedagogical reform? "Yes, I would say resistance is a huge factor," Thorn concludes.

Who's Got Your Back?

Students' response to the unfamiliar and fears about their grades are one thing, but the lack of administrative understanding and support for pedagogical reform can't be ignored either. In the case of one of Thorn's research subjects involving the Dean of Science, the Vice President, and the Dean of Nursing at a "research one" institution, a lecturer was called in by her department chairperson. He told her he was acting on complaints from students who said they "were not getting the information they were supposed to from the professor." She was told to return immediately to a standard lecture format. Moreover, a colleague counseled her directly to quickly make the course as easy as possible so that student evaluations would suddenly glow if she wanted to be rehired the next semester. That would put her career back on track, he said. The student as customer, is, it seems, always right. If students want an inferior product (less effective teaching) at the same (tuition) price, the business logic of enrollment management and retention seems to say, "give it to them."

Setting aside for the moment the options of complaining and denying, what can be done about this little-discussed but all too common situation?

A Scaffold Of Empathy

Happily, Thorn had done a good bit of research on "student perspective" before undertaking her research project and equally fortunately, her dissertation director was Marilla Svinicki, a distinguished figure in faculty development, having headed the Center for Teaching Effectiveness at UT-Austin for many years, and a member of the Forum's editorial board. Though Thorn wasn't doing "action research," she couldn't stay passive in the face of these developments. Together with Svinicki, she worked out some counseling strategies to offer faculty some help.

"One thing faculty do not do well," says Thorn. "They don't know who their students are. Not really. So I tried to have them see the students' point of view, have them understand the power of the expectations students had carried over from their experience of traditional pedagogies and also the other pressures students face these days. I wanted them to ask themselves: 'What must it be like for them?' At bottom, student resistance is tied to student expectations."

Efforts to have faculty develop new levels of empathy in place of a kaleidoscope of legitimate fears helped faculty step back and embrace the need for more "scaffolding" in their teaching, scaffolding not just in presenting the content in their courses, but also in educating the students about the new pedagogy being used and its benefits.

Getting to know students rates very high in Thorn's list of practical steps faculty can take to reduce student resistance. "I used and advocated what I call the 'Marilla System,'" she says. "I take photos of the students [which she can get from administration] and place them on index cards. Then I meet privately with students and ask them one-to-one about their goals, what motivates them, what they love, where do you see yourself being in twenty years, who are your heroes? And, like Marilla, I carry these cards around with me and review them while I'm waiting in the checkout line and so on. Then I call on students by name in class. All of this builds community and makes change and a new way of learning more possible."

Some feel that students simply prefer passive learning, but Thorn doesn't agree. High level learning requires time-consuming work and reflection, she believes, and "[students] don't have the time! They have to be selective about where they choose to focus meaningful learning. Students learn to be very strategic in their actions." We all do, if we're successful, says Thorn: "We minimize the work we don't like, and focus on the stuff we do like."

Is Thorn hopeful in the face of such grim findings? Yes and no. "Reform can happen if faculty go into it with realistic expectations, by that I mean the likelihood that their evaluations will, at first, decline." "They will have to be good risk managers," she says, and administration will have to embrace a risk management system that encourages and supports reform. "Students must be made aware of what they're really there for, which is to become good thinkers," she declares. "And there needs to be a change in what business admits it really wants, and, also, administrations need to learn the difference between student satisfaction and student learning outcomes."


Patti M. Thorn, Ph.D.

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Phoenix, AZ 85226

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