Change This, Not That

December 14, 2015

If everything went perfectly for your class this semester, there’s no need to read on, because you shouldn’t change anything. For the rest of us mortal instructors, there is rarely, if ever, such a thing as a perfect class. Teaching is a practice of constant iteration and improvement, never a destination. In my experience both as an instructor and faculty developer, iteration and improvement (aka change) is often far too labor and time intensive, misguided, and ends up not having real value to show for the effort. Instructors iterating and improving tend to make mistakes in a few areas when a class, or part/s of a class, doesn’t go as planned:


  1. The following semester EVERYTHING is changed, when something minor would likely have sufficed.

  2. The instructor reflects only on what they did and didn’t like about the course, and changes only the things they didn’t like.

  3. Changes have been tried in the past without success, so no changes are made any longer.

  4. The instructor reviews student feedback, notices some instances or trends of critique, and changes those specific objects of critique without additional evidence or cause.

The problem with all of these approaches is that they focus on everything except student learning. Any pedagogical change (or even original motive) should be driven by promoting student learning in the ways you desire for the course.

So, as you review final exams, papers, projects, and your fall course/s as a whole, any changes to your pedagogy should follow one simple rule of thumb: If students learned it in the way and/or to the level I envisioned, do NOT change the way it’s taught. It works. If students did NOT learn it in the way and/or to the level I envisioned (or at all), change the way it’s taught. It didn’t work.

Once you can clearly identify what specific pieces of the class students struggled with, you can then focus on how to best modify that learning experience. How can you relatively quickly and easily identify where student learning did not meet expectations? If you’ve ever asked yourself the following question, or can fill in the blank, then you’ve identified what needs to change:

“The students just don’t get _____, no matter how many times, or how many ways I explain or cover it? They never seem to get this question (or series of questions) correct on assignments, exams, and projects.”

After you’ve identified the aspect/s of a course where student learning did not meet your expectations, consider these questions to guide any change/s:

  • Was lack of student learning due to misalignment between pedagogy and course expectations? For example, students consistently can’t answer an application/synthesis-type question on a particular concept that would require a self-generated explanation. Perhaps balancing a lecture approach to that specific topic with more opportunities for students to practice discussing that concept during regular class-time would be beneficial.

  • Was lack of student learning due to well-aligned, but poorly executed pedagogy? Sometimes, the plan is perfect, but the execution falters. You want students to talk through and critique a theoretical concept, but you realize now that you’ve never actually facilitated class discussion before (or well). Or, you want students to know a specific timeline of events in order to analyze trends, but you realize now that you’ve never been a strong lecturer and find it hard to convey things in a highly organized fashion to a student audience (very different than presenting to colleagues at a conference). In this case, seek help to refine that pedagogy. Meet with an expert here in the CTL. Talk to colleagues who have taught that class before. Talk to and observe colleagues who do that particular pedagogy really well. Improve your practice of that pedagogy, don’t necessarily avoid or abandon it if you know it’s the best choice.

  • Was lack of student learning due to too narrow a pedagogical focus, and not utilizing all the resources in the classroom? Does the driving question above resonate with you? Do you find yourself asking it over and over again, like an inner-monologue annoyingly on repeat? If so, see if this metaphor helps: As an instructor, you are the guide helping your students navigate their way out of the forest and into the meadow. But, there’s a problem. You’re not in the forest, or in the meadow. You’re eight meadows over! You’re the leading expert in your field. You’ve done this work for years - many years. You live it, breathe it. It’s so natural to you, that much of this stuff is intuitive at this point. So, there may be some topics that need to be learned in class, but you may not be in the best position to explain it in a way that makes sense to some, or almost all of your students. Do you even remember NOT knowing it? How about that student who does “get it” and literally just found their way out of the forest? Aren’t they in an advantageous position to help explain it to their classmates who are just a few steps behind, but still lost in the forest? Don’t lose sight of the resources that exist in your classroom that you could draw on pedagogically - especially students.

  • Was lack of student learning due to something/s that are simply beyond my control? If this is the case, don’t necessarily change anything because it likely won’t have any impact. Instead, focus on what you can control and as best you can, let those other things go.