Optimize Learning with a Flexible Approach

Being flexible is one of those ongoing challenges for teachers. There’s the desire to be responsive to student needs—life does happen—but then students have been known to take advantage of teachers and granting the request of one student opens the door and makes it difficult to close when another asks. There’s a need for balance—that difficult place between treating all students equitably and fairly, and being sensitive to the needs of individual students, especially if being flexible successfully supports their efforts to learn.

Teacher flexibility encompasses more than responding to individual requests for assignment extensions, make-up exams, and paper re-writes. It’s also that sensitivity to when something isn’t working in a course and the ability to make adjustments midstream. If the majority of students are still struggling with a central concept, the calendar may need revision. If a group activity isn’t generating good debate, it may need to be refocused, not just next semester, but in this class. Flexible teachers listen to students, take their feedback seriously and make adjustments they may not have considered.

Flexibility is often listed as one of the characteristics of effective instruction, but unlike the other ingredients of good teaching, such as organization and instructor enthusiasm, it hasn’t been studied all that much, particularly in the higher education context. Yoo, Schallert and Svinicki sought to remedy that with a survey of 500 students taking educational psychology courses and interviews with 15 effective teachers (so designated by students). They asked students several open-ended questions such as this one: “If someone told you that they had a teacher who is flexible in his or her teaching, what would you think that meant?” Using qualitative methods, the researchers analyzed the responses identifying three major themes, each with several subcategories (material below taken from Table 1, pp. 201-202) 

Theme 1: Teaching that supports each student’s learning progress

Subcategory 1: Responsive teaching—the willingness to address diverse learning needs with varied teaching strategies.

Subcategory 2: Improvisational teaching—being able to incorporate the ideas and needs of students into teaching while students are in the process of learning the material.

Subcategory 3: Metacognitive teaching—involves keen awareness and constant monitoring of the processes of learning and teaching. 

Theme 2: Attributes that define a flexible teacher

Subcategory 1: Being understanding of student’s needs—the willingness to modify course requirements in light of different learning needs and situations.

Subcategory 2: Being available and approachable—there for students before and after class, during office hours and with responses to electronic messages. 

Theme 3: Student learning as an outcome of flexible teaching

“A flexible teacher cares about student progress and will do whatever it takes to see them succeed.” (from a student response)

In their discussion of the results, the research team defines instructional flexibility “as a teacher’s adaptability to variations in the learning process stemming from individual learners’ or class groups’ differences. Both college students and instructors described a teacher’s sensitivity to the needs of individual learners as one of the key elements of instructional flexibility.”
(p. 209) Teacher flexibility leads to “positive learning experiences” for students. (p. 210) That conclusion was supported by student survey answers and during the interviews with teachers. Student and teacher perceptions are not the same as measuring learning outcomes but it certainly hints at this positive connection.

Both students and teachers see the aim of flexible teaching as the optimization of individual learning experiences by promoting student progress in learning. Flexibility is not about dropping or lower standards because something is too hard or a student doesn’t want to do it. Rather, it’s about finding legitimate ways that enable individual students, or classes of them to succeed.

These findings are new in their emphasis on metacognition. This monitoring and regulation plays an important role in both spontaneous and planned flexibility. “For a teacher to be effectively responsive, his or her assessment of student learning and of whether his or her teaching is effective should occur first, before an adaptation can be enacted.” (p. 210)

This research advances our understanding of how flexibility is understood by students and teachers. That’ an important beginning. It does not, however, answer two key questions: how do teachers develop flexibility and how do they gauge what appropriate levels of flexibility. 

Reference: Yoo, J. H., Schallert, D. L., and Svinicki, M. D. (2015). The meaning of flexibility in teaching: Views from college students and exemplary college instructors. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 26 (3), 191-217.

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