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There are dozens of teaching methods that a teacher might use, but instead of emphasizing their differences, I want to focus on what they have in common. These are practices that all teaching methods value. Used correctly, they are universal components of effective teaching. I can think of three such practices: using formative assessments, providing examples of concepts, and giving students feedback. No teaching method I’m aware of claims that any of these activities hurts learning or is not part of good teaching practice.

If we accept all three as good teaching practices, then all teachers should know how to design and implement them for optimal learning. But I see little evidence of that. In my experience, teachers typically generate examples intuitively, without worrying about whether students find them helpful. Many teachers use formative assessments such as clicker questions without a purpose or learning goal in mind, just a vague sense that using them is a good idea. Finally, I’ve seen examples of feedback that are unhelpful or even hurtful to student learning and motivation. There is strong evidence that all three practices can enhance learning, but teachers must design and implement them correctly, which is not straightforward to do.

Just carrying out a practice intuitively is no guarantee of its effectiveness. Effective pedagogy is theory-driven practice to achieve a desired learning outcome. By theory driven, I mean that teachers need to have an accurate understanding of how people learn and use it to implement practices. Teachers should also have a purpose or desired learning goal in mind when using a given practice. Examples of desired learning outcomes include strengthening memory for important concepts and improving metacognitive awareness. Using these practices effectively involves designing and implementing activities with principles of how people learn in mind, assessing their impact with regard to a desired learning outcome, and then modifying them if needed.

The reason these three practices are universal is that they are flexible. Teachers can adapt them to address multiple important learning goals. Let me illustrate using a framework of the cognitive challenges of effective teaching (Chew & Cerbin, 2021; for a general overview, see Cerbin, 2022, and to learn more about each challenge, see my essay here). These are the nine challenges that teachers and students must successfully negotiate for students to learn:

  1. Student mental mindset: Students hold attitudes and beliefs about a course or topic, such as how useful or interesting it will be and how hard they expect to work, that can affect their participation, learning strategies, and motivation.
  2. Metacognition and self-regulation: Students make judgments about their current level of mastery of concepts that affect both how they study and how much they believe they need to study.
  3. Student fear and mistrust: Students may fear that, instead of supporting their learning, teachers are trying to weed out the members of the class who don’t really belong there.
  4. Insufficient prior knowledge: Some students may start a class with far less prior knowledge than other students, which makes their learning much more difficult.
  5. Misconceptions: Students often hold faulty or mistaken beliefs at the start of a course.
  6. Transfer of learning: Students fail to apply what they learn to new situations.
  7. Selective attention: Students can focus their attention on only a small portion of the environment and miss most everything else.
  8. Constraints of mental effort and working memory: Students have two major limitations in cognitive processing—the amount of concentration (mental effort) available to them and the capacity to hold information consciously (working memory).
  9. Ineffective learning strategies: Students generally prefer the least effective strategies for long-term learning.

Formative assessments, examples, and feedback can address most of the nine challenges to some extent, as Table 1 shows. Teachers can use these practices to address multiple learning goals simultaneously.

Teaching PracticeCognitive Challenges
Formative Assessment
  • Student mental mindset
  • Metacognition and self-regulation
  • Student fear and mistrust
  • Insufficient prior knowledge
  • Misconceptions
  • Transfer of learning
  • Constraints of mental effort and working memory
  • Ineffective learning strategies
    Examples
    • Student mental mindset
    • Metacognition and self-regulation
    • Student fear and mistrust
    • Insufficient prior knowledge
    • Misconceptions
    • Transfer of learning
    • Constraints of mental effort and working memory
    • Ineffective learning strategies
    Feedback
    • Student mental mindset
    • Metacognition and self-regulation
    • Student fear and mistrust
    • Misconceptions
    • Transfer of learning
    • Ineffective learning strategies
    Table 1. Cognitive challenges that each of the three universal teaching practices address

