What Works? Not Best Practices

Credit: iStock.com/DrAfter123
Credit: iStock.com/DrAfter123

Any list of best practices has great appeal—sometimes immense popularity. And for good reason. Like prepackaged food, they’re ready to go. For busy faculty who aspire to teach well, they provide time-saving instructional sustenance. There’s no need to search through the literature, which is widely scattered and involves research, often ponderous to read. Someone else has identified and succinctly summarized one or several practices that have risen to the top.

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

For some time now, I’ve been troubled by dubbing something a “best” practice. Perhaps it’s the claim’s audacity: that one way of doing something is better than all the others. Or maybe it’s the assumed breadth of the claim—best for all teachers, for all students, with all content, and in any kind of course. Wrapping a practice, a policy, or even a principle around that much teaching and learning is a huge stretch.

There’s absolutely no question that some instructional strategies are better than others, and most of the identified best practices do offer improved ways of accomplishing learning objectives. We should not ignore best practices but recognize the considerable distance that separates “best” from “better.”

I’d like to claim I became concerned about best practices on my own, but Kimberly D. Tanner’s (2011) now classic critique of “what works?” jolted my thinking. Much like best practices, what works sets teachers on a quest for the cure-all technique, the one that simply and successfully solves pesky pedagogical problems. A few techniques may do that on occasion, but the problem is with what the question assumes—that instructional strategies can work in predictable, dependable ways. Tanner rightly wonders “whether anything as simple as ‘what works’ is even possible in the messy landscape of teaching and learning” (p. 329). I would make a bolder claim: nothing under the pedagogical sun is that astonishingly good or consistently reliable.

Our affinity for best practices and what works reveals a troublesome orientation to teaching: our hope—or maybe it’s a sense—that teaching should be easy. We know the content, we love it, students attend college by choice, and what we teach, especially at the lower levels, isn’t all that difficult. But students don’t learn, aren’t motivated, and too often leave courses and college bereft of essential knowledge and skills. Those of us who care accept the possibility that we are part of the problem. If we just had the right strategy, policy, or approach, maybe we could make it happen for students. We are motivated but misguided in our search for definitive solutions.

We devalue teaching and learning when we try to make them simple and easy, dependent only on knowledge of the content. Because language so significantly influences thought and action, we must be careful how we talk about instructional approaches. The language of best practices shrouds the enormous variability and complexity of what, how, and who we teach.

I can buy the idea that an individual teacher might have a set of best practices, but they’re not replicas of what appears on those popular lists. They may derive from what’s been proposed as best, but they’re solutions arrived at after lengthy calculations—the hard, messy work of learning how to solve instructional problems. At that point the solutions become something other than best practices. They’re answers to what’s currently an issue. In the dynamic milieu of the classroom, change happens regularly, bringing with it new problems and still better solutions.

If the search for solutions ends with a best practice, there’s no need to look further. You’ve got it—the one and only right way to keep students off their devices, grade efficiently, get test anxiety under control, connect with students online and so on until best practices become the How to Cook Everything for teaching. Pulling apart the idea of best practices reveals their inherent weaknesses. They aren’t what they claim to be but instead mark places where instructional journeys can begin.


Tanner, K. D. (2011). Reconsidering “what works.” CBE—Life Sciences Education, 10(4), 329–333. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.11-09-0085 [open access]

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