Welcome to Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. This week:

  • Beth describes a project at the University of Virginia designed to help instructors stick with active learning and other strategies to improve student performance.
  • Beckie hears from readers who think it’s a really bad idea to ignore negative student evaluations.
  • We catch you up on teaching-related stories you may have missed.

What’s Really Holding Professors Back From Innovative Teaching?

Campus teaching centers often find that their first challenge is getting faculty members in the door. The second is convincing instructors that different forms of teaching, like active learning and group work, produce better results than a traditional lecture does.

The third and perhaps greatest challenge is to help professors institute those practices in the classroom. After all, changing how you teach is tough — and not always successful on the first, second, or even third try.

Two researchers at the University of Virginia are putting some numbers behind those teaching dilemmas. In particular, they want to know what’s preventing faculty members, including some who have used the services of UVa’s Center for Teaching Excellence, from actually changing the way they teach. What they’ve found is helping them shape future research and design more-effective support systems.

First the study. Hannah Sturtevant, a postdoctoral research associate at the center, and Lindsay Wheeler, assistant director of STEM-education initiatives and an assistant professor at the center, have surveyed about 300 faculty members in STEM disciplines over the past couple of years about what obstacles prevent them from adopting new teaching practices.

“We really wanted to understand why they aren’t engaging,” says Wheeler. “Why do we see greater than 80 percent lecture in many of these courses, when research suggests active learning is really effective for students?”

The top reason, instructors said, was a lack of time to plan for teaching, on top of other responsibilities. Tied for second: tenure-and-promotion guidelines, which emphasize research over teaching, and classrooms with fixed seats, which inhibit active learning.

Sturtevant and Wheeler also found plenty of frustrations with students. Instructors say that students often haven’t prepared for class, or resist active learning. Other barriers include a lack of training in active-learning techniques for teaching assistants and large class sizes.

Drilling down into the data, the researchers found that a lot rests on departmental culture. If a faculty member says her department does not support active learning, she is less likely to try it herself.

Those findings may not surprise teaching-and-learning experts, but Sturtevant and Wheeler say that being able to pinpoint the problems on their campuses can help lead to solutions. “This study has shown that there’s this extra piece, not just about encouraging faculty members to try,” says Sturtevant. “We need to support them while they’re doing the practices.”

To that end, the Center for Teaching Excellence is expanding its Ignite program, originally designed for new faculty members who want to redesign a course within a small learning community, to allow more senior faculty members to participate. It is also creating a teaching-methods course for teaching assistants in STEM.

Center staff members are also doing more work with entire departments. They’re discussing how best to create a curriculum that is aligned, so that it’s not just an individual faculty member trying to change a single course. “If it’s the third course in a series,” says Wheeler, “and all the others are lectures, then students are going to push back.”

Changing tenure-and-promotion guidelines to support teaching reform is a tougher hill to climb, but the researchers hope that the survey results, which show how significant those guidelines are to teaching reform, can accelerate conversations with senior leadership. “Things move very slowly,” says Wheeler, “but there is potential to use data to drive change.”

A study is also underway to better understand what makes for successful group work. A group of graduate students is digging into that now, working with undergraduates who have agreed to audiotape group conversations and share working documents. “If we don’t get the student perspective, we’re missing an important piece,” says Wheeler.

The researchers are expanding the survey to include non-STEM faculty members, to see if they face similar barriers in their teaching. And they hope to share their survey instrument with other colleges.

Do you use your campus’s teaching-and-learning center? Has it helped change your teaching, especially if you hit some of the roadblocks described in the UVa survey? If so, drop me a line, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

**A Paid Message from the APA:

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Don’t Ignore the Bad Parts

Last week we told you about one professor’s strategy for reading course evaluations, which involved asking his assistant to summarize the constructive criticism and leave off the ad hominem. A good number of the responses we received took issue with the idea of setting negative comments aside.

It’s a mistake, wrote Usha Rao, who directs the Office of Teaching and Learning at St. Joseph’s University, in Pennsylvania, to “entirely skip reading any part of a student’s communication with us.” At the same time, wrote Rao, who is also an associate professor of chemistry, she “routinely” suggests that professors “separate the ‘tone’ from content, and simply extract actionable items in a more detached way” when they read students’ comments.

Erika Stump, a learning-assessment specialist in the Office of Institutional Research, Analysis, and Planning at Bates College, worried about how someone would choose which comments to ignore. “Couldn’t the assistant’s cultural perspective or biases lead them to judge a comment ‘not productive,’ thereby excluding the voice of a marginalized minority?” she wondered. Still, she understood the impulse to edit out that feedback because “I’ve experienced those awful comments, and they can derail.”

Angela R. Linse raised a different concern about bias — the kind aimed at the instructor. “While biased comments are hurtful and unfair,” wrote Linse, associate dean and executive director of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Pennsylvania State University, administrators can’t address inappropriate behavior they don’t know about. “Faculty who do not face such biases also need to be aware that students are treating some of their colleagues differently,” she added, “especially when it comes to interpreting the quantitative results that typically accompany written feedback. If faculty reviewers are not aware of the bias, the quantitative student-ratings data could easily be misinterpreted and misused.”

Make Your Teaching More Engaging

Before students can learn, they must be engaged. How can instructors spark students’ excitement? A new Chronicle advice guide has insights “for anyone who wants to introduce energy or enthusiasm to their classrooms using methods that have been tried — and found true — through research and in classrooms.” You can read the guide — by Sarah Rose Cavanagh, associate professor of psychology and associate director for grants and research in the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Massachusetts — here.


  • James M. Lang’s latest Chronicle advice column tackles the problem of convincing students that the most effective ways to learn aren’t always the easier to do.
  • Purdue University has banned Netflix, Hulu, and other recreational streaming sites in classrooms.
  • Last week we pointed you to a couple of serious Twitter discussions about good teaching. This week’s Twitter thread asked people to describe their most frivolous-sounding class. Our favorite: “Monsters and Beasts of the Middle Ages,” with a final essay prompt, “What have you learned in this class that would prepare you for a zombie apocalypse?”

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or steve.johnson@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to receive your own copy, you can sign up here.

—Beth and Beckie