Previous Essays

Teaching to Lead
Teaching practices that help students develop leadership

Knowing About vs. Knowing How
The challenges of translating what we know about good practices into making our classes, majors, and programs more effective

Clear and Organized Teaching
Why a basic and under-appreciated teaching skill is critical for student learning

Improving Educational Quality
Lessons learned from liberal arts colleges about the conditions that facilitate the use of evidence to improve student learning

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Clear and organized teaching

by Charles Blaich and Kathleen Wise

An April 14, 2014 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education referenced data on teaching clarity and organization that we presented first at an AAC&U meeting in January and then at a Teagle Foundation meeting last week. 

Some background — Much of the talk about improving college impact focuses on "big changes" and "reforms," such as increasing the number of high-impact practices that students experience or revising curricula to make them more interdisciplinary. We think that such changes are great. But it is important to be realistic about the fact that they will require considerable effort, can be expensive, and may take years to accomplish. While we work toward these larger changes, it's important to remember that another way of improving student learning at our institutions would be to improve the quality of teaching within the courses, programs, and curricula that we currently have.

People might argue, "This is what we're doing every day!" And we know they are. But focused efforts to improve the basic teaching skills of all of our faculty, ranging from our most senior colleagues to adjunct faculty, have the potential to create immediate benefits for our students. 

One seemingly simple aspect of teaching is "clarity and organization." Our data on clarity and organization come from ten questions that we used in the Wabash National Study. We asked students these questions at the end of their first year of college —

Taking into consideration all of the faculty with whom you’ve interacted at this institution, how often have you experienced faculty who

  1. Gave clear explanations?
  2. Made good use of examples and illustrations to explain difficult points?
  3. Effectively reviewed and summarized the material?
  4. Interpreted abstract ideas and theories clearly?
  5. Gave assignments that helped in learning the course material?
  6. Presented material in a well-organized way? 
  7. Came to class well prepared?
  8. Used class time effectively?
  9. Clearly explained course goals and requirements?
  10. Had a good command of what they were teaching?

Students could respond "very often," "often," "sometimes," "rarely," or "never" to each of these questions. What proportion of the roughly 8,200 first-year students who responded to this question did not answer "very often" or "often" on average?

  • 48% of all first-year students
  • 63% of African-American first-year students
  • 58% of the first-year students at larger institutions
  • 41% of the first-year students at smaller institutions
  • 25% of first-year students at the institution with the highest average score on teaching clarity and organization
  • 77% of first-year students at the institution with the lowest average score on teaching clarity and organization

Clarity and organization, and the lack thereof, has serious consequences for students. Taking into account their major, gender, type of institution, race, parental education, high school involvement, a host of other good practices, and students' performance on our outcomes measures when they first entered college, clarity and organization has a positive significant relationship with students' —

  • Critical thinking
  • Interest in political and civic involvement
  • Interest in socially responsible, collaborative leadership
  • Academic motivation
  • Psychological well-being
  • Interest in reading and writing as a means of learning
  • Interest in engaging new ideas
  • Moral reasoning 
  • Interest in engaging difficult intellectual problems
  • Interest in interacting with diverse people
  • GPA
  • Likelihood of persisting and graduating

College faculty should aim for creating high levels of clarity and organization in the classroom. This does not mean "dumbing down" the class. It means giving clear explanations and instructions, using good examples, being prepared, using time with our students well, and other basic elements of good teaching. It also means remembering that our students are not the disciplinary experts that we are, and that in order to explain even sometimes seemingly basic concepts to them, we must find ways to engage our students where they are, using language and frameworks of knowledge that make sense to them.

We do not claim that this is an easy task. We both have experience teaching, and with the varied backgrounds of our students and the complexities of our ever advancing disciplines and professions, we know that this is challenging work. We also understand that clarity and organization is not independent of the disciplinary and professional ideas we want to teach. The challenge of being clear about Plato's ideas is different from the challenge of clearly explaining cognitive dissonance or the concept of confidence intervals. The preparation and organization required to engage students in a discovery learning laboratory in biology is different from having students practice focus group interviews for their sociology class. Clarity and organization only seems "mundane" if we think about this aspect of teaching apart from the difficult ideas and methods in which we are trying to engage our students.

Teaching well requires a life-long commitment to developing our craft; we don't master a set of skills and move on. Developing this craft requires us not only to consider innovative pedagogies, high-impact practices, and engaging the latest work in our fields, but also to refine the basic tools we use in our work—just as athletes, dancers, woodworkers, musicians, and other artisans do throughout their careers. In our view, in order to improve student learning, it is important that our institutions devote the time, facilities, structures, and other resources so that all of the faculty who teach our students can develop their teaching skills. Such efforts need not replace the larger scale improvements that we described above, but neither should they be supplanted by these fancier, higher profile efforts.