    Formative assessments are low- or no-stakes activities designed to give both students and teachers feedback about the students’ thinking, level of understanding, and learning. It is an umbrella term for a huge number and variety of activities, such as muddiest point papers, practice exams, exit tickets, predict-observe-explain, peer instruction, clicker questions, and the venerable think-pair-share. There are many good books on formative assessments (e.g., Angelo & Cross, 1993; Barkley & Major, 2015), plus many useful websites. Think-pair-share, for example, can create a sense of community in a class and promote student engagement (Mundelsee & Jurkowski, 2021)—both part of student mindset. It can provide teachers and students with feedback about how well students are understanding concepts, which is vital for metacognition and self-regulation. Teachers can use it to promote effective learning strategies such as retrieval practice and spaced practice, refute common misconceptions, promote transfer of knowledge to new situations, and give students practice in applying knowledge, reducing cognitive load. Still, the way one implements think-pair-share influences its impact (Mundelsee & Jurkowski, 2021), and it may not be the best format for some students (Cohen et al., 2019). Peer instruction, which often makes use of digital response systems, is another popular formative assessment, especially in STEM fields. It’s what many faculty think they are doing when they use clicker questions. Evidence for its effectiveness in promoting learning is strong (Crouch, & Mazur, 2001), but once again, teachers must implement it correctly, which is not a simple task (Dancy et al., 2016; Schell & Butler, 2018).

    I’ve written about using examples to promote learning here (see also Renkl, 2014, 2023). I define examples as instances, illustrations, or activities that are representative of a concept; they include problem sets, worked problems, and analogies. Designing a good example is not straightforward. The fact that teachers know so much more about a topic than their students can result in their choosing examples that are clear to them but opaque to students and giving explanations that they believe are thorough and precise but students find confusing. There are dimensions, such as cognitive load and familiarity, that teachers may not think about when selecting examples but that impede student understanding.

    Student feedback from assignments, activities, and exams can, ideally, help students with metacognition and self-regulation. It can inform students about the effectiveness of their study strategies and promote a growth mindset. Yeager et al. (2014) have shown that what they call “wise feedback” can build student trust in the teacher, especially among minoritized students. Providing constructive, accessible feedback is challenging, however, and bad feedback can discourage learning (Hattie & Yates, 2014). Finally, students often have trouble using feedback to regulate their learning.

    Formative assessments, examples, and feedback can be so helpful for learning that they are part of virtually all teaching methods. Teachers should be proficient in using them and adapting them to their students’ needs. That, however, requires more than simply going through the motions and hoping for the best. Like all teaching methods, they can be implemented inappropriately, rendering them ineffective and possibly harmful to learning. Teachers need to understand how they work and design them to achieve specific learning goals.

    References

    Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques (2nd ed.). Jossey Bass.

    Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2015). Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

    Cerbin, W. J. (2022, May 20). Cognitive challenges of effective teaching. Psychology Teacher Network. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psychology-teacher-network/introductory-psychology/challenges-to-teaching

    Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W. J. (2021) The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education, 52(1), 17–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266

    Cohen, M., Buzinski, S. G., Armstrong-Carter, E., Clark, J., Buck, B., & Reuman, L. (2019). Think, pair, freeze: The association between social anxiety and student discomfort in the active learning environment. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 5(4), 265–277. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000147

    Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics69(9), 970–977. http://doi.org/10.1119/1.1374249

    Dancy, M., Henderson, C., & Turpen, C. (2016). How faculty learn about and implement research-based instructional strategies: The case of peer instruction. Physical Review Physics Education Research12(1), 010110. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.12.010110

    Hattie, J. A., & Yates, G. C. (2014). Using feedback to promote learning. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp. 45–58). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

    Mundelsee, L., & Jurkowski, S. (2021). Think and pair before share: Effects of collaboration on students' in-class participation. Learning and Individual Differences, 88, 102015. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2021.102015

    Renkl, A. (2014). Learning from worked examples: How to prepare students for meaningful problem solving. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp. 118–130). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

    Renkl, A. (2023). Using worked examples for ill-structured learning content. In C. E. Overson, C. M. Hakala, L. L. Kordonowy, & V. A. Benassi (Eds.), In their own words: What scholars and teachers want you to know about why and how to apply the science of learning in your academic setting (pp. 207–224). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/itow

    Schell, J. A., & Butler, A. C. (2018). Insights from the science of learning can inform evidence-based implementation of peer instruction. In Frontiers in Education, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2018.00033

    Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W. T., Williams, M. E., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804–824. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033906


    Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: slchew@samford.edu.