When We’re Too Busy to Change Our Teaching

Credit: iStock.com/BrianAJackson
Credit: iStock.com/BrianAJackson
Time constraints—that’s what faculty consistently report as the reason they don’t implement changes in their teaching. It’s the barrier identified by almost 67 percent of 3,000 geosciences faculty (Riihimaki & Viskupic, 2020) and what 8 percent of faculty in a collection of departments at a single institution reported (Shadle et. al, 2017). Both of these survey analyses contain references to studies reporting similar findings, and these consistently high percentages got me thinking about time pressures and instructional change.

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Time constraints—that’s what faculty consistently report as the reason they don’t implement changes in their teaching. It’s the barrier identified by almost 67 percent of 3,000 geosciences faculty (Riihimaki & Viskupic, 2020) and what 8 percent of faculty in a collection of departments at a single institution reported (Shadle et. al, 2017). Both of these survey analyses contain references to studies reporting similar findings, and these consistently high percentages got me thinking about time pressures and instructional change.

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

We can start with the obvious. Faculty lives are busy. Most of us teach multiple courses, sometimes with high enrollments. Most of us work in departments with research and scholarship expectations. Most of us serve on committees and in other ways support our institutions and professional associations. So being too busy may well be a logical, legitimate reason for not making changes in our courses.

Then there’s how my always Mom explained inaction: “People find time for what’s important to them.” In our culture busyness is regularly offered as an excuse—the polite way around an action we’d just as soon sidestep. “Gee, I’d like to help, but I just don’t have time.” Here as well that’s sometimes a bona fide reason; other times it’s a cover.

What other issues might be at play in this frequent response to instructional change? The time constraint response seems to assume that teaching changes involve large time investments, and they certainly can. Redesigning a course or moving from one instructional approach to another (from face-to-face to online, for example) does take lots of time, but that’s not true of all instructional changes. Many changes are easily and quickly implemented. An exam review session takes one session. More time for questions can mean several extra several minutes per period. Exam wrappers can be completed in five minutes during an exam debrief. It’s a list that could go on and on.

Is there also lurking in the time constraint assumption the sense that only these big, whole-course alterations affect learning outcomes in significant ways? Well, big changes can make a big difference, but smaller changes do as well, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that claim.

Said more directly, time constraints can be a smokescreen that hides the real reasons some teachers avoid making changes. Risk is an inherent part of the process. Maybe a change won’t work, maybe students will object, or maybe the teacher won’t look like a competent professional. Familiar ways are comfortable and can be executed with confidence. But something new? There are fewer guarantees and more error options.

In the Riihimaki and Viskupic survey, faculty were more likely to change the content than their teaching. That makes sense: content expertise decreases the risk. Most faculty don’t claim teaching expertise. Mistakes and failures have played a prominent role in how most of us learned to teach; it’s best to carry on with the few things we have figured out. But in these survey results, the motivation to change content is not without promise. If the content was regularly changed, that correlated with teaching changes. And interaction with colleagues about teaching also predicted reports of teaching changes.

Among other intriguing details in the Riihimaki and Viskupic survey results is this: faculty listed 11 ways they changed the content—and all but two involved adding more content. One of these two was changing the textbook, which could mean more or less content. At the same time, the majority of the ways they reported changing their teaching decreased the time for content coverage, allowing, for example, more time for questions and discussion, more group work, more demonstrations, better integration of labs and lecture. We keep heading down this well-worn path; why aren’t we seeing where it leads? Maybe we are. In the Shadle et. al survey, the second most frequently mentioned barrier to making changes was the fear of not getting the content covered. The time constraints issues wrap around each other.

My point is not to argue the frequent legitimacy of the time constraint response—only to encourage the exploration of our reasons for and assumptions about change. How often we do take our teaching to new places? How regularly should we? When do we resist and for what reason?

References

Riihimaki, C. A., & Viskupic, K. (2020). Motivators and inhibitors to change: Why and how geoscience faculty modify their course content and teaching methods. Journal of Geoscience Education, 68(2), 115–132. https://doi.org/10.1080/10899995.2019.1628590

Shadle, S. E., Marker, A., & Earl, B. (2017). Faculty drivers and barriers: Laying the groundwork for undergraduate STEM education reform in academic departments. International Journal of STEM Education, 4. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-017-0062-7 [open access]