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Reader Comments (1)

Teagle Scholars:

Here, here, I echo Charlies comments and would like to add that a good starting point for inculcating these ideas might be with an appropriate and comprehensive student/faculty evaluation system. I have been involved now for the past 4 years (gawd) in the development of a new online student evaluation system which we are about to launch next academic year. The relevance to this conversation is that we intentionally developed the evaluation component to focus on "Teaching Effectiveness" and constructing a system around four major constructs: Instructional Design, Instructional Practices, Student Engagement, and Student Learning (see below). We have intentionally eliminated any overall item, stirred away from questions that have the appearance of the "beauty contest syndrome", and connected the constructs specifically to faculty development through our Center for Teaching Effectiveness. I would be happy to share any information about the process we have used. I would also like to refer you to the Arreola manual for "Developing a Comprehensive Faculty Evaluation System" which has been our bible throughout this process.

USF Student Evaluation:

The survey questions below were written to address important aspects of teaching effectiveness. They are written syntactically to align with the following specific response set:

1. Strongly disagree
2. Disagree
3. Somewhat disagree
4. Somewhat agree
5. Agree
6. Strongly agree

This response set is designed to eliminate any neutral point and to force the respondent to make a choice in a specific perceptual direction (negative or positive) with three directional levels of magnitude each in those perceptions. This eliminates the tendency to respond to a neutral point.

Overlap of survey questions from one construct to another is acceptable if the survey questions are addressing conceptually separate intent related to the specific construct, e.g., item 1 under Instructional Design, Instructional Practices, and Student Learning are addressing the student learning outcomes in a conceptually different manner. Conceptual overlap within a construct is also acceptable to assure the validity of the construct if there is enough perceived difference in the survey questions to be meaningful. Note:

Construct definitions below are part of the survey in order to properly frame the construct as students respond to the evaluation.

I. Instructional Design:

Instructional design refers to the planning, structure and organization of the course, and whether the course possesses instructional features commonly viewed as being important to student learning. Were the learning outcomes and requirements clear, were the course materials relevant and useful, and were assignments well scheduled and relevant?

1. The learning outcomes for this course were clearly stated.
2. The assignments were helpful in accomplishing the learning outcomes for this course.
3. The assignments were well integrated throughout the course.
4. Directions/guidelines for assignments were clearly stated.
5. Student responsibilities in this course were clearly defined.
6. The course schedule was clearly laid out.
7. Criteria for assessing performance in this course were clearly stated.
8. Criteria for assessing the completion of the learning outcomes were clearly stated.
9. Course materials were effective in accomplishing the student learning outcomes.
10. Topics that were covered have relevance beyond this course.

II. Instructional Practices:

Instructional practices refer to what is experienced by students when they attend class. Were the teaching methods effective, was the class atmosphere supportive, and was feedback timely?

1. I was able to track my progress in the course.
2. Teaching methods were effective for promoting learning.
3. The methods for assessing work were appropriate.
4. The course atmosphere was respectful of all students.
5. The course’s subject matter was covered in a clear manner.
6. Course sessions were well prepared.
7. Course time was used effectively.
8. The course schedule was followed, any changes were clearly communicated.
9. The course was well organized.
10. Feedback in this course was timely.
11. The relevance of course topics was discussed.

III. Student Engagement:

Student engagement refers to the motivation and active involvement of students in the course. Did the instructor encourage student participation and self-responsibility, communicate with students effectively, and demonstrate willingness to help students?

1. The instructor was accessible to students outside of class.
2. Communication with the instructor was effective.
3. Instructional activities contributed to my desire to actively engage in this course.
4. The feedback I received in this course was helpful.
5. This course stimulated my interest in the subject matter.
6. This course motivated me to learn.
7. Students were encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning.
8. Students were encouraged to share their ideas and knowledge.

IV. Student Learning:

Student learning refers to the outcomes of the course, regarding new knowledge, as well as subject-related skills and general abilities, including thinking and reasoning skills. Did the course increase students’ knowledge and abilities, are the learned skills transferrable to other subjects?

1. I increased my knowledge in this subject as indicated by the course learning outcomes.
2. I increased my skills in this subject as indicated by the course learning outcomes.
3. I increased my ability to integrate my knowledge and skills in this subject as indicated by the course learning outcomes.
4. Strategies for learning (learning how to learn) in this course are transferable to other subjects.
5. This course contributed to my understanding of the subject matter.
6. I am able to demonstrate my knowledge/skills in this subject matter.
7. This course helped me improve strategies for learning (learning how to learn).

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill Murry
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